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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Hyper Missing Link

Great new fossil, but the missing link it aint

Big news?

The Telegraph: Missing link between man and apes found.

The Sunday Times: Fossil from cave is a 'missing link'

The cliche is misleading. The new fossil is a very complete and therefore very interesting specimen from a poorly understood period. If it proves to have features of both Australopithecus and Homo habilis, that's intriguing and surprising.

But it is absoluitely nothing to do with the common ancestor of man and apes, which lived 6 million years ago, not 2 million. That's the long accepted meaning of the phrase `missing link'.

At least the Times uses the phrase `a missing link'. But it's only true in the most trivial sense. Every link in a chain of fossils is missing till it's found.

This PR hype is becoming a habit in paeoanthropology. A year ago, ridiculous secrecy and jamboree surrounded the announcement of a 47 million year old fossil primate from the Messel pit in Germany. Called Ida, or Darwinius, it too was described as the missing link and given ludicrous star treatment. in an attempt to recoup the huge sum spent by a museum buying it off a collector.

It was just a very well preserved fossil of a very early primate, probably on the lemur lineage. Or as one paleoanthropolgist put it to me: `It's a f***ing lemur'.