THE AGES OF MAN: AN ANALOGY FOR THE MISSING LINK
All analogies break down. They’re not perfect, but here’s the best I can do to illustrate where the missing link charges by the Creationists break down.
Imagine that at the moment of birth, an unmanned camera begins to take snapshots of a person every second from the moment of his birth to the moment of his death. At the moment of this being’s death, a daily record of his entire existence is now stored on file in the Whole Earth Library along with the photo records of all the people in Whole Earth County.
Now, with that moment by moment record of existence for your perusal, if I asked you to point to the exact moments when the being moved from infant to toddler and toddler to adolescent, from adolescent to post-adolescent, from post-adolescent to young man (you get the picture), could you identify those moments? No, of course not, because there is no missing link. The change is so gradual that you can’t do it. Same with the whole history of life on earth, only we’re talking about “species creep” in reality and not Shakespeare’s "Ages of Man".
You’ll say, “But I can still tell that’s a male child and a man all the way through.” Okay, all analogies break down, so let me make the analogy even a little closer to the case at hand.
Let’s add some details to the being’s life. At some point in the being’s life, he fights in a war, becomes a one-legged, one armed paraplegic in a wheel chair whose face is so badly disfigured by fire and shrapnel that nothing can reconstitute it because he’s in a fairly unscientific age. But since we have the entire record on file, stored in the archives of the Whole Earth Library, we still know this man to be the same being all the way through. It’s all on record, and we can definitely now recognize the prewar from the postwar being.
But let’s add another bit of reality to the case.
Suppose a hurricane tears into the Whole Earth Library long after the man is dead and passed away. It spreads the record of his existence over a twenty mile area. Some of the photos drop into fires which are burning, some onto the surfaces of the river and float away, some onto the surface of a lake to soak and sink, some drop into wells and crevices (you get the picture—destruction and dispersal of the record of our man). But if you get to the spot of the catastrophe soon enough, given the amount of evidence still remaining, you will probably pretty easily figure out that this series of snapshots are of one being, unless, of course, many other series of snapshots are lying around and mixed up with his. Now the problem of finding the “moments of transition” is getting very complicated by too much evidence and by it’s being randomly dispersed and mixed with other kinds of photo evidence all over the county. In fact, I’d say the ability to identify any missing “link” or “moment when his age changed” is now pretty well lost to time, even though we know they occurred. Probably we could never have done it in the first place, given the nature of the reality of change’s slow time frame.
But let’s add more reality to our analogy.
Over a period of two thousand years, many wars are fought over this very ground where the remaining photos lie. Bombs blow craters and refill them. Nature does its work too. Wild fires cross and re-cross the ground, rains fall on it, sun burns down, winds blow, natural catastrophes sweep over the land (you get the picture). Surveying the ground where the Whole Earth Library once stood, we’ll be lucky to find evidence that a library was there at all, let alone a weathered photo of a single man, our man. Any photo that might lie on the surface will be weathered and faded, and it will be hard to even identify it as a photo. Our photos of the man would seem like bits of the earth itself.
Now, how will we be able to identify the “moments of transition” through Shakespeare’s Ages of Man of this particular example of our species, even if we find four or five photos? I think it’s impossible, don’t you? At this point, I’ve brought us somewhere near to just before our current age of exploration where we humans stood when Darwin arrived on the scene.
But let’s get even more real.
Suppose an alien “consciousness” evolves (the key word is consciousness) with the body of what we might call an ant, a consciousness which has never heard of humankind and its culture and which evolved somewhere far from Whole Earth County (maybe another planet) but which eventually grows curious enough to travel over the earth to see what’s up.
Standing on the grounds of what was once Whole Earth County, the alien consciousness finds one fairly intact and not too faded photo which, fortuitously, has been protected inside an upside down ration tin which one of its many feet kicks as it walks. It’s the picture of a human infant in a crib. The ant consciousness has no idea what it’s seeing but it’s curious. It can’t tell animate from inanimate in the photo. The ant calls for backup.
More ants arrive and begin to search the ground and dig it up. After decades of human time, the ant researchers come up with three more photos of our original man. Of course, they don’t know that. We do because we are a sort of objective camera which is observing and recording this whole tale. One photo is a full length view of him as a young man before the war. Another shows him from the waist up in a hospital bathrobe. He’s in early convalescence just after the war, with face burned beyond recognition, missing limbs, in a wheelchair built for bipedal persons. The third photo is from our man’s death bed scene with a hairless, toothless, shriveled face peeking over the edge of a hospital sheet.
At this point in our story, the ant consciousness can’t even tell if this “thing” in a barred place which you and I recognize as an infant is the same kind of thing that sits in a wheeled carriage or as the thing peeking out of the covers. They just have no concept for these “things” they’re seeing in the snapshots.
Eventually, though, one bright researcher ant notes that all the things have heads and maybe eyes, except for the thing in the wheeled thing. The researcher can’t make out that thing’s blasted, burned head too well. You know? No one can really tell if these things they’re looking at are one thing or four things. Not really. So they’re stored away in fossil drawers.
Eventually, however, other ant consciousness begins to understand from other photos that these things they are studying had things which took pictures of other things, and they learn that photo paper has distinctive traces and that some photos are numbered or marked in some way or another. Call the discovery of paper types and the numbering systems for photos, the underlying and connecting thread of all the photos, “natural selection” or “DNA”.
Now, to wrap this analogy up, a researcher near Whole Earth County pulls the four photos of our man out of the fossil drawer and study’s the paper. The researcher finds the four photos are made of the same paper. By their numbering, research can sequence them.
Finally, as a few more photos from Whole Earth County pile up, the ants can reliably predict that these different “beings” or “things” are connected in a line by the DNA of photo paper, but the transition points between the thing in the barred cage, and the prewar thing squinting in sunlight, and the thing in the wheeled carriage and the old thing under the sheet are perhaps forever missing. Still, our ant consciousness has snapped the picture correctly.