When it comes to scientific theories related to origins, the authors and proponents for such theories with any common sense are reluctant to make absolute assertions. There is a reason for that: most informed authors recognize that, in the area of origins, there is little that is proven. Most of the answers to the questions of origins are based on extrapolations from evidence that can be found. These extrapolations are often quite reasonable, and I am willing to consider them in that vein.
The problem arises when you go beyond those in the know to the less-informed individual who wants to take the extrapolation of the informed person and turn it into an absolute. For example, remember "Lucy"? No, not Lucy Van Pelt of Peanuts fame (pictured above right). Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis and so-called ancestor linking apes and humans. Her picture is on the left, below.
Now, I recognize that it isn't the scientists who are proclaiming Lucy as the missing link. They have been very careful about not saying that anything is the "missing link" between humans and apes. Rather, they say that she is an "ancestor or close relative of modern humans." But that doesn't stop others from recognizing that the word "ancestor" implies that she is part of the evolutionary branch that directly leads to humanity -- evolutionarily speaking. After all, if my grandfather is my ancestor then my grandfather is farther down the family tree, right? Hence, if "Lucy" is an ancestor of humanity, then she is father down the family tree, but she it is the same tree. Others pick up on this information and run with it proclaiming that proof has been found that humanity descended from apes and Lucy, as an ancestor provides proof of that assertion.
Take, for example, Wikipedia's entry on Australopithecus afarensis:
Australopithecus afarensis is an extinct hominid which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. In common with the younger Australopithecus africanus, A. afarensis was slenderly built. It is widely believed that A. afarensis is the ancestor of the genus Homo, which includes the modern human species, Homo sapiens.
Science Daily, in a report about the discovery of Australopithecus anamensis which is supposedly the evolutionary link to Australopithecus afarensis entitled Hominid Fossils From Ethiopia Link Ape-men To More Distant Human Ancestors (note the use of the term "ape-men") reported "New fossils discovered in the Afar desert of eastern Ethiopia are a missing link between our ape-man ancestors some 3.5 million years ago and more primitive hominids a million years older, according to an international team led by the University of California, Berkeley, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico." LiveScience.com simply lists Lucy as the Number 10 top missing link.
Well, now comes news that Lucy shouldn't be in the top ten because she is probably not a link to humans at all. According to Israeli researchers: 'Lucy' is not direct ancestor of humans:
Tel Aviv University anthropologists say they have disproven the theory that "Lucy" - the world-famous 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton found in Ethiopia 33 years ago - is the last ancestor common to humans and another branch of the great apes family known as the "Robust hominids."
The specific structure found in Lucy also appears in a species called Australopithecus robustus. Prof. Yoel Rak and colleagues at the Sackler School of Medicine's department of anatomy and anthropology wrote, "The presence of the morphology in both the latter and Australopithecus afarensis and its absence in modern humans cast doubt on the role of [Lucy] as a common ancestor."
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Rak and colleagues studied 146 mature primate bone specimens, including those from modern humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans and found that the "ramus element" of the mandible connecting the lower jaw to the skull is like that of the robust forms, therefore eliminating the possibility that Lucy and her kind are Man's direct ancestors. They should therefore, the Israeli researchers said, "be placed as the beginning of the branch that evolved in parallel to ours."
I think it's clear that even if the purveyors of Darwinism were being careful in their words about Lucy being the missing link, and even if they were being careful in recognizing that nothing is certain, their language and approach assumed that Lucy was part of the chain of evolution that ultimately led to homo sapiens. Of course they didn't say "this is certainly the missing link". They aren't stupid. But it is apparent that they thought they had found a missing link in the evolutionary tree.
Of course, this doesn't mean that such an evolutionary link won't be found. It certainly remains possible. However, what this should alert careful readers to do is to view these claims more skeptically. Just because some scientist discovers a skeleton that "appears to be an ancestor or close relative of modern humans" doesn't mean that it is a direct evolutionary ancestor. Careful scientists won't jump to such broad language, and popularists who are seeking to make the case for Darwinism more available to the public should heed a modified version of the old adage, fools rush in where scientists fear to tread.