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Monday, May 18, 2009

Human evolution: New find reduces certainty

Further to Uncommon Descent Contest Question 3: Human evolution - What do we actually
know? (13 May 2009), this article in Wall Street Journal by Gautam Naik (May 15, 2009) boosts the finding of the skeleton of an ancient primate from 47 million years ago as a "landmark discovery." Why?
Some 50 million years ago, two ape-like groups walked the Earth. One is known as the tarsidae, a precursor of the tarsier, a tiny, large-eyed creature that lives in Asia. Another group is known as the adapidae, a precursor of today's lemurs in Madagascar.

Based on previously limited fossil evidence, one big debate had been whether the tarsidae or adapidae group gave rise to monkeys, apes and humans. The latest discovery bolsters the less common position that our ancient ape-like ancestor was an adapid, the believed precursor of lemurs.
In other words, the landmark discovery in an abandoned quarry near Frankfurt, Germany, keeps the controversy going by evening the odds.
"Lemur advocates will be delighted, but tarsier advocates will be underwhelmed" by the new evidence, says Tim White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "The debate will persist."
Which is as much as to say, no one really knows.

A friend notes, as I did myself, that Naik's writing seems a bit more even handed than we typically see in this area. Possibly that is because Naik must realize the implications of the find: Whereas we thought we were converging on the "tarsier" solution, we now know less than ever.

Worse, by a curious psychological coincidence, dogmatism often increases precisely as evidence recedes.

By contrast, I heard an interview on CBC radio's Saturday morning Quirks and Quarks program featuring the palaeontologist who found dinosaur tissue, previously believed irrecoverable. (Scroll down to "Duck Billed Protein") Now that is the sort of find for which I would use the word "landmark." If someone could recover soft tissue from ancient primates, ... just think ...

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