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'Missing link' revisited

Nothing makes a better headline than the phrase "Missing Link Found" - and last week's report about the 110 million-year-old bird fossils found in China served as a prime example. The researchers themselves accepted the idea that the ancient Gansus yumenensis represented in a missing link between the age of dinosaurs and the modern age of birds.

It's certainly thought-provoking that fossils dating from that far back - only a few tens of million years after the time frame for Archaeopteryx - look so much like present-day waterfowl, right down to the webbed feet. But what really got folks in a tizzy on both sides of the Darwinian debate was the use of the term "missing link."

For example, here's what Jason Rosenhouse said on EvolutionBlog:

"Of course, there is a fair amount of imprecision here, as typically happens in media accounts of scientific discoveries. There is no such thing as 'the' missing link. In fact, scientists tend to avoid the term 'missing link' altogether. What we can say is that these fossils have features that are transitional between those of ancient birds and those of modern birds. The idea that modern birds are the product of evolution becomes far more likely given the discovery of these fossils."

And here's part of a posting from The Panda's Thumb:

"One of the problems with press stories about science is that most of the time they add a 'hook' about the significance of the story that is misleading in some way. In particular, the phrase 'missing link' implies the mistaken idea that certain kinds of creatures have some special transitional status. But that is not true. Every fossil find is a link between earlier and later creatures, and they are all missing until they are found. The phrase 'missing link' implies, especially to that part of the public that has doubts about evolution, that somehow the particular find in question is of a special creature whose existence somehow now 'proves evolution.'

"This is exceedingly simplistic: no one in science has ever claimed that 'the enigma of bird evolution,' or any other aspect of evolution, has been 'solved'; nor does anyone in science believe that any one find will 'prove' evolution. The fact that evolution has occurred has been established by the accumulation of many, many thousands of pieces of individual evidence, of which this find is just one more. ..."

On the other side of the fence - in an item headlined "How Can They Call This Duck a Missing Link?" - Creation-Evolution Headlines says using the L-word is "scandalous":

"The news media should be ashamed of themselves.  What should have been interpreted as the falsification of common notions about bird evolution has been twisted into support for evolution. ..."

This tongue-lashing over "missing links" is enough to make me swear off the term from now on - even if the researchers themselves use it, or even if other news outlets apply the term to Gansus or past finds such as the Tiktaalik "fish out of water."

That sentiment would probably be seconded by the readers who sent in their comments on the story. Here's a selection.

Doug Smith: "So they find a bird that coexisted with dinosaurs …and they call that a link?  A link would be a cross between a dinosaur and a bird, with several transitions in bone structure, skin to feathers, etc.  Instead they have a ready-made bird living in the same time frame.  I believe scientists are really stretching when they call 'coexistence' a link."

Edward Verner, Pittsburgh: "I believe in the theory of evolution, but I am quite fascinated, amazed and surprised that such an old fossil looks so modern and appears not to be contemporaneous with the evolutionary track of other fossils of that era but so far ahead of them.
 
"I would be more comfortable, as I am sure many people would be, if a more transitional set of remains were to be found so that we could see gradual evolutionary changes occurring, rather than on one end a series of remains that more closely resembles an Archaeopteryx and on the other end a set of ancient remains that resembles modern birds in the form of the Gansus find - but a huge evolutionary gap in between. Just what does this really tell us, other than evolution occurred rather dramatically before 110 million years ago but then seems to have slowed down considerably since then - at least as far as birds are concerned? If that is true, why?
 
"Also, I wish someone would explain just what was the evolutionary reason for feathers. Surely the earliest feathers could neither keep a dinosaur warm nor could it allow it to fly, so why stay on a path that would take a substantial amount of time to provide an evolutionary advantage?"

Matthew Vezina: "It states in this article that it is possible that birds evolved in water rather than on land.  If that was indeed the case then may I suggest why birds evolving in water gained the use of flight.  If the flightless ancestor to this species spent most of its time in the water, then flight would have to develop as a response to predation and not hunting.  That is to say that the ancestor would develop flight as a means to escape aquatic predators, of which there were many very fast and dangerous examples. The means of propulsion that they developed for underwater hunting would adapt very easily to growing feathers to be used on the water for quicker evasion and ultimately leading from short hops along the surface to able flight."

David: "You should use different language. This only links birdlike creatures in the past with similar-looking birds in the present. It is not a 'missing link' in the Darwinian sense, as such sense has largely been abandoned outside of the media. As a 'missing link,' this loon is underwhelming. As a very old bird, it's cool."

