Creationists will often claim that there are no transitional fossils which show us evolutionary change taking place from one form to another. This I find particularly ironic because creationists themselves are the perfect transitional form between humans and ostriches with their heads in the sand!
Even if they were correct about transitional fossils, there are many other lines of evidence proving evolution. As I show here, however, creationists are flat wrong about this, and there's a large number of transitional fossils of organisms ranging from fish to horses to whales to turtles to dinosaurs.
I also talk here about creationist misconceptions about the fossil record, the double standard they apply to evolution vs their religious beliefs, and I give a few examples of some good old-fashioned creationist quote mining. Finally, I address the so-called "missing link" in evolution, examining the fossil record of human ancestors while also describing the many problems with that term and the general line of thinking behind it.
The United Church of God writes the following in an article entitled "What Does The Fossil Record Show?",
"After an immense worldwide search by geologists and paleontologists, the 'missing links' Darwin predicted would be found to bolster his theory are still missing."
As is so often the case, creationists are simply mistaken when they make this argument. Let's take a look at what I think are some of the clearest examples of evolutionary change taking place in the fossil record.
Matt Friedman, in a 2008 Nature publication, examines the evolutionary development of flatfish asymmetry. And this, I think, is a very fitting example, because flounder is exactly what the creationist does when they talk about this subject!
As we can see, in Trachinotus, the eyeballs are on both sides of the head like a normal-looking fish. In Psettodes, one of the eyeballs is on the top of the head, and in Citharus, both eyeballs are on the same side of the head.
Friedman performed a careful analysis of Amphistium and Heteronectes fossils, and he found that one of the eyeballs was consistently positioned at the midway point between the top of the head and the original position on the side of the head. So basically, fossils of these organisms capture a key stage in the progression from symmetrical eyeballs to the asymmetrical eyeballs that are characteristic of many modern-day flatfish.
I couldn't find information on when members of the Trachinotus or Psettodes genus first appear in the fossil record, but as we learn on The Paleobiology Database, Amphistium and Heteronectes first appear 56 million years ago compared against 28 MYA for Citharus. So as we would predict from evolution, the organisms with a more migrated eye appear later in the fossil record than those with only a partially migrated eye.
Turtle evolution is something that's examined in a 2010 publication by Tyler Lyson et al. As we can see here in this phylogeny from the paper, Eunotosaurus had some fairly thick ribs. A close relative, Odontochelys, had a very similar body design, yet the protective ribcage had developed even further and become more elaborate, with the early appearance of several bony protrusions. Finally, in Proganochelys, we see that the protective shell is fully developed.
Particularly noteworthy is the timeline of these organisms. As we learn on The Paleobiology Database, Eunotosaurus is first observed in rock layers from 265 million years ago. Odontochelys? 232 million years ago, and Proganochelys, 228 million years ago. So the organism with the least developed protective shell appears earliest; the one with a moderately developed shell appears later; and the one with a fully developed shell appears the very latest—exactly as we would expect if evolution was taking place.
The evolution of whales is something else that's well-preserved in the fossil record. Robert Boessenecker, in a University of Otago article, has a great image of whale skeleton evolution, capturing the minor differences between Georgiacetus, Dorudon, Aetiocetus, Tokarahia, and Balaenoptera.
Especially noteworthy is the hind limb reduction that we see taking place here, with clearly visible and likely still functional hind limbs in Georgiacetus, and the barely noticeable, tiny, vestigial hind limbs in all the other species. What kind of a God would create organisms with non-functioning bones like this in the exact location where functioning bones used to exist in very similar looking predecessors? What could such a creation plan be if not an obvious attempt to trick us into believing that evolution took place? Isn't a much more reasonable explanation that these bones were reduced in size over time simply because having them didn't provide any survivalistic benefits?
God's like: "At long last, these whales of mine are perfect in every detail, from the flippers to the brain to the blood vessels. Truly a marvel of creative engineering. Now before I forget, I'd better be sure to add some useless bones that have no function."
Or maybe he just screwed up and accidentally dropped a few bones in the vat during creation? He's like: "Whoops! Oh, whatever. It'll be fine. Besides, I need to get back to work on creating leukemia."
