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The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor [NOOK Book]

Overview

For more than a century, scientists have raced to unravel the human family tree and have grappled with its complications. Now, with an astonishing new discovery, everything we thought we knew about primate origins could change. Lying inside a high-security vault, deep within the heart of one of the world's leading natural history museums, is the scientific find of a lifetime - a perfectly fossilized early primate, older than the previously most...
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The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor

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Overview

For more than a century, scientists have raced to unravel the human family tree and have grappled with its complications. Now, with an astonishing new discovery, everything we thought we knew about primate origins could change. Lying inside a high-security vault, deep within the heart of one of the world's leading natural history museums, is the scientific find of a lifetime - a perfectly fossilized early primate, older than the previously most famous primate fossil, Lucy, by forty-four million years.

 A secret until now, the fossil - "Ida" to the researchers who have painstakingly verified her provenance - is the most complete primate fossil ever found. Forty-seven million years old, Ida rewrites what we've assumed about the earliest primate origins. Her completeness is unparalleled - so much of what we understand about evolution comes from partial fossils and even single bones, but Ida's fossilization offers much more than that, from a haunting "skin shadow" to her stomach contents. And, remarkably, knowledge of her discovery and existence almost never saw the light of day.

 With exclusive access to the first scientists to study her, the award-winning science writer Colin Tudge tells the history of Ida and her place in the world. A magnificent, cutting-edge scientific detective story followed her discovery, and The Link offers a wide-ranging investigation into Ida and our earliest origins. At the same time, it opens a stunningly evocative window into our past and changes what we know about primate evolution and, ultimately, our own.
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Editorial Reviews

Guy Gugliotta
In short, The Link is so accessible as to seem simplistic -- but it works as a compelling introduction to the study of human evolution. It is about what paleontologists do and how they do it. So forget the hype; it stands on its own merit
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"This is an extraordinary fossil." - Sir David Attenborough

"This fossil will probably be the one that will be pictured in all textbooks for the next one hundred years." - Dr. Jørn Hurum, University of Oslo

"When the results of our investigations are published, this will be just like an asteroid hitting the Earth." - Dr. Jens Lorenz Franzen,
Senckenberg Research Institute

"A kind of Rosetta stone... it ties together parts we haven't been able to associate before." - Dr. Philip Gingerich, University of Michigan

"The most beautiful fossil primate I've ever seen. In terms of a complete skeleton,
it's hard to think of anything else in primate evolution that's as complete as this fossil." - Dr. Holly Smith, University of Michigan

University of Oslo Dr. Jørn Hurum
"This fossil will probably be the one that will be pictured in all textbooks for the next one hundred years."
Senckenberg Research Institute Dr. Jens Lorenz Franzen
"When the results of our investigations are published, this will be just like an asteroid hitting the Earth."
Sir David Attenborough
"This is an extraordinary fossil."
University of Michigan Dr. Philip Gingerich
"A kind of Rosetta stone... it ties together parts we haven't been able to associate before."
University of Michigan Dr. Holly Smith
"The most beautiful fossil primate I've ever seen. In terms of a complete skeleton, it's hard to think of anything else in primate evolution that's as complete as this fossil."
The Barnes & Noble Review
Forty-seven million years ago, a young female primate, probably overcome by toxic gas, fell into a volcanic lake. Settling on the bottom, she was quickly covered with fine sediment, which over millennia became compressed into rock. On May 19, 2009, the primate, now a fossil bearing the scientific name Darwinius masillae, was revealed to the world at a press conference in New York City, complete with book and History Channel movie deals, its own web site, "Revealing the Link," and even the presence of Mayor Bloomberg to give an official air to the occasion. The fossil of Darwinius -- also named "Ida" after the discoverer's young daughter -- is a lovely thing, remarkable for its preservation. You can even discern traces of her fur and her last meal. It's the most complete primate fossil ever found. But the excitement was about more than the quality of the fossil: it was about Ida's status as a "missing link." And on this issue the press release -- and the six authors of the scientific paper describing Ida -- didn't pull any punches, touting Ida as the "missing link to all humans," the "eighth wonder of the world," the "Mona Lisa" of fossils, "the Holy Grail for paleontologists," and even "a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything." On May 20th, Ida received the ultimate 21st-century tribute: a one-day appearance as the logo of the Google home page.

Never before has such hoopla attended a discovery about evolution, even the finding of important human fossils like the australopithecine Lucy. And the existence of The Link, a book about Darwinius by science writer Colin Tudge (several chapters were contributed by his colleague Josh Young), can be understood only as a component of Ida's press kit -- one of the tools in a concerted campaign to promote the fossil, thereby enriching its publicists and recouping the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost the Oslo Museum to buy it from a private collector. Written in secret, and over a span of just a few months, The Link was rushed into print so that it would appear in bookstores only one day after the press conference and the published description of Ida. As a piece of propaganda, the book is successful, for it shares all the heavy breathing accompanying Ida's discovery, characterizing the scientists who described her as the "dream team" and repeating the encomiums about Ida as a wonder of the world, the missing link, and so on. But as a piece of popular science, The Link is a dismal failure. Hamstrung by an agreement that Ida be kept secret from both the public and other scientists until her grand unveiling, Tudge was barred from seeking scientific input on the fossil's importance. This is a serious problem, for Ida now appears to be far less significant than Tudge and the "dream team" maintain.

