The 'Missing link' fish

The science story of the week this week was the discovery of a fossil of a new species of fish that has both elbow and wrist joins, but also fish-like fins. The report was published in the Nature journal ('The fish that crawled out of water'), and was picked up by most of the newspapers and news websites (BBC: 'Arctic fossils mark move to land').

Unsuprisingly, journalists were quick to pick up on the 'missing link' phrase quoted by scientists (The Independent: 'Scientists find 'missing link' to land vertebrates'). Claiming that a fossil you've discovered is a 'missing link' seems to be a sure-fire way of getting media attention, as a quick Google search reveals. One of the most recent claims may have been of the primate skeleton (BBC: 'original' great ape discovered) reported in the Science journal in November 2004.

I'm no scientist, but from my understanding, the term 'missing link' can be considered a bit misleading. It's a phrase used by critics of Evolutionary Theory, who sometimes claim that gaps in the fossil record are evidence against the theory. A connected criticism is the 'but what use is half an eye?' argument (to which the answer is 'more useful than no eye' - see Pinker's How the Mind Works). In the Wikipedia article on the transitional fossil, the 'missing link' fossil is said to be 'a human construct that vividly represents a particular evolutionary stage, as recognized in hindsight'.

Still, language gripes aside, the discovery of this fish fossil does seem to shed some new light on exactly how fish eventually evolved into mammals. Reading about it in the Metro on the way to work on Thursday (my first day back after a trip to Paris), I was also plesantly suprised to find that the fossil was on display at the Science Museum (well it's actually only a cast of the fossil, but hey, they doesn't stop people marvelling at the dinosaur at the NHM).

We've got a web version of the on-gallery exhibit too: Fish fingers: how our limbs came from fins (excuse the pun). Personally, I thought this was easily the most interesting and relevant science news feature that I've seen whilst working at the museum. The text seems to do a good job of explaining the story, and my only gripe is that the web version should probably link to the story on Nature to give people the chance to read more about the subject.

Nature also has a blog-like entry for the story that people can leave comments on, which is worth checking out.

I should mention that I had no involvement in either the on-gallery or website presence for this story at the Science Museum, so I claim no credit, and all the views expressed above are my personal ones and not those of my employer.