The timeline of these fossils, once again, is exactly what we would predict from evolution. Georgiacetus, with its relatively large hind limbs, first appears 48 MYA, whereas Dorudon appears in the fossil record with its sharply reduced hindlimbs 7 million years after Georgiacetus, plenty of time for such a reduction to take place. And from that point on, the vestigial hindlimbs remained vestigial in subsequent species of whales.
Also captured in the fossil record of whales—as we see on Whaleopedia.org—is the movement and evolution of the blowhole.
50 MYA, nostrils were at the very front of the skull in the family Mesonychidae, with this family being comprised of close relatives to the earliest whales. 45 MYA, in Protocetidae—the family featuring some of the earliest whales—the nostril has moved about a third of the way up the skull. It's slightly further up the skull 40 MYA in Dorudontidae, and by 25 MYA in Squalodontidae, it's all the way at the top of the skull.
One of the most famous transitional fossils is Tiktaalik, which is though to represent the bridge between aquatic and terrestrial tetrapods. Especially interesting is how this fossil was discovered by scientists. They didn't just stumble upon it one day and say: "How fortunate!" Instead, they saw that there was a gap between two similar-looking fossil organisms, and they intentionally set out to discover an intermediate form between these two.
As Richard Dawkins writes in The Greatest Show On Earth,
"So, we are left with a gap between Panderichthys, the amphibian-like fish, and Acanthostega, the fish-like amphibian. Where is the 'missing link' between them? A team of scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, including Neil Shubin and Edward Daeschler, set out to find it.
. . . They deliberately thought about where might be the best place to look, and carefully chose a rocky area of exactly the right late Devonian age in the Canadian Arctic. There they went—and struck zoological gold. Tiktaalik! . . . In almost every particular, Tiktaalik is the perfect missing link—perfect, because it almost exactly splits the difference between fish and amphibian . . ."
Source: p. 168–169, The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins. 2009.
And here we see how Tiktaalik fits into the proposed sequence of evolutionary change.
The evolution of ceratopsian skull ornamentation is something else that we see a clear progression of in the fossil record.
Andrew Knapp et al, in a 2018 paper, show us a phylogeny beginning with Liaoceratops, which first appeared in the fossil record about 125 MYA. Protoceratops andrewsi—first detected about 86 MYA—has a fairly similar skull to Liaoceratops, but a frill at the top of skull has clearly started to develop. In subsequent, closely-related species—all first appearing 84 MYA—we see that this development has progressed even further, with much more pronounced frill ornamentation appearing in the genuses Centrosaurus, Achelousaurus, Pachyrhinosaurus, Chasmosaurus, and everybody's favorite, Triceratops.
How can you look at the timeline and morphology of these fossils and conclude anything other than descent with modification?
By the way, this is also a clear example of a partially developed trait, which creationists are always asking for examples of: "What good is a halfway developed arm or wing", they'll ask? I could ask the same thing about your halfway developed brains! (I kid my creationist friends. I'm sure your brains are perfectly developed—they're just severely damaged in some way.)
Here we have a non-developed frill, a halfway-developed frill, and a fully-developed frill.
And just to be clear, the pictures make the skulls look similar in size, but there was actually a significant increase in size over time from the tiny Liaoceratops to the medium-sized Protoceratops to the gigantic Triceratops.
Equine evolution is something else that's richly documented in the fossil record. Over time, members of the horse family have dramatically increased in size, from the tiny Mesohippus to the larger Merychippus to the even bigger Pliohippus and, finally, to Equus, the modern-day horse.
And these are pretty significant morphological changes right here. If you found yourself face-to-face with a real-live Mesohippus and tried to throw a saddle on him, trust me when I say that it would not end well.
"Hya! Forward! Oh, looks like he's completely crushed to death."
It's worth noting at this point that evolution very rarely follows an exclusively straight line path, like some of these images might seem to indicate. It's not like first you had Mesohippus, then all of these evolved into Merychippus, then all of these evolved into Pliohippus, which all evolved into Equus. No, evolution typically follows a very branching pattern, as we can see here in this equid phylogeny taken from the cleverly-named Humbolt.edu article "Horses Before The Cart."
