Is This Primate a Prime Mate?
The news media jumped onto claims that a tiny primate fossil is an ancestor of human beings, when it is really an amazing example of biological miniaturization.
A tiny fossil primate from China, classified as Archicebus achilles, was announced with fanfare by most of the science news media (e.g., Northern Illinois Univ. press release). It looks like a tiny shrew or tarsier that probably lived in the trees. It probably weighed less than an ounce. What makes it noteworthy such that reporters would call it a human ancestor? For one, it’s the alleged oldest primate fossil. For another, it has a mosaic of features (small eyes, odd feet, etc.) that led K. Christopher Beard (Carnegie Museum) to say,
It looks like an odd hybrid with the feet of a small monkey, the arms, legs and teeth of a very primitive primate, and a primitive skull bearing surprisingly small eyes. It will force us to rewrite how the anthropoid lineage evolved.
After commenting on its tarsier-like toes but monkey-like heel, Beard said that some interpretation is required:
“We have interpreted this new combination of features as evidence that this fossil is quite primitive and its unique anatomical combination is a link between the tarsier and monkey-ape branches of dry-nosed primates,” he said. “This new view suggests that the advanced foot features of anthropoids (monkeys and apes) are in fact primitive for the entire lineage of dry-nosed primates.
The press release avoided mention of this tiny creature as an ancestor of human beings. Other reporters were not so restrained, even though the original paper in Nature did not mention human evolution at all:
- Science Daily: Discovery of Oldest Primate Skeleton, Ancestor of Humans and Apes
- American Museum of Natural History: Discovery of Oldest Primate Skeleton Helps Chart Early Evolution of Humans, Apes
- Carnegie Museum of Natural History: “crucial for illuminating a pivotal event in primate and human evolution“
- Live Science: Ancient Primate Skeleton Hints at Monkey and Human Origins
One problem is that this creature lived in Asia, not Africa, where most ape evolution is thought to have occurred. On Evolution News & Views, Casey Luskin pointed out that this would require ape ancestors to go a-rafting across the ocean to get to Africa, which is believed to have been an island back then. According to Science Now, Beard said he was ridiculed when he suggested primates might have evolved in Asia. “Everybody knew that everything in primate and human evolution occurred in Africa,” he said. Like many of the feathered dinosaur fossils (5/31/13), this one was found by a farmer. Science Now downplayed the link to humans: “Although several experts—including Beard himself—expect debate about the precise position of A. achilles on the primate family tree, they all agree that it is a remarkable specimen.”
Meanwhile, National Geographic jumped for joy at the thought that some humans have bendable soles like apes. New Scientist claimed that 1 in 13 people have “bendy, chimp-like feet.” Other than making the textbooks wrong, it’s not clear what this has to do with evolution (humans and chimps also have bendy mouths, tongues, and fingers). It’s possible the trait in humans is a disadvantage, making walking less efficient, in those people so afflicted.
Those who remember the flap over Ida (Darwinius masillae, 3/20/10) have learned to yawn at these pronouncements. The little fossil should be enjoyed for its own sake, not for what evolutionary narrative Darwinians can force it into. That all the features of a primate could be microminiaturized into this one-ounce critter is the amazing thing. The interpretation is dumb.
Storytelling; that’s the game for Darwinists. Look what Parmy Olson did with the craft on Forbes: projected how humans will look in 100,000 years, after millennia of staring at screens or wearing Google glass. Why, they’re evolving back the bulging eyes of their ancestors, the tarsiers! Doesn’t this sound scientific when a computational geneticist did the prognosticating? No; it’s just plain silly. And he won’t be around then for us to say, “You were wrong!” It’s just as wrong for these monkey-makers to tell us the new fossil is a human ancestor. Time travel backwards is just as unavailable as it is forwards. The claims can’t be tested; they can’t be falsified; they are not science.