Before we get to the science, I should emphasize that The Link is not a complete washout. The photographs of Ida are superb, and, since she was collected illegally and sold privately, Tudge introduces us to the fascinating and shadowy trade in illicit fossils. And there are some things to be learned. If you don't know what a primate is, or which evolutionary forces may have propelled our evolution, Tudge will fill you in. But because this book was written in haste, the discussions are sketchy, and this ground has been covered better elsewhere (Richard Dawkins's Ancestor's Tale, for instance).

Despite The Link's title, the scientific description and analysis of Ida occupies a scant 20 pages of a 250-page narrative. The rest is mostly padding. Tudge's attempt to fill an entire book with a chapter's worth of material sometimes reaches almost ludicrous lengths. For example, he lists in tedious detail the many other fossils found at Ida's collection site, mentioning not only what is there but what isn't. In one place he decorously informs us, "So far, Messel has yielded no ducks." But in case any readers have missed this ducklessness, Tudge tells us two pages later, "As already noted, there are no ducks." Another annoying filler is the repeated appearance of homilies drawn from the fossils. Within a stretch of just two pages, for example, we learn that "Nature never ceases to surprise," "Nature is endlessly inventive, but it endlessly reinvents itself nonetheless," and "Nature is never simple." Tudge never ceases to embroider.

But the overarching problem -- one shared by this book, the scientists who described Ida, and the publicists who flogged her -- is that "the link" doesn't seem to be a link at all. So what is a "link," and why is Ida not one? To scientists, a true link between, say, humans and our closest living relatives, chimps, would be the single ancestral species that split into two lineages, one ultimately giving rise to living chimpanzees and the other to modern humans. Yet the paleontological record is spotty -- less than 1 percent of all the species that ever lived are known to us as fossils -- so we can't expect to find the remains of that single ancestral species. Fortunately, we don't need this one "link" to confirm the common ancestry of its descendants. Instead, we can look for transitional species -- fossils related to a common ancestor but probably not that ancestor itself. In the case of humans and apes, this would be a fossil having some traits of primitive apes and others that are seen in later humans. We have many such fossils. For example, Lucy, the 4 million-year-old specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, may not be on the line to modern humans, but her combination of a humanlike body with an apelike skull, and her dating to shortly after our own lineage diverged from that of chimps, clearly documents the rise of the human lineage from a primitive ape.

Since there are already many "missing" links between ourselves and our closest relatives, what could Ida link us to? According to the "dream team," the fossil may represent a previously missing link between the two major branches of living primates: the anthropoids (apes and monkeys) on one hand and the lemurs and lorises on the other. But this suggestion is almost certainly wrong. In their rush to bring Ida to public attention, her discoverers performed a cursory and incomplete analysis of the fossil, completely neglecting to compare it to other fossil primates. The scientific consensus of the last few months places Ida in a group of primates called adapiforms, which occupy an early segment of lemur/loris branch of the primate family tree. The adapids, which are already well represented by fossils, became extinct without leaving modern descendants. Ida, beautiful though she is, doesn't tell us much more than we knew already, and since she appears to be more closely related to lemurs than to humans, she doesn't link us to anything.

Tudge, then, is simply off the mark when suggesting that "Ida seems to represent the first stirrings of the anthropoids" and goes even further wrong in claiming that she will "rewrite history." At the book's close, perhaps sensing that Ida might actually be something less than the Mona Lisa of fossils, Tudge pulls back a bit, praising the fossil's condition and drawing more nebulous conclusions. He suggests, for instance, that by recognizing Ida as kin, we will be imbued with the oneness of nature and thereby cease our wholesale destruction of the biosphere. But if a transitional fossil like Lucy didn't do that, why should Ida?

While some science education is better than none, I can't recommend The Link, for any genuine learning it imparts is more than offset by its misleading message that Ida is the missing link between humans and other primates, and by the book's implicit acceptance of hype and overblown claims as a legitimate part of science. The Link fails the very first requirement of science journalism: the need to go beyond the claims of enthusiasts and look at the evidence objectively. But of course Tudge couldn't -- he was muzzled by the "dream team" and the television producers.