Rather than one species evolving into another which evolves into another in a straight line, what tends to happen is that populations will split off into different groups, and these groups—being subject to different evolutionary pressures—will evolve in different directions and slowly diverge away from one another in appearance. Maybe one group will dramatically change while the other stays about the same; maybe both groups will radically change—but the key point is that evolution tends to follow a branching pattern rather than a unidirectional one.
Now of course, there are specific evolutionary pathways that you can isolate and follow. In the case of equids, for example, there is a pathway that gradually takes you from small to large over time, from Mesohippus about 35 million years ago to Merychippus about 16 MYA to something like Pliohippus about 15 MYA all the way to Equus in the modern era. So obviously yes, there is a direct, unbroken line of descendants that transforms over time, but just understand that around this line of descendants, all kinds of other evolutionary changes would be taking place among close relatives of these organisms.
Also important to note is that what are often described as transitional fossils might not necessarily be the actual direct ancestors of these later organisms. This specific Mesohippus fossil, for example, might not actually be the direct ancestor of these later organisms; perhaps it was a member of a very closely related—but not yet discovered—member of the horse family that looked very similar to it? Or maybe it was a member of the species that these other equids descended from, but it was part of a population that ultimately died out and thus wasn't technically ancestral?
The point is that we can't technically say, with certainty, that this exact fossil is the direct ancestor of this specific later organism; the most we can say is that, given the timeline and composition of the fossil record, something very similar to this organism was likely the ancestor of something very similar to this other organism which was the ancestor of something very similar to this third organism, and so forth.
And even though you aren't going to have a literal, direct and detectable chain of offspring in the fossil record, you can still reasonably infer from the fossil record what basic evolutionary changes took place over time based upon what differences exist in the fossils relative to the time periods that they come from.
The final example we'll look at here is tapir evolution. Donald Prothero shows us a phylogeny that depicts the relationships between tapirs and their ancestors, and as we can see, the general evolutionary trend has been one of increasing size over time, from Heptodon to Protapirus to Miotapirus to the modern tapirs of today. What is this if not exactly the kind of sequence of evolution that creationists ask for when demanding proof of transitional fossils?
"You kidding me? Look at the horns on those things. Clearly a creation of Satan."
People often talk about transitional fossils as if they're these exceptionally rare specimens, only a few of which we've been fortunate enough to discover, which we crowd around like astonished peasants gaping at a crashed meteorite or something. I would argue that this framing is all wrong.
The reality is that when you take a close look at any group of reasonably diverse organisms that's even decently preserved in the fossil record, you are going to be able to piece together the evolutionary history of some very similar looking organisms—and the process of descent with modification taking place over time is going to be unmistakable.
After seeing these many examples, let's look, once again, at what the creationist claims about transitional fossils. In that United Church of God article, they quote Richard Milton who says that:
"'. . . as of yet no one has discovered a fossil creature that is indisputably transitional between one species and another species. Not a single undisputed "missing link" has been found in all the exposed rocks of the Earth’s crust despite the most careful and extensive searches.'"
As we've seen, this is just flat-out wrong. There are many examples of fossilized, intermediate forms capturing evolutionary changes in a wide variety of organisms, ranging from dinosaurs to whales to turtles to horses to fish.
Also, notice his usage of the descriptor "undisputed." So long as there are creationists around, all transitional fossils will be disputed by someone, so indisputability isn't a good criteria to use here. There are people who dispute the roundness of the earth, but that doesn't make it flat.
Other creationists dial back the rhetoric a bit and simply claim that there aren't enough transitional fossils. For example, Russell Grigg writes the following on Creation.com:
". . . the huge numbers [of transitional fossils] that ought to exist if evolution were true remain stubbornly absent."
The first thing I would point out is that there are actually lots of transitional fossils. Believe me when I say that the ones I've showcased here are far from an exhaustive list of those discovered. When I started to work on this project, I was literally overwhelmed because there were so many to choose from that I was having a hard time deciding which ones to show.
But let's adopt the creationist framing here for the sake of argument and see where it gets us: Ok, there's only a small number of unmistakably transitional fossils. Shouldn't there be zero transitional fossils according to the creation model?
"Haha! There aren't... quite as many of those things that disprove my position as I'd like for there to be!" Not a very powerful argument.