Michael: "Fascinating stuff.  Beware! Every new link implies a transitional form both before and after each link, thereby doubling the number of 'missing links' for every one found.  Those pesky anti-evolutionists will thereby dream up twice as many objections than they could lay their hands on, than they had before the discovery of each new link.

"For them, the more dots one can connect in a straight line, the more gaps between dots.  Then they say each gap implies another weakness in the connection, rather than each dot implying greater continuity.  It takes a great deal of faith to detect uncertainty where you need it!  Ironic, isn't it?  Better and better proof can justify more and more doubt, if you just have faith!"

Sean: "Different 'missing links' seem to appear very frequently right now in the news. Ten or 20 years from now, I wonder how many of them will be the fanciful dreams of yesteryear. One doesn't need to look very hard to find many of the so-called 'missing links' in our children's textbooks, that we have known for some time to be mistakes or even frauds. Sadly, many of these mistakes have been purposely left in the curriculum for decades. I'm rarely surprised to see a new 'missing link,' but what would be a surprise is for the same bold print from the media in the form of a retraction when the 'missing link' turns out to be something else."

Jim: "What a bunch of quackery!"

Jason French: "Why do people continue to make fools out of themselves? Every single link to date has turned out to be something else upon further examination, and all of the bird link evolution fossils from China to date have been man made hoaxes. Haven't you learned your lesson? Why not investigate properly before breaking the 'big story' that is not?"

Bill Wright, Manahawken, N.J.: "Links, in and of themselves, are puzzle pieces.  Each time we find a new piece, we say ... AH HA ... and are enthused to look for the next piece. 

"Likewise, each time [we find] an individual of a supposedly 'departed' species...the Laotian Rockrat and the 'God Almighty' woodpecker are two that come to mind ... we are encouraged to save one more chunk of unspoiled (if not virgin) land and look for the next wonder.

"And all this sure beats the heck out of assuming some omniscient old guy with a white beard and a stentorian voice created everything."

Alan C. Bean, M.D.: "I don't buy it.  The 'loonlike' bird is just that: a bird. The 'upright great ape' is also just that: an ape!
 
"Archaeology is one of the most unscientific forms of 'science' there is.  Instead of gathering the data and then looking for a reasonable forensic explanation of the facts (real science), they have their collective minds already made up in favor of evolution and then interpret every piece of data in light of that hypothesis.  That is simply not science! 
 
"Archaeology should be performed much like a forensic murder investigation: gather the data - without prejudice - and then figure out how the data collected can most likely be reconciled."

Dan Walker, Ph.D.: "Quite frankly, this concept of missing links being found every other day is absurd. Any dodo can see this fossil is a species of duck. Ducks have webbed toes. Does that mean the modern duck is a link between dinosaurs and birds? Duh. The evolutionists have been put in such a corner by intelligent design, that they are trying to flood the news with new 'proofs' for evolution. No intelligent person is buying. What about the lie that all scientists believe in evolution? I don't and I know many others who don't.
 
"The other thing you are never told in these stories about stupendous Chinese fossils is that the Chinese have gotten quite good at manufacturing fossils, putting various parts together. Now, I am not saying that this one is fake, but you'd better have good proof when you are reporting something that was not found and authenticated by Western scientists.
 
"Don't believe everything you read, especially about missing links."

Charles: "As an environmental scientist working for CalEPA, I do not see an intensive scientific study in this news article.  There is absolutely no evidence indicating these fossils found in dry mud to be more than a few thousand years old.  Any geologist knows that the rock holding the fossils would be made of extremely hard sandstone if the material is older.  Also, the feathers and fleshy web feet indicate the ducks were caught in a major flood - possibly the Genesis Flood at the time of Noah's Ark. I took a remote sensing class in 1972 at UC Riverside and saw the Ark via U-2 high altitude photos on Mount Ararat at about 14,500 feet.  In 1985, I went on an expedition with Col. Jim Irwin (astronaut) to climb Mount Ararat.  Our team was turned away by the Turkish army due to terrorist on the mountain, but we found the anchors Noah used, and saw a piece of the ark that a Turkish guide had extracted.  The information in this article is pure speculation - all creation scientists (thousands of Ph.D.s) know that there are no missing links."

Evan Birkby, Plano, Texas: "The so-called researchers are simply pushing their weak theories of evolution and not considering the real facts about these new bird finds.

"I really wouldn't be surprised at all if a live specimen were found and had them continue to insist that it is a missing link. These birds had feathers and beaks, not arms and teeth, so why are they being called a missing link? They were clearly birds from the start, and not some descendant from other non-flying reptiles.

"If you want a scientific approach to research, don't quote the extremist evolutionists that don't see the possibility of intelligent design."

Feel free to add your own comments below.