23 May 2009


Ida the fossil primate isn't a missing link, but she's become a PR stunt

Google Logo Celebrating Discovery of Darwinius Masillae Fossil at Flickr.comIf you watched the news or read the paper last week, or surfed around the Web, you probably came across one or two or ten breathless news stories about Darwinius masillae (nicknamed "Ida"), a 47 million-year-old fossil primate that was described, over and over again, as a "missing link" in human evolution. It even showed up in the ever-changing Google home page graphic.

But something in the coverage—many things, really—set off my bullshit detectors. That's because, in years of watching science news, and getting a biology degree, I've learned that the sudden appearance of a story like this (whether a medical miracle cure, a high-energy physics experiment, or a paleontological discovery) indicates that something else is pushing the hype. Most often, there's solid science in there, but the meaning of the study is probably being overplayed, obscured, or misrepresented. And sure enough, that's the case here:

  • First of all, it is a wonderful fossil. A very old, essentially complete preserved skeleton and body impression of a juvenile lemur-like primate, which may or may not actually belong to the group of primates that later would include hominids, like us humans. That is super-cool. The fossil also apparently has an interesting history: it was first found over 25 years ago, and kicked around various private collections and museums in more than one piece until quite recently. Only in the past year has it been fully reassembled and analyzed, with the results published this week. That's news.

But, but, but, BUT...

  • Darwinius obviously name-checks Charles Darwin. That's grandiose to start with: scientists naming a fossil after Darwin obviously think it's pretty important, and are hyping it up even before anyone else has a chance to evaluate that claim. Yet for precisely that reason, the name feels like a PR stunt to me. Actually, it makes me think of the Disney division that calls its toys Baby Einstein.

  • The whole "missing link" business is a crock, whether the publishing scientists actually claim it or not. Evolutionary biology is 150 years old this year—old enough that there aren't any missing links. What I mean is, sure, scientists find new links in the relationships between living organisms all the time. They've been doing that since before Darwin and Wallace first figured out the mechanisms of natural selection.

    But the term missing implies that we're still waiting for evidence that organisms evolve, that science still needs something convincing—when we've had overwhelming evidence since Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 (and before!), while more keeps accumulating all the time. Even aside from all that, there's no indication that Darwinius is a human ancestor. It may be a link to something, and from something, but it's probably not a link from even older primates to us, which is what the news reports are saying.

  • The first paper about a fossil touted as such a very important, even revolutionary discovery should appear in one of the major global journals, such as Science or Nature, or maybe the Journal of Paleontology or another high-profile publication in the field. Instead, Darwinius is first appearing in PLoS ONE, an interesting but somewhat experimental online journal from the excellent Public Library of Science.

    I'm not knocking it, because PLoS ONE is legitimate, and peer-reviewed—indeed, it's doing what many scientists have argued for since the dawn of the Web in the '90s, which is make quality original scientific research available online without the insane subscription fees of traditional journals. But it's also less than three years old. If the Darwinius paper were otherwise unimpeachable, publishing it in PLoS ONE would be a great example of bringing important, leading-edge science into the 21st century of publishing. However, it felt to me instead that it appeared there because it was a fast way to get the paper out for a looming deadline.

  • Ah, the press conference. It's always suspicious when a scientific discovery is announced at a press conference. When the media event happens simultaneously with, or even before, publication of the formal paper. When experienced science journalists and fellow researchers get no chance to dig into the details before the story goes live to the wires. When there's obviously some other motive keeping the research secret until the Big Reveal.

And that's what it comes down to. It turns out that the U.S. History Channel paid what is surely a lot of money for exclusive access to the research team for a couple of years now, and that the TV special about Darwinius premieres this coming week. What's it called?

Yup, it's called The Link:

Missing link found! An incredible 95 percent complete fossil of a 47-million-year-old human ancestor has been discovered and, after two years of secret study, an international team of scientists has revealed it to the world. The fossil’s remarkable state of preservation allows an unprecedented glimpse into early human evolution.

That entire summary paragraph is crazy hyperbole, or, to put it bluntly, mostly wrong. By contrast, here's what the authors say in their conclusion to the paper itself:

We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.

Translated, that sentence means "we're not saying this fossil belongs to the big group of Old World primates that includes humans, but it's worth looking to see if the group it does belong to might be more closely related to other such primates than everyone previously thought." It's a good, and typically highly qualified, scientific statement. Yet the History Channel page takes the researchers' conclusion (not a human ancestor) and completely mangles it to claim the very opposite (yes a human ancestor)!

It seems that what happened here is that the research team, while (initially at least) working hard to produce a decent paper about an amazing and justifiably important fossil, got sucked into a TV production, rushed their publication to meet a deadline a week before the show is to air, and then let themselves get swept into a media frenzy that has seriously distorted, misrepresented, and even lied about what the fossil really means.

In short, a cool fossil find has turned into a PR stunt for an educationally questionable cable TV special.

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Wow! Nice work Derek!
Damn. Woodward and Bernsteinesque. Good job.
All those blogs I linked to -- most of them written by actual scientists -- got there first and made the analysis. I'm just summarizing. More Wikipedia than Woodward.
I agree that there was too much hype on this specially that the media branded it as the missing link. Almost all new discoveries that wants to be promoted gets labeled "missing link. Even King Kong was branded as the missing link.
Nicely done,Derek.
When this came out I immediately thought back to the Piltdown man who was big news when I was a teen.
Again,nicely done.

It's not quite Piltdown Man, which was an actual hoax. This is no hoax -- it's a real and beautiful and interesting discovery, but the media coverage entirely messes up Ida's value and meaning.
It is odd how the media and general public speak of a "missing link" as if there were such a thing! I was reading something not too long ago (can't remember what... maybe something by Dawkins?) that was talking about the way that creationists speak of there being "gaps" in the fossil record (as if it were logical to expect every being that has ever existed to have been fossilized) and pointed out that every time a new fossil that is intermediate between two known fossils is discovered, you actually create two "gaps" in the record where there used to be only one!
An interseting piece.
Bonjour, Monsieur Derek

Sehr interessant ...... und thought-provoking

I seem to recall somewhere in the Bible the suggestion :

"Put thy Trust not in Princes"

Perhaps we should not unreservedly put our trust in pScientists ... or at least in all that they suggest

.... but if indeed this tragically deceased creature were to be the ancestor of all you Homo pseudo Sapiens, now that would be most interesting

Je reste le vestre Servant obedient etc

Personally, I put more trust in scientists than in the Bible.