Let's take it a step further and say, not only are there no transitional fossils, but there are no fossils whatsoever. Even if that was the case, we would still have more than enough evidence to substantiate evolution: experimental evidence, observational evidence, evidence from comparing the morphology and biochemistry and genetic material of various organisms. There's also the evidence from the biogeographical distribution of life on earth, as well as from the vestigial traits that organisms stll possess from their ancestors yet don't use. Completely take the fossil evidence off the table and evolution is still very well supported by many independent lines of evidence that all agree with each other.
The creationist also seems to assume here that fossilization is a much more commonplace process than it actually is. Listen to a creationist talk about the subject and you'd begin to believe that right after an organism drops dead and falls to the ground, it just instantly transforms into a fossil that gets preserved in the geological record. They make it seem like you could hardly step outside without tripping over a pile of fossils! The fact of the matter is that fossilization is an extremely rare process which depends upon many stringent conditions being met.
First the organism must not be fully decomposed before preservation. Then the remains must actually be in—or find their way to—the exact location that allows for them to get preserved somehow, whether from being covered in a certain type of sediment, volcanic ash, tar—whatever it may be. The chemical and geological conditions surrounding the dead organism must also be conducive to preservation over the entire period that it becomes and remains a fossil. Finally, the remains must be in a location that's accessible to modern-day paleontologists, and these paleontologists must actually go there and do the painstaking work of discovering and digging up these remains.
To expect every stage of evolution of a large percentage of organisms to have been preserved and discovered in this way is to expect far too much from the rare, chance process of fossilization that requires fortunate circumstance after fortunate circumstance.
Creationists will also try to cast doubt on transitional fossils by pointing out that these changes actually took place earlier than the fossils indicate. For example, our friends over at the CMICreationStation argue the following:
Creationist 1: "Obviously this is like the poster child for transitional forms."
Creationist 2: "Now what's the problem with that one? The problem is that there's been footprints of amphibians found older than Tiktaalik! So Tiktaalik can't be the ancestor—the transitional fossils between some fish-like creature and amphibians—because the footprints are older than Tiktaalik!"
Creationist 1: "So they find these footprints in a quarry in Poland, and this turned the evolutionary world upside-down."
Ok, so there's evidence that these evolutionary changes actually took place a bit earlier than we originally thought, possibly by a different organism. It's almost like they're trying to debunk evolution by arguing that there's even more evolution going on here than we originally suspected!
When you actually look into this research, you find that it's hardly the earth-shattering finding that they make it out to be. As we read in a LiveScience article by Jeanna Bryner,
"Four-legged creatures were mucking around a muddy basin in what is now Poland about 397 million years ago. And they left behind distinctive footprints, which have turned back the clock on the evolution of these landlubbers.
. . . The discovery helps to refine the timing of the transition from our fishy ancestors to land creatures, which until now was thought to have occurred about 380 million years ago or so. . . . Until now, the earliest complete evidence for a four-limbed animal with digits came from Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, which date back to between 374 million and 359 million years ago."
So instead of an evolutionary step taking place 380 million years ago, the evidence suggests that it actually took place 397 million years ago. I would hardly describe this as "[turning] the evolutionary world upside down." Finding fossilized human remains that are 2 billion years old—that would turn the evolutionary worldview upside down.
Yeah, 20 million years certainly isn't nothing, but when we're talking about a geological timescale, when we're talking about events that took place 400 million years ago, and when we're dealing with an incomplete fossil record, plus or minus 20 million years isn't the kind of thing that's going to make or break a scientific discipline.
And notice how selective creationists are being here. Whenever the scientific findings are convenient for them, they'll proudly trumpet them before us. When the findings disconfirm their religious beliefs, however, they'll cast them aside and claim that they're bogus.
And despite the way that it's being used here, this research doesn't support the creationist position in any way. What it tells us is that this evolutionary change that totally took place took place a bit earlier than the evidence used to indicate. This is how science works: We gather more evidence and we refine our beliefs accordingly. Contrast this to the static, rigid dogma that shackles the mind of the fundamentalist Christian: "Here's what my religion says; that's what I believe; end of conversation." What they're trying to use to illustrate the folly of evolutionary science is actually the perfect example of how that science should be done.
