Ho-Hum, Another Human Missing Link
Shoppers typically are wary of over-hyped ads, knowing that any claim sounding too good to be true probably is. What would they think about media reports claiming a new fossil monkey is the “8th wonder of the world”?
The scientific paper in PLoS ONE1 had hardly been published before the press went ape, as if on cue, at the buzzphrase missing link. A couple of press releases about the new lemur fossil of a female nicknamed Ida are calm and rational, like the one by Gautum Naik at the Wall Street Journal. If what he wrote is true, that existing debates will persist in spite of the fossil, then the statements made by other reporters are clearly over the top (sampling below).
All that was found was a well-preserved fossil in Germany that is 95% lemur, alleged to be 47 million years old. The only things it lacks from modern lemurs is a specialized tooth for grooming, a specialized claw for grooming, and a wet nose (although “We can’t say whether it had a wet nose or not,” American Paleontological Society president Philip Gingerich confessed). Other than that, the fossil looks like a modern lemur. To evolutionists, it bears on debates over whether the common ancestor of all monkeys, apes, and (presumably) us, was a tarsier or a lemur. It has nothing to do with downstream questions about human evolution from chimpanzee-like apes which, according to the Darwinian story, diverged 41 million years later. As Naik pointed out, this fossil is neither likely to convince creationists, who deny humans evolved from any lower mammal, nor the evolutionists who believe that a tarsier-like animal was the ancestor of the primates. Even this UK Guardian article answers the question whether Ida was a missing link with a firm “yes and no.” It says, “The paper’s scientific reviewers asked that they tone down their original claims that the fossil was on the human evolutionary line,” stating that was the job of the scientific community to sort out.
One would never know any of this from some of stories in the press. Science Daily labeled it “extraordinary” and freely made use of the Darwinian buzzwords transitional, primitive, and ancestor. This fossil is like a “Rosetta Stone” we are told, and “world heritage” in its significance. It is the “first link to all humans” said one evolutionist. David Attenborough, who is preparing a TV documentary called Link about this specimen, said, “This little creature is going to show us our connection with all the rest of the mammals. The link they would have said until now is missing … it is no longer missing.”
One might wonder how Attenborough could have a documentary ready to air by May 25 if this is just being announced now. Well, it was part of a two-year study that was kept top secret by an international team of scientists, who apparently had plenty of time to get the press ready for a blitz of hype. And hype they did: National Geographic ran the bold headline, “MISSING LINK Photos: New Fossil Links Humans, Lemurs?” Sky News seemed to run out of superlatives in its coverage. The fossil is “described by experts as the ’eighth wonder of the world’,” Alex Watts reported; “They say its impact on the world of palaeontology will be ‘somewhat like an asteroid falling down to Earth’.” Charles Darwin has been vindicated: “Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the then radical, outlandish ideas he came up with during his time aboard the Beagle.” Quoting Attenborough: Darwin “would have been thrilled” to have seen this fossil:
“This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of the mammals,” he said.
“This is the one that connects us directly with them.
“Now people can say ‘okay we are primates, show us the link’.
“The link they would have said up to now is missing – well it’s no longer missing.”
Jorn Hurum, Norwegian paleontologist who obtained the fossil, got a big callout quote: “This fossil is really a part of our history; this is part of our evolution, deep, deep back into the aeons of time, 47 million years ago.” The fossil was admired “like a cherished Van Gogh or Picasso painting.” Hurum was so in awe of it, “he could not sleep for two days.” The creature lived when “the first whales, horses, bats and monkeys emerged” and is the “final piece of Darwin’s jigsaw,” Watts wrote. He ended with the triumph of science over religion: the reaction of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife to Darwin’s theory, “famously” worrying, “Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.” To which Watts added in triumph, “Now, it certainly is.”
The BBC News, surprisingly, seemed to smell a conspiracy:
But some independent experts, awaiting an opportunity to see the new fossil, are sceptical of the claim. And they have been critical of the hype surrounding the presentation of Ida. The fossil was launched amid great fanfare at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, by the city’s mayor. Although details of the fossil have only just been published in a scientific journal – PLoS One – there is already a TV documentary and book tie-in….
