Note: I found this image copy-pasted to a popular Facebook page – although they did decide to edit out the “stupid” from “stupid questions”, which I think is a travesty as “stupid” is a relatively honest assessment. However, they didn’t link back here for the fuller description (that’s okay, I could do without the hundreds of notifications of new derperific comments). Reading through the Facebook comments revealed several dozen rebutal to the effect that the image is “wrong”. Of course it’s “wrong”. It’s wrong for the reasons laid out in the rest of this blog post. But the page owners decided not to link to this blog post, and so no one could read all of these additional thoughts and caveats. Thus, they were all left thinking the image was “wrong” in a much more absolute way, and that the author was an idiot. I’m sure there’s a moral in this story somewhere…
This is apparently quite an old meme, but it cropped up somewhere recently and I thought I’d have a shot at de-bunking it in a single image. Creationist ideas are depressingly easy to debunk, but the problem with truly bad arguments is that it’s time consuming to refute them – so if you can do it in one image, why not try for the efficiency?
So, that’s it. The intermediate forms are dead, idiots. What next?
Actually, the original is wrong on a further level – which I suppose technically classes it as Not Even Wrong. It mis-identifies the starting animal in the linear ‘Descent of Man’ image as a chimp, and so infers that there are millions of them – although that number is off by an order of magnitude or two. This is wrong. That starting animal, the common ancestor, is not alive today. There definitely are not millions of them around. Even that creature is dead along with the transitional forms connecting it to us.
While that makes it wrong from the very start, I think it’s important to also dispel the idea of linear evolution – instead of a straight line it’s a criss-crossed tree of inter-breeding, separation, diversification and extinction-driven pruning that’s unbelievably complicated. But I suppose that’s the price we have to pay for the nice, fun and clear ‘Descent of Man’ image. It gets the main message across – we evolved from ‘lower’ life forms, but it’s a simplification. Any simplification, where the nuances of the real picture are compressed to save space and get a message across, is prone to misunderstanding when people try to decompress it again without the right knowledge. And this is what happens here; creationists have taken the ‘Descent of Man’ image, unpacked the cute little diagram to figure out what it means, but made the wrong assumptions about the identity of the first creature in it. And so, “how come there are still monkeys?” remains a frequently asked question – and “where are the ones in the middle?” is the next logical question to ask.
It’s possible that modern chimps are relatively unchanged from the common hominin ancestor (not a completely unforgivable assumption, I’m sure, but it might be a tad awkward) making the idea that we are evolved “from” them have some degree of truth to it. Evolution is driven by environmental factors that make adaptation necessary; if you lack those factors, then only a minor amount of genetic drift will occur and so our closest living relatives may have a lot more in common with our common ancestor than we do. As a result, we can throw some caution to the wind about assuming that there are millions of chimps that we evolved from, and wonder where we can find the intermediate species that connect us. In this case the answer is still the same: they died out a long time ago. The branched species went extinct (as do the vast majority of species) while the surviving line eventually evolved into us.
So where are they? They’re buried under tons of rock, that’s where. Mostly crushed and eaten away by time.
We could reinterpret the question in a different way, though, and ask why there aren’t countless extant intermediate species today. Why are species alive today so diversified into the concept of a “species”? Why isn’t there a living continuum of different species that blend nicely from one related animal to the next? Why do we have discrete species rather than a continuous species? Now that is an interesting question, but it would be for another time.