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Monday, May 25, 2009

Human evolution: Water flows uphill? Science journalists protest latest hype, don't just fall in line ...

Here's what's really interesting about the current "Ida" freakout (= the supposed "missing link" between primates such as humans and earlier animals). Some science journalists, instead of falling in with the hype, have started to try to rescue the discipline of paleontology from the raves of pop science.

Could've happened sooner, but never mind.

In "Origin of the Specious", TimesonLine (May 24, 2009), Jonathan Leake and John Harlow write
Such finds are usually unveiled to the world through the sober pages of an academic journal but for Ida nothing less than a glittering press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York would do.

There, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, stood beside Ida’s glass box, his arm around a schoolgirl who was wearing a T-shirt advertising a television tie-in. It read: “The Link. This changes everything.” The mayor repeated the missing link claim.

Later the scientists who have studied Ida outlined the details of their research. Their pronouncements were just as extravagant.
But that's not what they said to other scientists:
... in the research paper detailing the discovery, the scientists had painted a rather different picture. Ida, they said, “could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates (including humans) evolved but we are not advocating this here”.
In fact,as Leake and Harlow detail, it is a huge PR hype. The also report,
Robert Foley, professor of human evolution at Cambridge University, believes many people misunderstand the huge timescales involved in assessing fossils.

“This animal lived around 47m years ago but human-like creatures only appeared in the last 2m years,” he said. “That’s a gap of around 45m years with many other species lying between us and that era. Any one of them could be called a missing link. Really, the term is meaningless.”
Not only that, we have no way of knowing whether "Ida" just died out, and didn't leave any descendants. Primates could just as likely - or more so - have descended from one of many similar species.

Ida "changes everything" only in a world where hype replaces science. Good for Leake and Harlow for refusing to be intimidated by blowhards, and talking about this. There are enough scandals in science already.

See also:

Human evolution: Hype, tripe, trumpets, and (lagging some way after, way out of breath) truth and realism

Human evolution: The spin machine in top gear

Related issue: Human evolution: Quest for primitive human backfires

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