Introducing Ida: Major Primate Fossil Find For Evolution, Sketchy Salesmanship

The Sky News Headline sums it up: “Scientists have unveiled a 47-million-year-old fossilized skeleton of a monkey hailed as the missing link in human evolution.” Talus bones, primitive opposable digits, nails: Ida looks to be a treasure trove of evolutionary insight from a period of early anthropoid history that has been pretty sparse when it comes to fossils (the conditions for fossilization are extremely rare in the habitats that early primates likely lived).

But that headline also sums up my anxieties about how this discovery is going to be sold to the public. The media is notoriously awful at explaining evolutionary science, and right off the bat we have headlines calling Ida a “monkey” and touting the toxic term “missing link.” Why are those a problem?

For one thing, because “monkey” isn’t a particularly meaningful or coherent category in evolutionary biology. It causes confusion even when only used to describe modern animals (it’s not monophyletic) Applying it to a lemur-like fossil only compounds the confusion (modern lemurs are prosimians and, like apes, are somewhat arbitrarily not called monkeys).

Likewise, the term “missing link” seems to consistently give most laypeople the wrong idea about the significance of the transitional features found in fossils. Thanks to this, we’re likely due for yet another round of creationists gloating over the “revelation” that Ida is not, in fact, a direct ancestor of modern apes or humans, which is precisely what “missing link” means to most people.

I also have to say that I’m getting very uncomfortable with high-profile media roll-outs of new science: the news of this particular fossil find came with word of a book, movie, and a flashy website promoting Ida’s scientific significance called “The Link.” Science is supposed to proceed with worldwide deliberation and humility, with claims based on new finds presented first and foremost to other scientists who can then evaluate and critique them over time. Press releases and media presentations aimed first and foremost at astonishing the public seems too much like scientists lobbying for popular acclaim before settling technical debates with their peers.

That sort of thing can seriously distort the public understanding of science or even the scientific process itself. Worse, what if some of the claims made by the researchers are debatable or even partially mistaken? It happens all the time (and is a natural part of scientific inquiry), and like the cold fusion debacle and plenty of other famous fossil frauds, science is generally not well-served by premature and celebrations.

Still, the scientists’ promotional .pdf press release is probably the clearest source of public information regarding Ida (Darwinius masillae) and why she is so significant.

Breathless pullquotes about how a new find “confirms Darwin’s theory” often give people the impression that it was lacking in conclusive evidence before. But understood in context, it’s undeniable that this is a major new puzzle piece in our understanding of human ancestry. It’s just that this piece, and no piece, is ever “the” one that matters. It’s the overall picture that matters. More, I’m sure, to come.

Update: Guardian article, also peppered with “missing link” talk.

Update 2: Scienceblogger Brian Switek at Laelaps has the same take: it’s a phenomenal find, but the disturbing way in which the research has been sold and marketed to the media is just as big of a story. Philip Gingerich, one of the main author of the papers isn’t simply some neutral party: he’s a proponent for a whole range of claims about primate ancestry, not all of which may pan out, and not all of which are directly or fully supported by this fossil. This is why scientists are supposed to battle their way to a consensus long long before declaring victory in the media.

Update 3: Carl Zimmer (one of the best science journalists around) gathers some more skeptical reactions from scientists not directly involved with the fossil over at The Loom. Consensus? Phenomenal find, incredibly embarrassing and sloppy media hype. It’s not a surprise I suppose, but it is a real shame.

Update 4: I rag on ridiculous CNN headlines pretty regularly, but they’ve been nothing short of… professional about this story, unlike most other news outlets. Their headlines? “Scientists hail fossil as important find: Scientists piece together human ancestry. Perfect. There’s some iffy language in the article itself, but kudos to the Red Lady for not following it’s fellow media mongrels off a cliff on this one.

Update 5: Spoke too soon? Some other CNN.com editor decided that the previous headline wasn’t exciting enough, and updated it to “Fossil common ancestor of monkeys, humans?”

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~ by Drew on 2009/05/19.

14 Responses to “Introducing Ida: Major Primate Fossil Find For Evolution, Sketchy Salesmanship”

  1. Yeah.. because it gets people like myself unnecessarily riled up. Not because I don’t like evolution… but because I dislike the media clearly seeking ad revenue by stirring up the masses.

  2. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124235632936122739.html

    “The discovery has little bearing on a separate paleontological debate centering on the identity of a common ancestor of chimps and humans, which could have lived about six million years ago and still hasn’t been found… Scientists won’t necessarily agree about the details either. ‘Lemur advocates will be delighted, but tarsier advocates will be underwhelmed’ by the new evidence, says Tim White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘The debate will persist.'”

  3. Good post, even though I am partially guilty of the hype.

  4. Unless this discovery gave rise to humans, chimps, and apes, it will be a tough sell as a missing link.

  5. There’s little doubt that this is a missing link, but the concept of there even being a “the” missing link doesn’t make much sense anyhow. Too bad, then, that that seems to be the only concept that the media seems capable of headlining.

