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When I tried to read Dilbert this morning, showed me this instead:

I reckon that the sequence was:

FIrst, discussions of evolution focused on the concept of a "missing link" in the fossil record. According to the OED, this actually began with with a remark about purely geological history:

1851 C. LYELL Elem. Geol. xvii. 220 A break in the chain implying no doubt many missing links in the series of geological monuments which we may some day be able to supply. 1862Caledonian Mercury 11 Jan. 7/6 Until the existence of some animal was discovered which should supply the missing link between man and the gorilla, there was a great gap even in Mr Darwin's theory of the origin of species.

This phrase quickly took on various figurative uses:

1862 G. DU MAURIER Let. Oct. in Young G. du Maurier (1951) 178, I..said that if he would take the trouble to make a post mortem on the Irish roughs I intend to kill next Sunday in the Park, he might convince himself that the ‘missing link’ had been found.  1863 G. O. TREVELYAN Competition Wallah (1864) v. 113 The performances of these thin-legged, miserable, rice-fed ‘missing links’ are perfectly inexplicable according to our notions of muscular development. 1904 ‘O. HENRY’ Cabbages & Kings 22 The faces of missing links. 1990 in J. E. Lighter Hist. Dict. Amer. Slang (1997) II. 561/2 No date with the missing link tonight?

(Ben Zimmer discusses the history of the expression in much more detail here.)

Independently , there developed a series of illustrations of evolutionary progress, showing a procession of successively "more evolved" creatures  becoming taller and more erect. (See here for some discussion, with a couple of examples of the many visual puns that have been overlaid on it, and a reference to Stephen Jay Gould's Iconography of an Expectation, which gives a dozen or so more.)

Recently, Dave Whamond created another such visual pun, bringing in an imaginary photographer (in an enlightenment-era wig and lace collar? who is he supposed to be?), and adding the joke that someone named "Link" should have been in the procession, but is "missing". This is a verbal pun on "missing link", and a visual pun on the stereotyped evolutionary-progress image.

FInally, added another layer of pun, in which "link" is not the evolutionary "missing link", nor the guy named Link missing from the photographer's posed picture, but the "404 Not Found" missing hyper-link to the Dilbert strip that I was hoping to read.

Off hand, I can't think of any similarly dense meta-puns, but no doubt LL readers will be able to fill the gap.


  1. xyzzyva said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 7:59 am

    If you could somehow work this Link in there naturally, all loose ends would be tied.

  2. John S. Wilkins said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    "Missing link" is actually an outgrowth of the Great Chain of Being (or, as Bonnet called it, the echelle des etres). Here's Jussieu in 1789:

    "[The natural method] … links all kinds of plants by an unbroken bond, and proceeds step by step from simple to composite, from the smallest to the largest in a continuous series, as a chain whose links represent so many species or groups of species, or like a geographical map on which species, like districts, are distributed by territories and provinces and kingdoms."

    A missing link is therefore a link that fails to complete the progression. You'll find it in Pope's Essay on Man (1744):


    See thro' this air, this ocean, and this earth
    All matter quick, and bursting into birth:
    Above, how high progressive life may go!
    Around, how wide! how deep extend below!
    Vast chain of being! which from God began;
    Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
    Beast, bird, fish, insect, who no eye can see,
    No glass can reach; from infinite to thee;
    From thee to nothing.–On superior powers
    Were we to press, inferior might on ours;
    Or in the full creation leave a void,
    Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroyed:
    From Nature's chain whatever link you like,
    Tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

  3. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    The Evolution Cartoon (and its evolution) is a fascinating topic.
    Here's a short essay on the topic, together with a few choice illustrations:

  4. h. s. gudnason said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    And there's a Simpsons couch gag in which Homer single-handedly progresses through both biological and cultural evolution, ending up meeting his family on their couch. At one point he passes Moe the bartender, headed in the other direction.

  5. Albtraum said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    I guess it's an interesting "meta-pun" in the academic sense, but ugh that cartoon is unfunny. Maybe if there had been… a PHYSICAL GAP of some sort in the row of beings being photographed? So that viewers would be able to see that someone was missing? Which is the entire point of the cartoon? Oh well.

  6. John Cowan said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    Stephen Jay Gould.

    I think the photographer's collar is too small to be Enlightenment, and I don't see how a wig that far up on one's forehead could stay on (without glue or such); I think that's just his personal clothing and hair style.

    It's remarkable how empty the notion of the "missing link" really is, for something that was believed in for centuries. If someone were to complain of the lack of a missing link between lions and tigers, and then actually discovered such a feline, one could then ask, "Where are the missing links between lions and new-felines and between new-felines and tigers?", and so on forever, in a parody of the denseness of the rational numbers.

  7. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    I suppose it would be too pedantic to complain that a 404 error isn't a missing link, but rather a link to a missing page.

    Still, I like the idea of using an even vaguely relevant cartoon for a 404 page in that context.

  8. Boris said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    I don't think it's as dense, but it's related and clever. The Alps Roads site (all about roads) shows the image of a US 404 shield with the caption "The road you have followed does not exist.". This road really does not exist. It is a mistaken shield found in a few places in Delaware for Delaware State Route 404.