"Oh, but these findings prove that Tiktaalik isn't the transitional fossil that it was originally made out to be!"
Tiktaalik can still have value as a fossil without being the very first organism that had these characteristics and exhibited these behaviors; it could simply a later descendant of, or a close relative to, that very first organism which simply didn't fossilize—or did fossilize but hasn't yet been discovered by paleontologists.
Creationists are way too inflexible in how they think about transitional fossils. They're like: "Haha! If it wasn't literally one of the first organisms that did something, it doesn't count!"
It is much more reasonable and realistic to think of Tiktaalik as a fossilized example of the general evolutionary trend that was taking place at that time. It doesn't have to be the very first example of walking on land to shed light on what those early land walkers would've looked like.
Also, one more thing from this video:
Creationist 1: "This walking whale story doesn't really make sense,"
now if you'll excuse me, it's back to reading about talking snakes.
By the way, keeping tall glasses of water right next to your laptop? That is just brilliant. Couple of geniuses right here!
He's like: "Hey, you know what? I'm not worried about that, because my laptop isn't powered by electricity; it's powered by the love of Christ."
I'm like: "Why's it plugged in then?"
Another one of the main tactics in the creationist handbook is quoting scientists, out of context, to make it appear as if they're making humiliating concessions that disprove evolution and support creationism. I'm not exaggerating when I say that 90% of creationist articles or videos I encounter seem to do this at least once. Christ, if these people took half the time they spent digging up quotes and used it to dig up transitional fossils, they wouldn't even know where to store them all!
As an example of this, FishDontWalk.com has an article entitled "Actual Quotes By Evolutionists" where they quote Charles Darwin saying the following:
"'The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory [of evolution.]'"
For some strange reason, they omitted the very next sentence, which says:
"The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record."
And indeed, in the years after he wrote this, as we've further explored the geological record, we've found many examples of fossilized intermediate forms.
Steven Jay Gould is another scientist that creationists love to quote-mine on this subject. For example, Creation.com quotes Gould as saying that
"The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology."
And then he retreated to his evil lair while laughing maniacally.
Here's what we read on StevenJayGould.org:
". . . it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -- whether through design or stupidity, I do not know -- as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups."
Speaking of Steven Jay Gould, his idea of punctuated equilibrium is worth bringing up in a discussion about transitional fossils. Punctuated equilibrium is basically the idea that the norm is for organisms to stay pretty much the same and go through long periods of stasis, then undergo rapid changes only when subjected to the appropriate environmental conditions. Contrast this with the more conventional view of evolution, where organisms are in a constant state of change that's spread out over long periods of time.
For what it's worth, I don't think these two evolutionary models are mutually exclusive, but rather exist at opposite ends of a spectrum, with evolutionary change sometimes happening rapidly, other times slowly, other times not at all for long periods of time. It's the kind of thing that, realistically, you have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis rather than just assuming that evolution always follows this one blueprint.
But if evolution took place by the punctuated equilibrium mechanism, one outcome of this would be a shorter time period of change during which transitional forms could be preserved in the geological record—meaning they would be more rare than they would under a gradualistic evolutionary process.
In that United Church of God article, they write that:
"The secret that evolutionists don’t want revealed is that, even by their own interpretations, the fossil record shows fully formed species appearing for a time and then disappearing with no change. Other species appeared at other times before they, too, disappeared with little or no change.
. . . If we look at the evidence objectively, we realize that the creation story in Genesis 1—describing the sudden appearance of life-forms—is a credible explanation."
"The SECRET that evolutionists don't want revealed," sounds like one of those clickbait headlines you'll see at the bottom of a CNN article: "You Won't BELIEVE What Charles Darwin Looks Like Now," "Paleontologists HATE This Trick!"
I would argue this is a pretty obvious mischaracterization of the fossil record, but even if it was correct, punctuated equilibrium, or the rarity of fossilization—rather than creationism—could be the explanation for organisms appearing or disappearing with little to no change.
And just because certain evolutionary changes haven't been perfectly captured in the fossil record doesn't mean that these evolutionary changes never took place. As Carl Sagan famously said, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"—except in this case, we'd say that absence of one particular type of evidence is not evidence of absence.
