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The term “missing link” refers back to the originally static pre-evolutionary concept of the great chain of being, a deist idea that all existence is linked, from the lowest dirt, through the living kingdoms to angels and finally to God. The idea of all living things being linked through some sort of transmutation process predates Darwin’s theory of evolution. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck envisioned that life is generated in the form of the simplest creatures constantly, and then strive towards complexity and perfection (i.e. humans) through a series of lower forms. In his view, lower animals were simply newcomers on the evolutionary scene.
After On the Origin of Species, the idea of “lower animals” representing earlier stages in evolution lingered, as demonstrated in Ernst Haeckel‘s figure of the human pedigree. While the vertebrates were then seen as forming a sort of evolutionary sequence, the various classes were distinct, the undiscovered intermediate forms being called “missing links”.
The term was first used in a scientific context by Charles Lyell in the third edition (1851) of his book Elements of Geology in relation to missing parts of the geological column, but it was popularized in its present meaning by its appearance on page xi of his bookGeological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man of 1863. By that time it was generally thought that the end of the last glacial periodmarked the first appearance of humanity, but Lyell drew on new findings in his Antiquity of Man to put the origin of human beings much further back in the deep geological past. Lyell wrote that it remained a profound mystery how the huge gulf between man and beast could be bridged. Lyell’s vivid writing fired the public imagination, inspiring Jules Verne‘s Journey to the Center of the Earth andLouis Figuier‘s 1867 second edition of La Terre avant le déluge (“Earth before the Flood”), which included dramatic illustrations of savage men and women wearing animal skins and wielding stone axes, in place of the Garden of Eden shown in the 1863 edition.