May 20, 2009

The ONE fossil

I don't even know where to start. The full media onslaught that is "Ida" or Darwinius masillae has been all the buzz since it was announced yesterday. Buzz, buzz. But let's start from the beginning by going directly to the source - this is from the PLoS ONE community blog:

We at PLoS ONE have been kept busy over the past few weeks, as we worked hard to oversee the peer review and publication of an exciting new article by an international team of scientists, led by Dr Jørn Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum. The other authors were: Jens Franzen, Philip Gingerich, Jörg Habersetzer, Wighart von Koenigswald and B. Holly Smith.

The article, entitled, Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology, documents the discovery of a remarkably complete and well-preserved fossil of an extinct early primate in Messel Pit, Germany, a site of great significance for fossils of the Eocene epoch.

The creature, named Darwinius masillae by the paper’s authors, lived an estimated 47 million years ago and is the first example of a previously unknown genus of primate. The fossil, known as “Ida,” is 95% complete and includes the skeleton, an outline of the creature’s body and the contents of her gut, allowing the researchers to reconstruct her life history and diet. Ida was an agile, young, herbivorous, female, about the size of a small monkey, who feasted on fruit and leaves in the trees of the Messel rain forest and died, aged about nine months, at the edge of a volcanic lake.

Unfortunately the actual science behind the project has been overshadowed by the embarrassingly sensationalistic media strategy that accompanies it - including this website with the ridiculous tagline "The Link" and this "trailer" from the History Channel.

Frankly it's a bit overwhelming to take all of it in, but there are some good or OK reports from The New York Times, BBC and The Times, and some very ghastly ones like the one from Sky News or the aforementioned trailer.

For those that want a more balanced view, Carl Zimmer comments on the media hype and gathers some opinions from leading palaeontologists ("it is a rather vanilla-flavored adapiform that does not differ appreciably from other members of that well-known group of Eocene primates"); Laelaps and Pharyngula review the scientific findings, because there actually are some, and Not Exactly Rocket Science is just plain funny.

It would be easy to blame the media for the hype, but it seems the scientific group that discovered and analyzed the fossil - no doubt aided by a nice team of publicists and TV producers - are behind it. It's all about the tie-ins, the book deal, the contract with National Geographic and BBC et.c. It's all business and not science. It seems like they want to force the iconic status, almost in the mold of Lucy, complete with a name and an iconic image, describing it as "an asteroid falling down to earth", "something that the world has never seen before", a "rosetta stone" of evolution, "a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything" et.c. It's ridiculous. And what's worse, the faulty reporting in the media affects the public understanding of evolution in an incredibly negative way and reinforces old misconceptions that evolutionary scientists have been working very hard to dispel. Even worse still is that it's so simple:

Is Darwinius a "missing link"
Don't be silly. Of course not. Nobody uses the term "missing link" in evolution. It pre-supposes evolution takes place as a linear progression between now living organisms, which is false. All organisms that ever existed and will ever exist are "missing links" between any one form and another and every gap that is filled by a "missing link" creates another 2 gaps on each side of it. All in all, the term is useless.

Darwinius represents an important step in human evolution
This perspective unjustifiably paints evolution as the process that made humans. Darwinius lived approx. 47 million years ago, the common ancestor between us humans and our closest relative, the chimpanzee, lived approx. 5-7 million years ago. Do the math. At most, Darwinius represents a transition in the evolution that eventually would lead to humans... as well as many other primates. It's not even likely that it is a direct primate ancestor. There are no surefire ways of determining if a fossil represents an organism from which a now living organism descends directly, or if it represents a "side branch". It's not even easy to do so with our closest extinct relatives like Australopithecus afarensis, much less an organism that is 47 million years old. Calling it "the earliest known human ancestor" is just preposterous.

Darwinius shows the connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom
This really stupefies me. So, until now we had no reason to believe the human species is an animal? Darwinius might give us insight into early primate evolution, but our place within the animal tree is not disputed. This is not in debate and this is not why we look for fossils.

Darwinius finally confirms the theory of evolution
This is an atrociously unfounded statement. Everything we know abut living organisms "confirms" evolution. None of it makes sense unless there's evolution. Evolution has been confirmed times innumerable by a wealth of independent observations from many different fields. This really yanks my chain! Evolutionary theory doesn't stand and fall on transition fossils!

That some of it comes from the media is expected, but that some of it comes from the scientists behind the discovery is unforgivable.

Franzen, J., Gingerich, P., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., von Koenigswald, W., & Smith, B. (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

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1 comment:

  1. It's when these things happen that it becomes possible to see which science bloggers fall for the hype, and which put the thing in perspective. If you too have been following the different reports on, you have perhaps like me gotten a few laughs out of comparing the different bloggers' perspectives!