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?”