    The significance of fossils is not who their direct descendants are, but what they tell us about the entire family tree.

  6. Cold fusion was not a debacle. It was replicated by thousands of scientists, in experiments described in over 1,000 peer-reviewed papers. See: http://lenr-canr.org/

    • Cold fusion most certainly was a debacle. Not cold fusion as a possible concept, but the original premature announcement by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann that they had developed a truly replicable process to do it, pitched hard to the public and the media before those claims could really be substantiated. Myself, I remain skeptical even of the current efforts, as does most of the scientific community.

      • You wrote:

        “Cold fusion most certainly was a debacle. Not cold fusion as a possible concept, but the original premature announcement by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann that they had developed a truly replicable process to do it . . .”

        That is wrong in several ways:

        First, the peer-reviewed paper was in print when the announcement was made. With 1989 technology it took several days for copies to circulate but with today’s technology everyone would have had a copy in 5 minutes.

        Second, they never said it was replicable. You can watch the entire press conference on YouTube and you will see they were very conservative and they made no claims like that. On the contrary they said it was difficult to reproduce. I know roughly 2,000 professional scientists who did reproduce and not one has ever said it was easy. Most say it was the most challenging experiment he or she ever did. (And most of these people have been doing electrochemistry for decades.)

        Third, Fleischmann did not want to go public, but events forced his hand. He has told me many times that he wanted to keep the research secret for another 5 years. He asked the DoD to make it classified. Knowing him as I do, I expect that after 5 years he would have asked for anther 5 years of secret funding, and so on, to the present day. It is cruel for me to say this, but I think it was better for the field that it was revealed then, although of course it destroyed the careers of Fleischmann and Pons, and dozens of others who replicated and had the temerity to publish in defiance of the academic political opposition. Even if it had been kept under wraps another 5 or 10 years, the opposition would have been just as harsh. Just as many scientists would have been demoted, attacked and fired.

        “Myself, I remain skeptical even of the current efforts, as does most of the scientific community.”

        Most of scientific community has not read the literature, so their opinions do not count. You have to read dozens of papers and think very carefully before arriving at any conclusion. Cold fusion is not easy to understand, and there is widespread confusion about what is claimed and what has been done.

        For example, the Scientific American published an article describing various reasons to doubt the results. These “reasons” were invented out of whole cloth. They were completely at variance with the actual experimental claims. The reason is simple: the editor who wrote the article told me that he has not read any papers on cold fusion because “reading papers is not my job.” He knows nothing about the subject. Apparently he dredged up some nonsensical rumors from the Internet or the New York Times. You can read his letter to me and compare his article to the actual facts in the News Section at LENR-CANR.org.

      • Another thing I should mention is that cold fusion was, in fact, replicated, albeit with great difficulty. So in that sense it was a “truly replicable process.” Within a year the number of published, peer-reviewed replications far exceeded the number of published failures. F. Will tallied 92 reported successes in Sept. 1990. The success rate for individual researchers back then was roughly 30%, which was far better than the success rate for transistors circa 1950, and roughly 1000 times better than cloning today. The ability to replicate easily has never been taken as a criteria to accept or reject a claim, in any case.

        Some people claim that there were many unreported failures, but I have seen no evidence for this. I recently did a tally of positive and negative papers, see Rothwell, J., “Tally of Cold Fusion Papers.” 2009

  7. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/19/business/media/19fossil.html?_r=1

    [D]espite a television teaser campaign with the slogan This changes everything and comparisons to the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination, the significance of this discovery may not be known for years. An article to be published on Tuesday in PLoS ONE, a scientific journal, will report more prosaically that the scientists involved said the fossil COULD be a stem group that was a precursor to higher primates, with the caveat, but we are NOT advocating this.

  8. Thanks for pointing that article out Uri, it’s dead on. I’m really getting the sense that these “history” and “science” cable networks may be major problems going forward for “history” and “science.”

  9. […] That Shallow Fellow: Introducing Ida: Major Primate Fossil Find For Evolution, Sketchy Salesmanship […]

  10. […] Journalism Tracker again, Science Insider, Neurodojo, it is NOT junk, Cubbi, The Daily Nightly, That Shallow Fellow, The Observatory, Columbia Journalism Review, Why Evolution is True, Ecographica, The Opinionator […]

  11. “Primate fossil ‘not an ancestor'” (BBC, October, 21 2009)

    “Dr Erik Seiffert says that Ida belonged to a group more closely linked to lemurs than to monkeys, apes or us… [Dr Seiffert continues] “They are more closely related to lemurs and lorises than they are to tarsirs or monkeys, apes and humans. This study would effectively REMOVE Ida from our ancestry.”

    See: “Convergent evolution of anthropoid-like adaptations in Eocene adapiform primates” (Nature)

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