The Human Fossil Record, Part 1. The Nature of Transitional Fossils
This blog was originally posted on December 10, 2010. We think it was an important one. Note though that it was posted shortly before the discovery of Denisovans. So now one more red bar needs be added to the figure above.
Some time ago, the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin commented on the human origins exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, suggesting that palaeoanthropologists use evolutionary theory to describe the progression of the human lineage even when they don’t have transitional fossils with which to work. He writes:
What's ironic, however, is that if you ask the question How Do We Know Humans Evolved? the answer you’re given is, “Fossils like the ones shown in our Human Fossils Gallery provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.” So whether you find fossils or you don’t, that’s evidence for evolution.
Indeed, it has become an article of faith for those espousing both the young earth creation (hereafter YEC) model and many who hold to the intelligent design model that transitional fossils do not exist and therefore evolution has not taken place. Support for this position usually entails attacking the weak areas of the fossil record, where burial processes have left us little with which to work, or the creation of straw men arguments in which transitional fossils are defined in such a way that none could ever be found. Often this centers on the concept of “missing link,” a term that is habitually used in the popular press and young earth creation and intelligent design literature when referring to fossil remains but which has little to no meaning for biologists or palaeontologists. As Ahlberg and Clack (Ahlberg and Clack 2006) write:
But the concept has become freighted with unfounded notions of evolutionary ‘progress’ and with a mistaken emphasis on the single intermediate fossil as the key to understanding evolutionary transitions. Much of the importance of transitional fossils actually lies in how they resemble and differ from their nearest neighbours in the phylogenetic tree, and in the picture of change that emerges from this pattern.
Contrary to common misconceptions, the fossil record does not record one single lineage for any family of organisms but rather a series of branches, with many related species coexisting synchronously. Darwin hypothesized that the evolutionary record reflected this bushiness and drew such a diagram in his journal. At the time, though, he had little in the way of fossil evidence to back up this position. Much has changed since his day.
An analogy for understanding this “bushiness” was best described by Prothero and Buell (Prothero and Buell 2007). They suggest that the reader consider his or her own genealogy. You and your siblings are the direct descendents of your parents and, while you are similar to them, each of you has different characteristics not shared with them as well as characteristics that you do share. Your parents have siblings as well (your aunts and uncles), and your grandparents are their last common ancestors. These siblings have their own children (your cousins), who have different and similar traits relative to their parents. They are broadly recognizable as being related to you (“oh, I see you have Aunt Edna’s nose”) but three or four generations out, they will become less and less so. These are the “nearest neighbours” that Ahlberg and Clack describe. In this analogy, each of these cousins represents a transitional form from what was (your grandparents) to what will be down the road.
For example, no one would confuse a frog with a salamander but if you trace the fossil record of each back in time, eventually you encounter a fossil, Gerobatrachus hottoni which was recently discovered (Anderson et al. 2008) that is best described as a “frogamander,” having the basal characteristics of both frogs and salamanders. Had we seen such an animal at the time, it is likely we would not have found it remarkable because it would have resembled the species around it. One lineage eventually diverged into frogs, salamanders and other amphibians. Most (just like Darwin proposed in his tree diagram with the little hatch marks at the tip of many branches) went extinct.
Taxonomy and the Beginnings of Human Origins
All life is classified based on a system devised by Carolus Linneaus in 1735 in his remarkable work Systema Naturae. This system gives all recognized species an individual place based on a system of hierarchy. The study of classification is known as taxonomy. A taxonomic ranking for humans would be this:
When a fossil is excavated, the first thing that the palaeontologist does is make a taxonomic assessment of where it fits in a sequence of known fossils. Traits that are shared with other like species or genera are referred to as primitive traits. Examples of this in humans are five fingers and the presence of three arm bones. We share this with all mammals. Traits that are new or are not shared with other like species are referred to as derived traits. Examples of this in humans are the skeletal changes in the pelvis and the foot to allow for walking upright. We do not share these with any other primates.
Transitional fossils in the human fossil record are distinguished at both the genus and species level. This group includes the extinct genera Ardipithecus and Australopithecus and the current genus Homo. All species except Homo sapiens are extinct. Much of the recent study of early humans focuses on the transition from Ardipithecus (‘Ardi’) to Australopithecus (‘Lucy’ and similar fossils) and from Australopithecus to Homo, the genus that led eventually to us. While each of the australopithecine species identified in the fossil record has derived characteristics that separate them from their ancestors and from each other, only one led to the genus Homo.
In future posts, I will describe the evidence for human evolution and why this evidence is compelling. It suggests that we have had a long, varied history filled with great leaps of change, crushing defeat, and eventual expansion into all areas of the globe.
Ahlberg, P. & J. Clack (2006) A firm step from water to land. Nature, 440.
Anderson, J. S., R. R. Reisz, D. Scott, N. B. Frobisch & S. S. Sumida (2008) A stem batrachian from the Early Permian of Texas and the origin of frogs and salamanders. Nature, 453, 515-518.
Prothero, D. & C. Buell. 2007. Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters. Columbia Univ Pr.