Missing link

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Missing link is an obsolete expression for transitional form. It is generally avoided in scientific discussions as it is suggestive of several misunderstandings about evolution:

  • The old idea of a (Great) Chain of Being, in which there is a linear progression "upward" presumably ending with mankind, just underneath gods and other divine beings. Concepts of evolution since Darwin recognize, to the contrary, that evolutionary change often involves branching, and that unguided evolution has no preferred "direction".
  • The idea that the fossil record is the only type of evidence which can establish a connection between different life forms. The preponderance of the evidence for evolutionary connections always has been found in living things from the present ("neontology") rather than solely in the fossil record ("palaeontology"). Comparative study of DNA since the elucidation of its structure is just one of the remarkable new lines of investigation.
  • Another mistaken idea is that there is a scandalous gap in the fossil record especially with regard to human evolutionary history. While a hundred years or more ago, there were very few fossils of human precursors, even as early as the 19th century there were famous fossils such as Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) and Java man (Homo erectus), and the number has dramatically increased as explorations have concentrated on productive regions in Africa (as suggested by Darwin, but largely ignored at first) since the mid-20th century.
  • The final mistaken idea is that there is precisely one form: the missing link, which makes the connection between the past and the present. Evolution is understood ever since Darwin as an ongoing process in which one can expect many changes, sometimes very small, which can be fully appreciated only in their places in a web of relationships over stretches of time.

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