A new law of nature has been revealed: the Law of Predictable Media Reactions to Missing Link Announcements. Once again, the science news media have gone ape over the latest bone story emerging from the paleoanthropology industry. In keeping with tradition, reporters are saying this will “rewrite the steps of our evolution.” And once again, a contender gets his 15 minutes of fame, showered in media hype. If the LPMR law holds, we can expect to see his claim discredited when the next contender gets his or her turn.
For now, it’s Lee Berger’s turn in the limelight, accompanied by his pet monkey, Australopithecus sediba. Wait—isn’t this a re-run? (See the coverage last year on 4/08/2010.) Well, Lee garnered another round, apparently; Michael Balter at Science Magazine profiled Berger with the headline, “Paleoanthropologist Now Rides High on a New Fossil Tide.” Ann Gibbons in Science even showed a photo of Lee at the dig with his son Matthew and dog Tau. Other contenders know the protocol to lay low till their turn, lest too much infighting confuse the public. They know most of the unwashed masses will have forgotten Berger when the next contender gets a turn to shine in the footlights. (Michael Balter in Science gave a glimpse of one in the wings: Ron Clarke, who may get to show off his pet monkey “Little Foot” in a couple of months.)
Science Magazine devoted its cover to Au. sediba, with three News Focus stories inside and five scientific papers analyzing the skull, pelvis and hand of this “hominid” (ape), raising tantalizing speculations that the creature was on its way to humanhood. Predictably, the media jumped. There is no possible way to list the breathless headlines spawned from the announcement – a Google search on “sediba” yields 285,000 hits – but here are a few samples:
- Closest Human Ancestor May Rewrite Steps in Our Evolution (Live Science)
- South African Fossils Halfway Between Ape and Human (New Scientist)
- Fossil discovery supports evolutionary link between Australopiths and Homo (PhysOrg)
- Human Ancestor May Put Twist in Origin Story, New Studies Say (National Geographic)
- How African fossils put new spin on human origins story (BBC News)
- Pre-human fossils viewed as ‘game-changer’ for evolution (Associated Press via MSNBC)
The fact that all the reporters had the artwork and boilerplate ready the day Science went online shows they were tipped off ahead of time – another standard practice in the paleoanthropology industry. The moans of Carl Zimmer last year, “Oh no, not another missing link,” were drowned out in the din. Some concessions were made, though. AP reporter Randolph Schmid was thoughtful enough to remind readers, buried deep in his article, that scientists mostly eschew the term “missing link,” preferring instead the terms “transition [sic] form” or “intermediary form,” as if it makes a difference.
Problem: All the reports say that this monkey upsets another applecart. Previously, paleoanthropologists expected that brain size would increase with other human-like traits, like minute changes in feet that might support ground walking, slight changes in hands that might be able to make tools (no tools were found), and a slightly larger pelvis that might indicate Sediba ladies were starting to feel the pains of childbirth. The problem is that Sediba still had a small brain.
But that’s only a minor matter, because the LPMR law has a corollary: the new discovery must be earth-shattering. There must be surprises. These surprises must force scientists to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew (shy of evolution itself). Schmid was careful to quote a “scientist” with the authoritative opinion that this fossil “force a rethinking of how traits are coupled together in human evolution.” Other reporters echoed the refrain in their own words: National Geographic spoke of “tough questions” from “completely unexpected” aspects of the fossil. Ann Gibbons in Science reveled in the “Exquisite Paleo-Puzzle” the bones reveal. “These new findings could rewrite long-standing theories,” Charles Q. Choi wrote for Live Science.
Such language follows standard practice. It never endangers Darwin, though, because another part of the LPMR is to reassure readers that, despite the puzzles, knowledge about human evolution has been advanced. Michael Marshall at New Scientist demonstrated how to parlay a puzzle into a plus: “Berger says it’s not surprising that the fossil is a confusing mixture, pointing out that that is exactly what we would expect in a transitional fossil.” National Geographic quoted a member of the paleoanthropology guild saying, “These are fossils that have to be dealt with, and that’s not a bad thing at all.” But of course. It would be a tragedy if fossils were so clear-cut it left guild members with nothing left to do.
Evidential support for the LPMR is supplied by 11 years of coverage of these stories in Creation-Evolution Headlines. A search bar (above, right) is supplied for those needing confirmation. (See the search bar at the old site for stories pre-dating June 2011.)
When will reporters ever learn? Maybe when the public learns, and stops buying it. One by one, we can make a difference. Rescue a dupe today.