Independent experts are keen to see the new fossil but somewhat sceptical of any claim that it could be “a missing link”. Dr Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature, said the term itself was misleading and that the scientific community would need to evaluate its significance. “It’s extremely nice to have a new find and it will be well-studied,” he said. But he added that it was not likely to be in the same league as major discoveries such as “Flores man” or feathered dinosaurs.
Nevertheless, the media frenzy seemed urged on by the discoverers themselves. The timing seems hardly coincidental. “They have called her Darwinius masillae,” the BBC News noted, “to celebrate her place of origin and the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.” Hurum also told the BBC it was “a dream come true.” And Chris Beard, American paleontologist, was “awestruck” – not by the fossil, but “by the publicity machine surrounding the new fossil.”
Live Science also reported the suspicious-looking ballyhoo around this fossil. “Scientists unveiled the fossil with much pomp and circumstance at the American Museum of Natural History, where even New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on hand to extol the discovery,” the report by Clara Moskowitz said. “….The fossil has been shrouded in secrecy and its unveiling unfolded more like a Hollywood production than a scientific discovery.” Moskowitz reported superlatives coming from the mouth of Jorn Hurum, team lead, almost as if to mock them: “This is like a holy grail for paleontology,” he said; “This fossil will probably be pictured in all the text books for the next 100 years.”
When asked if the publicity surrounding the fossil was overdone (the History Channel touts the discovery as “the most important find in 47 million years”), Hurum said he didn’t think so.
“That’s part of getting science out to the public to get attention,” he said. “I don’t think that’s so wrong.”
The scientific paper, as expected, is much more reserved in tone. “We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.” In fact, the most remarkable thing about the fossil was its exceptional preservation – and its shady past. The fossil had a checkered history. It was found by private collectors in 1983 and split into two halves. One half was doctored up by a Wyoming fossil collector to make it look complete, reported Science Daily. The other half stood on a German collector’s wall till 2006, then fell into the hands of a private dealer, who presented it to Prof. Hurum at a fossil trade show. Sky News said Hurum had to raise the equivalent of $1 million US dollars to obtain it – ten times the price of rare fossils. No one is saying whether he is hyping the fossil to help recoup his investment.
Robert Crowther, writing for the intelligent-design blog Evolution News and Views seemed to enjoy watching the evolutionists do their May Day dance around their new monkey puzzle tree – which tree is, by the way, another “living” fossil.
Update 05/21/2009: Indications that the media circus is collapsing started appearing on science blogs and science news sites. The stauchly pro-evolution site Live Science, for instance, had no less than four critical articles: by Robert Roy Britt, Clara Moskowitz, Benjamin Radford and Meredith Small. At the Smithsonian, Brian Switek criticized the media hype roundly on his blog, as well as the “shoddy scholarship” in the PLoS ONE paper that tried to tie this fossil, exceptional as it is, to the anthropoid line. All of them decried the fact that the History Channel appears to be treating this fossil as a cash cow to the detriment of scientific integrity. All of them also criticized use of the term “missing link” – a vacuous and misleading phrase even for evolutionists.
1. Franzen, Gingerich, Habersetzer, Hurum, Koenigswald, Smith, “Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology,” Public Library of Science ONE 4(5): e5723. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723.
This is the Darwin Party version of a revival meeting or religious ecstasy. Have you no faith? Believe – visualize your evolutionary heritage – worship this new holy relic, the holy grail from which Lord Darwin drank. Rejoice that the great white Father has achieved his apotheosis. Look through the stained (emphasis on stained) glass window (the Attenborough documentary), which elevates your emotions to the divine. Declare holy war on the creationists.
It’s just a lemur, folks. Don’t lose sleep over it. Like Crowther said, if this fossil is 95% lemur, and is described as the 8th Wonder of the World, he can one-up that and show you a 100% lemur – alive and well at the zoo. If Ida known they would call this thing a missing link, Ida said, ID: a better explanation.