Colloquially, the expression “missing link” refers to the fossils of intermediate forms between two species of which there are remains and it is known that one could descend from the other . In other words, a missing link, understood in popular culture, the media, and sectors with non-expert knowledge of evolutionary theses, is that intermediate stage in the fossil record that has yet to be discovered.
This expression is highly controversial in the scientific field because it is not appropriate at all based on what is known today about evolution. The idea of the missing link implies thinking that species develop in a linear fashion, and that they go from stage to stage, all of them more or less defined, abruptly and clearly defined. That is to say, it implies thinking that one species evolves to another and then to another but suddenly, being able to establish a very clearly visible before and after .
Although it is clear that within an evolutionary lineage there will be organisms very different from the previous ones, it should not be understood that evolution has occurred suddenly. Evolution is a gradual process which takes place over thousands of years in which subtle modifications are introduced in a group of individuals, which will pass on to the following generations depending on how adaptive they are with respect to the demands of the environment. in which that species lives.
Taking this into account, if the fossil remains of two individuals are taken that are believed to have a direct evolutionary relationship, suspecting that one descends from the other, there will not be one or two “missing links” between them, but as many as there have been generations . past from the time one lived to the time the other lived . The descendants of one and the ancestors of the other would all be “missing links”, individuals who staged the evolutionary process that gave rise to the most modern individual.
It is for this reason that, from a scientific point of view, it does not make sense to talk about missing links , since there would be a practically endless number of them. Charles Darwin himself already spoke that between two forms there could be an endless number of intermediate forms, of which many of them will never find their fossils since of all the forms of life that have ever inhabited the planet, very few ever have the ” lucky” to leave remains.
Despite this scientific fact, there are many media outlets that tend to call any recently found fossil the “missing link”, especially if it has to do with the evolutionary history of human beings. As soon as a form is found between one hominid and another, the newscasts, newspapers and others have no qualms about using the “missing link” crutch to sell headlines. It is, without a doubt, a concept that had its origins in science and that has transcended popular culture.
Origins of the idea
Although Charles Darwin intuited that, once his work was popularized, many would be desperately searching for the link that connected primates with humans, we owe the idea of the missing link to the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel . Without wanting to or drinking it, this scientist gave the world a concept that would become a widespread myth both in the scientific community of the 19th century and in popular culture and the media.
Haeckel was highly influenced by evolutionary theses and considered that evolution was a process of progress, in which all forms go from simpler to more complex structures and functions, with the human species being at the top of the evolutionary line. Based on these ideas, Haeckel dared to make a diagram in which he described an evolutionary sequence for the human being . In it he drew 24 figures ranging from the simplest of microorganisms to the human species.
Number 23 called attention, since it was an ape-like being, drawn from behind and that was between number 22, the primates, and number 24, the humans themselves. This figure 23 was his interpretation of the intermediate stage between monkeys and men, the “missing link” that supposedly connected the world of human beings with that of animals. He even gave it a name: it is the Pithecanthropus alalus or speechless ape-man.
For Haeckel, the human trait that most differentiated us from animals was language , an idea that is still quite valid today, both in scientific and not-so-academic circles. He speculated that bipedalism and the humanoid form came first, and then mental abilities developed which gave rise to spoken communication. Thus, the missing link of him was a being similar to humans but did not have the ability to speak.
From the scientific circle to the world
The idea of the missing link and, also, the ideas of evolution themselves aroused conflicting opinions within the scientific community. Due to different social and cultural factors, even among the most meticulous and rigorous scientists there were some who did not quite believe that species evolved over time, much less wanted to accept that human beings descended from monkeys. although it is true that we are not directly descended from them, but we are related.
The scientists less supportive of evolution insisted that, if Darwinian ideas were true, then what were the defenders waiting for to show the world that ape-man that Haeckel had commented on? And as a consequence of this, many evolutionists embarked on a true paleontological fever in search of the missing link, the connection between primates and humans.
The list of people who embarked on the hunt for the missing link is very long, and many of them found remains of both possible hominids and other mammals, but the case of a Dutch doctor named Eugène Dubois is especially striking . This researcher moved to Java in 1890 to carry out some excavations in the place and was very lucky because he found the remains of a hominid, a fossil that today we know corresponds to those of Homo erectus .
This finding did not go unnoticed and, in fact, the media at the time gave it media coverage, naming it Java Man. They had no qualms about calling it the missing link and Haeckel himself even went so far as to say that those remains were those of Pithecanthropus alalus that he had predicted would one day be found. Apparently, what confirmed the theses of Darwin and other evolutionists had been found .
However, this was not convincing enough proof for many critics of evolution. In fact, that these remains had been found did not quite demonstrate the relationship between primates and humans. Yes, it was an apparently intermediate form but it could also be a species of monkey that had nothing to do with humans. If related to our species, there should be other intermediate forms that look a little more like humans.
This, which apparently could be a criticism of the creationists, became the best argument for the evolutionists. The search for new links went further and, in fact, it is thanks to this obsession to find intermediate forms between what had already been found that has contributed to twentieth-century anthropology . However, he has also contributed to very misconceptions about the notion of evolution and has given force to the myth that it occurs in a linear rather than a tree-like fashion with different lineages.
Repercussion in popular culture
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were very racist and supremacist ideas about “savages”. Even within the scientific community it was thought that the tribes of Africa, Asia and the Amazon were a clear example of what the ancestors of modern human beings were like. The white man was seen as the most evolved example within the human species , while the rest were intermediate or little evolved forms.
But within popular culture things went even further. Many circus companies wanted to take advantage of the “boom” of the idea of the missing link to do business, and one of them succeeded in spades. Antonio the Great Farini, aka William Leonard Hunt, struck gold by introducing the world to what was called a living missing link: Krao. She was a Laotian girl with hypertrichosis, that is, more hair on the body than normal. The Great Farini introduced her as the member of a simian tribe, all of them hairy and tree-dwelling, taking advantage of a girl’s sad medical condition.
Today the missing link continues to have a great impact in our popular culture. It doesn’t take extensive research to see that the minute a hominid bone is discovered, the media can’t resist making headlines like “Is this the missing link?” since the idea of where we come from and from whom we could descend attracts a lot of attention. In fact, if we put “missing link” in our search engine and specify that we want to search for news, we will get some 43,000 entries that show how alive this myth is still.