‘Missing Link’? Not Quite, Say Catholic Scientists

The authors of the scientific paper reporting the finding of a 47-million-year-old fossil suggest that the animal might belong to a family that is an early precursor of humans. Catholic experts respond.

VICTORIA, B.C. — The announcement of an extraordinary fossil find touted “the missing link” in mankind’s evolutionary development has provoked controversy in the scientific community. But Catholics would do well to stay clear of it, warn several scientists who are believers.

However, Catholic critics of Darwinism say the ongoing debate over evolution is an important one for the faith.

The find, dubbed “Ida,” is a nearly intact fossilized skeleton of a squirrel-sized, 47-million-year-old primate called Darwinius masillae. Ida’s unusual state of preservation provides a wealth of data about one of the possible branches that led to higher primates such as apes and man, said Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley, but it doesn’t decide the issue about which branch — and it doesn’t constitute any kind of a missing link. “The missing link does not exist,” he said. “Evolution is a tree, not a chain.”

White is one of many biologists and paleontologists who quickly criticized the claims attending the discovery, while contrasting it with the much more modest tone of the scientific report.

The hype, including a film, a book and a website, calls Ida “A Revolutionary Scientific Find That Will Change Everything,” and Ida researcher Philip Gingerich of the University of Michigan proposes it as the earliest anthropoid and therefore the progenitor of monkeys, apes and humans.

The report itself, however, concludes that “we do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid,” but it might “deserve more careful comparison with higher primates.”

Casey Luskin of the Darwin-denying Discovery Institute, founded by Catholic Bruce Chapman, said the protests over the Ida hype are interesting because “usually when discoveries are hyped as missing links, you don’t get disagreement from within the scientific community.” Lufkin said such finds are used “to evangelize for Darwinian evolution,” but the disagreements will make that less likely this time.

Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a Catholic, agrees with White.

“To call this ‘the missing link’ between humans and pre-human organisms is false. It just isn’t true,” said Miller, a lecturer on the compatibility of Christianity and science and the author of a textbook on evolution. “There are at least 100 specimens and a dozen distinct species in the fossil record linking humans with non-human life forms. … The missing link isn’t missing.”

Miller also finds the publicity unseemly: “There’s a book; there’s a website with downloadable interviews with celebrities; there’s a documentary movie, and they all have ‘Link’ or ‘Missing Link’ in their titles; and there’s a tie-in with a TV channel.”

Evolution Evidence

On the question of what Catholics and other Christians are to make of the larger questions raised by the Ida affair, Miller advises that the last 35 years have “established beyond doubt that humans had ancestors, just as every other life form had ancestors and emerged from the same process of evolution.”

The Catholic Church has long stated that there is no conflict between some form of species development and the Catholic faith. “The ideas that God created humanity and nature and that current life forms developed from natural processes are not in conflict,” said Miller. “Scripture tells us God made us from the dust of the earth, and science tells us we emerged from non-human life forms through natural processes.”

Miller calls the current debate over the teaching of evolution in the schools “a battle for the soul of America.”

The United States has been “remarkably hospitable to science” and has prospered as a result, he said. “We are practical people: We don’t look at credentials so much as results, and science is the same way.”

Christian critics of evolution are really attacking the whole idea of “scientific rationalism,” he charged.

At stake for the Catholic Church and other churches, he said, is that “if they adopt a position at odds with the established principles of science, then young people will turn away from them” to the degree they find the scientific evidence convincing.

“The conflict is entirely unnecessary,” he concluded. “Catholics should be allied to the truth above all, and that includes scientific truth.”

Chapman, founder of the Discovery Institute, and like many Intelligent Design advocates, a Catholic, has little to say on the Ida find, but he defends Intelligent Design.

“So many Catholics accept ID because ID makes sense,” he said. While the Catholic Church does not teach the “young earth creation” model holding the world to be 6,000 years old, neither does it accept the idea advanced by some evolutionists, including, Chapman said, Kenneth Miller: “Humans came about through an unguided process that did not have us in mind.”

Chapman quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s first homily as pope on April 24, 2005, where he stated that humanity is “not some casual and meaningless product of evolution, but each of us is the result of a thought of God.”

Philosophical questions do not belong in the science classroom, according to Chapman. “We don’t want them there. We want to play by the rules. We believe design can be shown scientifically,” he said. “But we don’t want to talk about the designer.”

Not so fast, says Hugh Ross, director of Reasons to Believe, a self-described “science-faith think tank” based in California, and proudly “old-earth creationist.” As such, the evangelical Protestant organization has no problem with the age of Ida, but it disagrees with the claim that the fossil is a transitional link between lower and higher primates.

Ross said Ida is a small animal capable of both leaping and climbing, and, as such, well adapted to the wet and tropical characteristics of the Eocene Period in which it lived. It is not, in other words, a creature marking a halfway point on an evolutionary trip from jumper to climber.

Ross’ organization cites Scripture and credits the continued and direct intervention of God for the variety of life forms and the gradations among them. But his organization is dedicated to meeting the criticism of evolutionists that creationism is unscientific because it is untestable: “We have created a testable model, which we use to make predictions about future discoveries.”

Ida’s characteristics fit well with the model, he said.

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.