And the idea that the fossil record actually supports Genesis creation is an incredible statement. What we have in the fossil record are only certain organisms existing in specific time periods, then dying out and being replaced by other organisms unique to other time periods. And this is a process that's happened over a period of 3.8 billion years.
This has absolutely nothing in common with the Genesis account of creation where all life-forms were created simultaneously a mere 6,000 years ago. Please find me the cache of fossils where representatives of every geological time period are found coexisting in one big happy family. It doesn't exist, and that's because the Genesis creation story is a ridiculous fairy tale.
Something else I'd like to point out is that creationists are never satisfied with the type of transitional fossils you present them with. If you show them a sequence of very gradual changes taking place, they'll say: "Ah, that's perfectly in line with the creation model of variation taking place within kinds."
As John Morris writes for the Institute For Creation Research:
"Evolutionists sometimes brag that they have abundant evidence of transitions, but when pressed, the examples are almost always minor variations within a category, as expected within creation thinking, and thus certainly not proof of evolution."
Ah, I see. So you're not interested in very gradual changes being captured in the fossil record. How about we present them with some big picture changes taking place over long stretches of time? This, too, doesn't impress them, because they'll just argue that each of these organisms are discrete creatures which God created, and they're so different from each other that we can't say the fossils depict evolutionary change taking place.
The United Church of God quotes Francis Hitching on this point:
"'There ought to be cabinets full of intermediates—indeed, one would expect the fossils to blend so gently into one another that it would be difficult to tell where the invertebrates ended and the vertebrates began. But this isn’t the case. Instead, groups of well-defined, easily classifiable fish jump into the fossil record seemingly from nowhere: mysteriously, suddenly, full-formed, and in a most un-Darwinian way. And before them are maddening, illogical gaps where their ancestors should be.'"
So you show them very gradual changes which depict organisms gently blending from one form to another, and they say: "Not good enough; we want more significant changes."
You show them these more significant changes, and they say: "Not good enough; the changes aren't gradual enough."
There's literally no way to win here. No matter what degree of evolutionary transformation you present them with, they'll find a way to argue that it's insufficient evidence to convince them. And if there's no form of evidence that will convince you to change your mind, what are you if not the epitome of close-minded?
Something else that pisses me off is when creationists or members of the media talk about the discovery or non-discovery of "the missing link"—as if there's just this one hole in the evidence for evolution that would finally prove it correct, and scientists are desperately scrambling to find it. If only we could find this one smoking gun, then evolution would be substantiated—and until that time, we're just floating around in the dark, and whether evolution is real is anybody's guess. Not only is this grammatically absurd, but it just has no relation to the real world of evolutionary evidence.
When people use this term, they're typically talking about human evolution. As "Dyno" writes on Twitter,
"Where is the missing link? Also known as intermediate between apes and man?"
The first thing to point out is that even if there were no fossils of early human ancestors, this wouldn't disprove or give us a good reason to reject evolution. There's no guarantee that species will be fossilized and discovered—and there are plenty of other forms of evidence proving that humans are the product of evolution and that chimps are our close relatives.
How about the fact that we just look so similar to chimpanzees? I mean wow, the first time I saw a picture of Ken Ham with a beard, I thought I had discovered the missing link!
What about the fact that humans and chimps have a very similar skeleton and biochemical makeup? What about the fact that we share 99% of our DNA with chimps—exactly what we would predict if we both diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently?
Here's the thing, though: The fossil remains of many early human ancestors and relatives have been discovered. Here's a phylogeny which shows over a dozen of these, spanning from about 100,000 years ago to over 6 million years ago. Eight other species in the Homo genus, 6 in Australopithecus, 3 in Paranthropus, 2 in Ardipithecus. Forget about one individual link; here we have an entire chain of fossil evidence which dates back to the period of divergence between humans and chimps about 5–7 million years ago.
There's even a new species which was recently discovered called Patreonus supporter, which you can actually transform into by going to Patreon.com/aSkepticalHuman!
The same caveat I made earlier would also apply here: Some of these might not be the actual ancestors of humans; they could simply be closely related to those ancestors. Regardless, fossils like these make absolutely clear that the same evolutionary process that applies to all of life also applies to us—and there is no good reason to reject the idea that humans and chimps once shared a common ancestor in the past.