  9. Acilius said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    @Albtraum: Maybe there are more levels of reference in the comic than Mark has listed. At level one, the photographer declares "Link" missing; at level two, the reader supplies the familiar "Ascent of Man" image and the phrase "the Missing Link," making a visual pun.

    That isn't all the reader must supply- as you point out, vital parts of the joke are missing. We not only have to supply the "Ascent of Man" image and the key phrase, we have to supply an image of this scene that is different in major ways from the scene the cartoonist has actually drawn. The fact that the "Ascent of Man" image is so familiar and the phrase "the Missing Link" is so haunting that the cartoonist can rely on us not only to supply them, but to mentally redraft his panel for him, is the joke at this third level of reference.

    The photographer's costume may also be explicable at this third level, or it may require yet a higher degree of reading. Maybe there's a fourth level of reference in the strip at which we make a joke of the "Ascent of Man" image and the phrase "the Missing Link" as anachronisms, anachronistic as the man's clothing would have be in the age of photography.

    Then of course we have the embedding of the comic to illustrate a 404 message, giving us another level of reference as we connect the multiple meanings of "link" one with the other. Beyond that level, we must also attend to the fact that the message appears when the reader is looking for is of course a refuge for diehard readers of Andy Capp, Marmaduke, Nancy, and other old strips that have been vanishing from newspapers in recent decades. This compels a reading not only of the text, but of the intertextual relations between this panel and the Andy Capp strip the reader was expecting. The intertext between this panel and an Andy Capp strip is of course quite different from the intertext a reader will supply when reading a blog maintained by academic linguists. The Andy Capp reader is unlikely to import Stephen Jay Gould as part of the joke, much more likely to see a lampoon of the view of nature as cabinet of curiosities presented in Ripley's Believe It or Not, The Phantom, etc.

    It's lunchtime, and I've spent so much time writing this message that I can't go get the fish and chips for which I've had a craving since mentioning Andy Capp. Curse you, Language Log!

  10. Ellen said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    I suppose it would be too pedantic to complain that a 404 error isn't a missing link, but rather a link to a missing page.

    Seems to me that, via linguistic drift, "link" can refer not only to the actual link, but also to the item linked to.

  11. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    I had a student once whose name was Link. Scott Link. He never came to class. When I was taking roll, I always wanted to ask if anyone had found the missing Link, but I thought that was just a little too mean. He was rather brutish looking, I'm afraid.

  12. empty said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Is there a place for a lynx in this joke somewhere?

  13. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    @ empty
    probably not because, you know, "The laughter of the Lesser Lynx is often insincere"

  14. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    It would definitely have been better as a joke about Zelda.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    Acilius, great comment, covering all the bases. I agree with you about the anachronism of the man's wig/hairstyle and costume (which only need to suggest the 18th century). The entire relevant chapter of SJ Gould's book is available for reading (no missing pages), and in addition to a variety of cartoon examples it contains the relevant quote from Alexander Pope, so perhaps that is who the photographer is meant to represent.

  16. Chris said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    @empty: I don't know if you know this already or not, but one of the earliest Web browsers was called Lynx.

  17. Acilius said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    @Richard Howland-Bolton: That's a great essay! Thanks very much for linking to it.

  18. Acilius said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    @Marie-Lucie: Thanks!

  19. Dan T. said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    Lynx is, I believe, still being maintained and updated as an open source project.

    Confusingly, there's a competing text-mode browser called Links.

  20. D.O. said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    There was once a whole theory of ontogenesis repeating phylogenesis, now as I understand, almost completely refuted. Nevertheless, pictures of individual species' development in progressive stages are very common. Supposedly they do not have missing links. The question related to the post is, whether original Descent of Man progressions were shown to support this analogy.

  21. D.O. said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    Nobody says it out loud, but I am afraid that the gentleman manning the camera on the original cartoon is the artist's perseption of Darwin or Huxley, or someone from that time.

  22. HeyTeach said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    So where exactly ARE those transitional forms that we've been talking around? If we're not done evolving, then WE must be some transitional form to something else higher. Who qualifies for THAT honor? Surely Language Loggers are up there somewhere.

  23. marie-lucie said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    D.O. Darwin or Huxley

    Have you ever seen pictures of Darwin or Huxley? Where are the beards? Darwin was the subject of a lot of caricatures in his own time, and none of them look remotely like the man with the camera. Huxley did not have such a huge beard, but he did have one. The picture is consistent with 18th century fashions, not with those of the 19th century.

  24. Acilius said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    Maybe it's supposed to be Erasmus Darwin:

  25. Bob C said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

    Slightly off-topic, when I move my cursor over the cartoon, a box opens that says "Click to embiggen." Cute.

  26. Katherine said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    HeyTeach, we might be done evolving. Our environment changes so quickly these days that it doesn't get a chance to select which mutations are beneficial and which aren't, as what is beneficial for one generation might not be for the next. Coupled with modern medicine and technology, which allows nearly everyone to live long enough to reproduce (at least in the Western World) and I think you'll find we are the pinnacle of evolution, at least for the moment. Who knows what the next world-wide disaster will bring?

