Darwin and Ida
Charles Darwin, 1869.
The timing for the launching of Ida could not have been better. 2009 was the year when the whole world was celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. It was natural to honour the English natural scientist by giving Ida the scientific name Darwinius masillae.
Darwin was the first to suggest and collect evidence for the theory of evolution through natural selection. He introduced the idea that species change over time, and new species appear, by a process where those traits which give a better adaptation to the surroundings are reinforced and developed further. This implies that all existing species have a common origin.
When the groundbreaking new theory was published in The Origin of Species in november of 1859, far fewer fossils were known than we know today. A scientist to the core, Darwin himself realized that the lack of intermediate links was a problem. He called it “the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory”.
However, all available proof supported his theory. And only two years later, in 1861, the first classic intermediate link was discovered: Archaeopteryx. This was an elegant example of a missing link, and Darwin’s theories were further strengthened. In the course of time, we have gathered convincing material showing the connection between the major animal groups.
As the first complete skeleton of an early primate, Ida gives us decisive proof of the connection between the human line of primates, and earlier primates. Ida is an example of an early intermediate form between primitive primates and the branches of lemurs, monkeys and apes. The latter has over time led to human beings.Still, it is incorrect to label her "the missing link". The history of evolution contains many intermediate ”links”, but she is definitely one of the most important and one of the earliest links in primate evolution ever found.
Picture from the exhibition ”Can We Forgive Darwin?” at The Natural History Museum in Oslo, illustrating the relationship between humans and chimpanzees.
The human family tree
The history of human evolution forms a tree with many branches, where several human species have lived side by side for most of the time. Only during the last 24 000 years, after the Neanderthals died out, has Homo sapiens been the sole human species.
Many of the species we know through their fossil remains may have been our ancestors in earlier epochs. But because of the lack of sufficiently well preserved fossils, we may never be able to state with finality from whom we are directly descended. Yet we know enough to determine which of them are our close relatives, and they provide valuable information about the various stages of human evolution.
It is a common misunderstanding that human beings are the “most highly evolved” species on Earth, and that evolution progresses in a straight line towards ever higher levels. This is a misinterpretation of Darwin. All species living today have been evolving for the same length of time. All primates, humans among them, have evolved for 47 million years since Ida.
When we say that Ida is related to all species of monkeys and apes living today, we are also saying that all of them have different evolutionary histories. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and lemurs have all evolved as much as human beings. We have just evolved in different directions.