Experts: Fossil find exciting but lacks significance
Nicknamed "Ida," the discovery was made in 1983 by private fossil collectors but didn't make headlines until recent days with the rollout of a History Channel documentary called "The Link," which will air May 25.
Kurt Wise, who earned a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard University under the supervision of evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, said he could only comment on the basis of information in news reports.
"It is always exciting to find a well-preserved fossil, especially of something as rarely preserved as a juvenile primate," Wise wrote in a statement to Baptist Press. "The Messel site has generated a large number of spectacular fossils. Although the sediments seem to have been from a lake, it is an unusual one, somehow allowing remarkable preservation of animals both of the lake and the land.
"The unusual conditions of the Messel lake were probably created by a combination of global warmth (a much warmer earth than that of the present day) and the presence of active supervolcanoes (much larger than any known today) -- both a consequence (I believe) of the earth recovering from the effects of Noah's Flood," Wise, professor of science and theology and director of the Center for Science and Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said.
Ida is about the size of a small cat, with four legs and a long tail, the Associated Press reported. It also is considered the best preserved fossil ever found for a primate, even featuring stomach contents consisting of fruit and leaves. Scientists estimate the creature died at about 9 months of age.
"Given that the animal is described as 'something like a combination lemur monkey,' it is probably a mosaic or chimeric form (composed of characteristics from two or more groups combined into a well designed whole -- in this case a combination of lemur and monkey characteristics)," Wise explained.
"There are many such forms in the present (platypus, lesser panda, pronghorn, etc.) -- none of which are evolutionary intermediate forms, but which (rather) are a testimony of a wise Creator God Who can combine characteristics in a wide variety of ways and create from them a marvelously designed organism," Wise said.
Ida is much younger than both good fossils of lemurs and good fossils of monkeys, Wise said.
"It is therefore, not in the right position in time to be the actual ancestor of primates or of lemurs and monkeys, or of any other major group in the primates," Wise said. "Consequently, rather than the animal being an evolutionary intermediate I think it is a testimony to both the judgment of a Holy God and the wisdom of a Creator."
Ken Ham, president of the apologetics ministry Answers in Genesis, said Ida is receiving a significant amount of unfounded hype.
"Nothing about this fossil indicates that it was a human ancestor. Rather, it is a remarkably well-preserved, lemur-like creature looking nothing like an 'apeman,'" Ham said in a statement.
"Besides, why would a fossil found 25 years ago suddenly become a media sensation? Only because of a major PR push by the financial backers of a new book and television documentary about the fossil," Ham said. "Yet even the peer reviewers of the scientific paper on the fossil asked that the human origins hype be removed."
Answers in Genesis (AiG), in a news release May 19, said the real story about Ida "is quite underwhelming and should in no way faze creationists." They said the fossil is about the size of a raccoon and includes a long tail, in no way resembling a human skeleton.
The group also said the pitch of Ida as the missing link is "full-out sensationalism by people who are bypassing the scientific community with a direct-to-the-public appeal on behalf of Darwinism."
"All of this seems a departure from the normal turn of events, where researchers study their subject and publish their findings, and let the media chips fall where they may," AiG said.
The principles that inform creationists about Ida are similar to those that allow them to interpret other fossils hailed as transitional forms, the group said. For instance, a fossil can never show evolution.
"Fossils are unchanging records of dead organisms. Evolution is an alleged process of change in live organisms," AiG said. "Fossils show 'evolution' only if one presupposes evolution, then uses that presupposed belief to interpret the fossil."
Also, similarities can never show evolution.
"If two organisms have similar structures, the only thing it proves is that the two have similar structures. One must presuppose evolution to say that the similarities are due to evolution rather than design," AiG said. "Furthermore, when it comes to 'transitional forms,' the slightest similarities often receive great attention while major differences are ignored."
Most likely, AiG said, rather than serving as the missing link in evolution, Ida was a small, tailed, probably tree-climbing and now-extinct primate of the sort created on Day 6 in the biblical account.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.