The buzz around Ida may in fact mark a watershed moment in science reporting: the merging of science journalism and tabloid journalism. On the whole, there isn't much difference between Ida's press releases and the National Enquirer, with Ida playing the role of Paris Hilton: an attractive specimen that adds little to our culture. To a scientist, statements like this -- made by one of Ida's discoverers -- grate like fingernails on a blackboard: "When we publish our results it will be like an asteroid hitting the Earth." But in the end, it's not so much the hype and the absence of scientific gravitas around Ida that bothers me, it's the irresponsibility of trying to gull the public into accepting a scientific conclusion that wasn't properly vetted by scientists. This end run around the scientific community is the kind of thing that creationists do. Fortunately, real science has won out -- for now. When Chris Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was asked to assess Ida, he remarked dryly, "This fossil has been hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. Frankly, I've got ten more in my basement." --Jerry A. Coyne

Jerry A. Coyne is the author of Why Evolution Is True. He has been a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution for 20 years. He specializes in evolutionary genetics and works predominantly on the origin of new species. He is a regular contributor to The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316076456
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 5/20/2009
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 443,733
  • File size: 15 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Colin Tudge is a biologist by education and a writer by inclination—on biology, food and agriculture, and the philosophy of science. His books include The Tree, Feeding People Is Easy, Consider the Birds, and The Time Before History. For more information about the author, go to www.colintudge.com.
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2009

    All we can do now is shake our heads and laugh at people that still dont believe in evolution.

    Ah, where to begin... Well first this book is great. Well written, interesting, and another nail in the already shut coffin on where humans evolved from. The Earth is older than 4,000 years, carbon dating really does work, and dinosaurs really existed, the end. Its time for everyone to take a step back and look at actual evidence before making judgments and pulling the bible card. Ignorance is not bliss all the time and we could be Evolving further as people if we could realize we are finding out new evidence all the time on where we came from and how. Every year the number of non religious people is rising and it probabaly has something to do with the ability to reason outside the box, and be ok with it. i personally am ok that life has the ability to adapt and make itself stronger for future generations, and wasn't snapped into existense. we know that future studies will again prove evolution, as it has over and over so lets just enjoy these amazing discoveries that science finds enjoy the truth.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    On the Origins of Man

    Do you know the difference between the Eocene and the Miocene? How about an anthropoid and a hominid? Where on your family tree would you likely find a Omomyid or a Tarsier? It doesn't matter.

    Colin Tudge slides gracefully over the more arcane paleontological terms and carefully uncovers for us the story of the discovery and the significance of one of mankind's earliest ancestors, Ida.

    Ida, who was rescued from the Messel Pit in Germany by a private collector and then squirreled away for years, found her way to a fossil-fair in Hamburg, Germany, in 2006. There, she was rescued by Jorn Hurum, an associate professor of paleontology at the University of Oslo. And Ida's claim to fame? She is a complete fossil, right down to the remains of her last meal in the pit of her stomach. Futhermore, she predates apes by about 15 million years. And finally, she was found in what is now western Europe, not in Africa.

    The joy of Tudge's effort is the seamless blending of paleontology and geology to provide the lay-reader with a detective story, rich in scientific detail, as well as an over-arching perspective upon the origins of man.

    My only criticism is his needless and aimless wanderings into the morass of global warming. Must every scientific writer, no matter the topic, evangelize upon this new-found religion? But don't worry, the homily slides by, just like the geological and paleontological terms, and the reader is left with a darn good yarn.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 12, 2009

    A really facinating look at our early history and how Ida fits in to the overall evolution of the primates

    A very well organized, compelling and interesting read. Students particularly will find this a handy addition to simplifying a terribly complicated and confusing subject. The photos are amazing. I did find however, that I needed to sit in front of the computer to look up all the scientific names and terms as I read through it. I think the book itself is great, it's the lack of supporting photos and charts that's frustrating. Dry noses, wet noses, prosimians, anthropoids, adapids etc. Photos or pictures of these imbedded in the text would have been very helpful. But, evidenced by the fact that I can write the above terms when I had no idea what they were or meant before I picked up this book I did learn a lot. Nicely done.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2009

    Link Is Good for Evolution Understanding

    The book by Colin Tudge is about a fossil find from Germany. It recently garnered a lot of press. Found by a private collector from the Messel site in Germany and hidden away for 20 years, has some negative connotations. A scientist from Oslo Norway obtaining the speciman and putting a team together to study it is compelling. It is very clear to the lay person. For that primary reason I recommend the book. I question calling it a Link as that term is discouraged in scientific circles, but maybe as a hook for lay readers it is worth it. A paper about the discovery and evaluation of the find has only recently been published. Peer review has only just begun. What I really like about the book is the description of the time period in which the fossil lived and the description of the evolution of primates. This is valuable to hear through all the noise of creationism and its child intelligent design. That makes the book a recommneded read for the lay person.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 18, 2009

    Primates;

    The Link is one of the most enlightening, updated, informative reads on primates on the market. When comparing it to other books on primates it is accurate,and compelling. i would highly recommend this book to students,researchers and anyone interested in the study of the origin of man. Without "The Link" your knowledege will be incomplete.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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