  27. peter said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    Katherine said (October 15, 2009 @ 5:50 pm)

    "as what is beneficial for one generation might not be for the next."

    This statement is true of all periods and species, not just for humans at the present. Because this statement is true, it makes no sense within evolutionary theory to talk about "progress" or "ascent" of species over time. Characteristics which are not deleterious for survival of a population in one environment or at one time may well be deleterious for that same population in another environment or at a later time.

  28. Enlaces diarios said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    […] Google Reader: iPhone PS/2 keyboard interface with Arduino, Metapun, Sheeps, Photoduino, control automático de disparo en Canon EOS, The Lost Lesson of Instant […]

  29. The other Mark P said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

    and I think you'll find we are the pinnacle of evolution

    Uggh! Evolution is not teleological!

    Evolution does not head in a direction towards better life-forms. It is a statistical response to changing environment and should not be tied up with concepts of "better" or "higher".

  30. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    My favorite 404 error message of all time remains the SIPB "haiku" one, which had at one time much more visibility than the current incarnation at (or pick your favorite other nonexistent URI on that server). This was the 404 message on before the MIT administration took that name over for official use (see

  31. D.O. said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    marie-lucie, that's why I was afraid of the possibility

  32. Andrew F said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 5:15 am

    xyzzyva, my first thought was, "of course Link isn't in the sequence of human evolution! He's an elf!"

  33. marie-lucie said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    D.O., you mean the possibility that the cartoonist himself confused the time periods? I find this a little far-fetched, when there have been so many pictures of Darwin in the media in the past year or so.

  34. Acilius said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    @the other Mark P: "Evolution is not teleological!

    "Evolution does not head in a direction towards better life-forms. It is a statistical response to changing environment and should not be tied up with concepts of "better" or "higher"."

    Certainly evolution should not be tied up with concepts of "better" or "higher." Where I do have a reservation is in your suggestion that teleology should be tied up with them.

    In Aristotle, teleology is simply the doctrine that processes have characteristic results. I doubt that many people would label this a mystical or anti-scientific attitude. Later thinkers tried to use Aristotle's theories as the basis for proofs of the existence of God, succeeding only in obscuring the useful parts of those theories and stigmatizing them as somehow peculiar to dogmatic theology or the woollier sort of metaphysics.

  35. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    @Acillius thanks for the thanks.
    Btw your blog is great too!
    I really liked the piece on the Peace Prize.
    I'd better end this backslappyfest (gosh, that's joshwhedonoidal!),

    and just say I neva meta pun I didn't like.

  36. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    josswhedonoidal I mean, never was good at proof whedning

  37. Acilius said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    @R H-B: YW & TY.

  38. The Evolution of the Evolution Cartoon « Panther Red said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    […] Log.  But here's a short essay that radio personality Richard Howland-Bolton linked to in a comment on a post there. […]

  39. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    Ellen: No doubt. Or simply the natural linguistic confusion of an object with its reference, or the representation of its reference.

  40. HeyTeach said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    @Katherine, peter, other Mark P., Acilius, and any "missing link" I overlooked here :) :

    Why not tied with concepts of “better” or “higher?” Evolution is ALWAYS tied to those concepts. Macro-evolution is ALWAYS presented – in theory, practical teaching, examples, pictures, language etc. – as a phenomenon with the “higher,” “better,” “more developed” life form as the later product. There are no evolution-as-origin models in which organisms decline from more-developed to less-developed. But I’m not just talking about human evolution. Animal environments that have remained more-or-less constant through the years have absolutely failed to produce identified transitional forms between lower organisms and higher ones.

    Macro-evolution MUST present itself as the mechanism by which species improve, or else it would be useless as an explanation of origins. Even in micro-evolution, who tries for a weaker ox? Or an uglier dog? Or scrawnier tomatoes? No, we always breed for the best, in our attempt to give the process a helping hand.

    As far as “done evolving” is concerned, I don’t buy it. If evolution’s a fact, it’s always a fact, always in motion “upward,” always changing organisms to something better. I’m not seeing that in evidence anywhere. Systems deteriorate. Evolution contradicts entropy.

  41. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    @HeyTeach, not to try to turn Language Log into 'Bio Blog' but there are various ways of judging evolutionary success. For example take the count of the number of individuals living at a given time (like, say, the Present, i.e. 1950) and the '“higher,” “better,” “more developed”' life forms don't seem to be doing so well. I mean Americans have been killing '99.9% of household germs' for ages and all they've achieved is stronger, better household germs, and moreover ones that are now bearing quite a grudge against us.

  42. ASG said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    The visual pun in this comic seems much clumsier (and thus much less funny) to me than a more elegant version that I've seen used on blog sites from time to time. It has the familiar "ascent of man" sequence with one figure missing. In its place is the outline of a box with a little red X in the top left corner. Here is a picture:

    Your mind doesn't have to work any harder to make the connection, but the reward I think is much greater since the joke in this form is a lot less wordy and crowded.

  43. สัตว์แปลก said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 3:53 am

    Ellen: No doubt. Or simply the natural linguistic confusion of an object with its reference, or the representation of its reference.

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