"I want fossil evidence of the exact common ancestor between chimps and humans perfectly preserved!" Again, we don't need a perfect fossil record to prove descent from common ancestors. And if you found specimens from that period of divergence, you'd never be able to say—with certainty—that it was the literal common ancestor of chimps and humans. Sahelanthropus tchadensis dates to right around the divergence time, so perhaps we could say it's a good candidate—but it could also just be closely related to the common ancestor which hasn't yet been discovered.
Even if we found a dozen perfectly preserved fossils that were a 50/50 blend between human and chimpanzee characteristics, what are the odds that the creationists would come forward and say: "Oh, ok. I guess we were wrong. Now we accept evolution"? There is not a chance that that would happen, and the reason I say this is because they already deny the overwhelming towers of evidence supporting evolution—so what's a few more fossils to them?
They would find a way to explain it away: "These are just fossil apes"; "it's a distinct species created by God"; "primate variation is perfectly in line with the creation model"; there's just no way that they would be satisfied with such a fossil, just as many of them aren't satisfied with the many transitional fossils that already have been discovered.
I don't mean to sound so pessimistic and hopeless here; I know that some creationists are open to evidence and will eventually change their minds, as many already have. It just sometimes seems that there are some who are so closed off that you could literally step inside of a time machine with them to visit our early ancestors and they'd be like: "Not impressed; I'm still a creationist," and then they'd pull out a Bible and try to convert them to Christianity.
"Oh, you went on a mission trip to Africa? That's cool. Did I ever tell you about the time that I went back and time and proselytized to Neanderthals?"
"Alright, Elder John. We get it. You time traveled. No need to keep rubbing it in our faces."
Speaking of rubbing things in our faces, I saw my old priest the other day and he—actually, you know what, I'll just keep that story to myself.
"Well, they still haven't discovered the missing link yet!"
What really pisses me off is that when a person says this, it makes it seem as if they're closely keeping up with the latest research and findings in this area, when really they're about as clueless about this field as is possible for a person to be.
On TalkOrigins.org, they point out that:
". . . although creationists are adamant that none of these [fossils] are transitional and all are either apes or humans, they are not able to agree on which are which."
And then they show us a table depicting the embarrassing inability of creationists to consistently classify these fossils as either ape or human. As they continue,
"It could be pointed out that evolutionists also disagree on how fossils should be classified, which species they belong to, etc. True enough. But according to evolutionary thinking, these fossils come from a number of closely related species intermediate between apes and humans. If this is so, we would expect to find that some of them are hard to classify, and we do.
Creationists, on the other hand, assert that apes and humans are separated by a wide gap. If this is true, deciding on which side of that gap individual fossils lie should be trivially easy. Clearly, that is not the case."
The final point I'll make is that this is yet another example of creationists operating with a huge double standard. In the case of evolution, they have the most exacting standards: They want common ancestors perfectly preserved; they demand more and more transitional fossils, like a person with a never-ending appetite. Whatever evidence they can ask for, they do ask for—and it's seemingly never enough for them.
Then, when it comes to their religious beliefs, they say: "Oh, I take it on faith. This ancient religious book says so, and even though it contradicts the hundreds of other religions in the world, I choose to believe. Stories of miracles? Well, they were written down here hundreds of years ago, so that's good enough for me."
If they applied even a fraction of the skepticism that they mistakenly apply towards evolution to their own religious beliefs, they would become non-religious so fast that their heads would spin.
Contrary to what creationists argue, there are many good examples of transitional fossils that clearly show us evolutionary changes taking place. Whether we're talking about fish, dinosaurs, tapirs, turtles or whales, intermediate forms do exist in the fossil record. Even if they didn't, however, many other lines of evidence substantiate evolution.
Creationists have unrealistic expectations of how complete the fossil record should be, and their demand that you present them with "the missing link" overlooks the many human ancestors that have already been discovered.
Not having fossils that document specific evolutionary changes doesn't mean that these evolutionary changes didn't take place, and the incredibly high standards that creationists apply towards transitional fossils get thrown out the window when it comes time to think critically about their own religious beliefs.