The Darwin-drenched phrase “missing link” popped up again, this time in a story that claims humans got their faces from a fish.
- “Extraordinary ‘missing link’ fossil fish found in China” (PhysOrg).
- “Scientist hails ‘jaw-dropping’ fish fossil discovery” (BBC News).
- “Fish fossil suggests our skeleton evolved face first” (New Scientist).
OK, what’s up with that? It needs to be “spectacular” to be “news,” so reporters tend to make everything eye-grabbing with words like “extraordinary” and “jaw-dropping,” but this one by John Long (The Conversation) got a little over the top:
A spectacular new “missing link” fossil has been unearthed in China. The 419 million year old armoured fish, called Entelognathus, meaning “complete jaw” solves an age-old debate in science. For palaeontologists this fish is as big as finding the Higgs-Boson particle because of its immense significance to our understanding of early vertebrate evolution.
This is arguably one of the most exciting fossil discoveries in the past century since Archaeopteryx, the first fossil to bridge the gap between dinosaurs and birds.
After soaking the articles in an acid bath to dissolve away the hype, what is left? John Long’s Conversation piece seems largely a screed against creationists (“those minority groups within society who for some or other reason do not believe in evolution”), so we must look elsewhere for the data.
They’re calling it Entelognathus (“complete jaw”), and claiming it resolves an old debate whether placoderms were the ancestors of bony fish and cartilaginous fish. Its evolutionary value, though, is tempered with some upset: “This is an unexpected discovery that inverts schoolbook teaching on the evolution of bony skulls,” the BBC News said.
“Up until now it had been thought that the anatomical peculiarities of bony fishes — the group that would eventually give rise to human beings — are specialisations that arose later in vertebrate evolutionary history in our own bony fish lineage.”
“But now that narrative has been turned on its head.”
Under their own admission, they are talking about a narrative – not necessarily a fact of science. The value of an upside-down narrative looks dubious. John Long presented the impression of a virtually seamless fossil transitional sequence that makes the term “missing link” a misnomer. Why, then, did the BBC say this?
Scientists say that the evolution of jaws is one of the key episodes in the evolution of vertebrates, but the gap between jawed and jawless vertebrates is so large that it is hard to work out the individual evolutionary steps in the transition.
It appears that all Entelognathus shows is that some bony fish traits appeared in this placoderm, making their appearance earlier than expected. It does not say how an unguided process of mutations produced things as complex as multi-boned jaws, semicircular canals in the ears, and copulatory organs. Moreover, this fossil cannot explain the cartilaginous fish:
Dr Friedman says that the fossil adds weight to the theory that many classic bony fish features were evolved “very deep in our family tree, before bony fish split from sharks”.
“This means that we — as in bony fishes — are the ones who have held on to more ancient structures, while it is the sharks that have gone off and done something new and interesting in an evolutionary sense.
In other words, the expectation that placoderms were “primitive” has been deflated (see New Scientist). In addition, sharks and rays can not be considered primitive, either. So now, evolutionists have two problems when there were one: (1) how Entelognathus got “many classic bony fish features” by mutations and selection, and (2) how sharks did something “new and interesting in an evolutionary sense” (if one pardons the oxymoron). “It challenges the way we think about the evolution of modern skeletons,” New Scientist says.
“The work further reshuffles the deep identities of living groups, revising the deep tree of modern vertebrate groups – including our own remote ancestry,” says Michael Coates at the University of Chicago.
So despite John Long’s over-the-top rhetoric which he banged on the heads of evolution skeptics, other scientists appear to see this fossil as a kind of good-news, bad-news joke for Darwinism. Nature News calls it a “piscine mash-up,” i.e., an unexpected mosaic of traits. Earlier evolutionists got it all wrong; now it’s time to overcome inertia, clean up and start over:
This inversion of a classic scenario in vertebrate evolution raises an obvious question: how did we get it so wrong? The status of sharks as surrogate ancestors seems well established, but this is an illusion of dogmatic repetition combined with spurious portrayals of present-day cartilaginous fishes as unchanged ‘living fossils’. The popular model of a shark-like ancestor is, in the end, more a hangover of the ‘great chain of being’ of ancient philosophy and pre-Darwinian archetypes than a product of modern comparative biology and phylogenetic ‘tree thinking’. Added to this conceptual inertia is a historically compartmentalized approach to studying early vertebrate groups that made it too easy to dismiss shared similarities — the head and shoulder exoskeleton of placoderms and bony fishes, for example — as independent innovations without adequate evidence.
Over the past decade or so, new fossilsand re-examinations of old ones have forced palaeontologists to look beyond the confines of traditional classifications and reconsider the coherence of textbook assemblages such as placoderms and acanthodians, and their relationships to extant gnathostomes. Perhaps more than any of these discoveries, Entelognathus demands a major rethink of where fossils fit relative to modern lineages, and how these living groups came to acquire their characteristic traits. It will take time to fully digest the implications of such a remarkable fossil, but it is clear that a major reframing of our understanding of early gnathostome evolution is now in full swing.
Any major reframing of understanding presupposes what passed for understanding in the past was very poorly framed. Mr. Long, though, ended his article celebrating his new hero:
For me the really exciting thing about Entelognathus is that even in the 21st century palaeontologists are still making really big discoveries that fill in major missing gaps in our knowledge about the evolution of the modern fauna.
All fossils touted as “missing links” are contentious to some, those minority groups within society who for some or other reason do not believe in evolution. For these people news of Entelognathus will be challenging, but most will simply ignore it as it doesn’t abide with their world view.
Yet all of these disbelievers still rely on evolution in their daily lives, as new vaccines and antibiotics or new crops bred to withstand environmental extremes to feed us, are all advances in science underpinned by evolutionary principals [sic].
So believe it or not, evolution is helping everyone one of us on the planet, every day to live better lives. Thanks Entelognathus, you’re a real hero.
The paper by Min Zhu et al., published by Nature, was significantly more cautious in its interpretation: e.g., “A phylogenetic analysis places the new form near the top of the gnathostome stem group but does not fully resolve its relationships to other placoderms.” The authors did not explicitly state where the fossil was found, who found it, what condition it was in, or how it was dated.
Isn’t it uncanny how all the Darwin-imprimatur outlets get the artwork simultaneously? The artist renditions are drawn to favor the evolutionary story. This time they gave the fish a practically human face. All it needs is a caption, saying, “Me fish obeying Charlie, evolving human num-nums.” Good grief.
Coming from China, this fossil needs a good looking over by independent authorities, to ensure some peasant didn’t glue a bony fish head onto a placoderm body. Even assuming it is fully authentic, nothing about this specimen looks primitive. It doesn’t help evolutionists, either, despite Mr. Long’s rush to judgment. Who is ignoring it? Who is finding this fossil at odds with his world view? Darwine does strange things to the mind, especially in the upside-down position.