Paleontology

Ancient primate ancestor - Holy Grail, or Hype?

05/20/2009

Scientists have a long history of understating their findings and discoveries. Unlike movie premieres, or new commercial products, or major athletic events, when a scientist discovers something that he or she thinks might revolutionize a field, or end up a major discovery, they almost go underground. They don’t seek media attention, especially at first. They privately, and usually alongside many collaborators painstakingly document, research, and statistically analyze their find, and test their hypothesis. They try to disprove their ideas by testing for alternatives. Then they publish in what’s called the peer review journal system, where a paper gets reviewed anonymously by their colleagues in the field. Oftentimes the first journal scientists submit to may reject it altogether and they have to start over, submitting to another journal.

It can be several years after the research begins before the final paper gets published, and only then does it usually catch the media’s attention. Few scientists actively seek the glory and limelight of the media for their scientific findings, though many enjoy seeing their hard work talked about publicly. And when scientists speak of their own research, there’s often a humility about it. You’ll often hear hedge words in their speech, like “may show” or “suggests.” They get excited, for sure, but most don’t go around claiming they’re changing some scientific paradigm, or they’ve made an earth-shattering discovery. That’s just the way science works (incidentally, that is why claims of intelligent design being a new revolutionary theory that disgraces evolution should be met with great skepticism).

So why when scientists held a major press conference to announce the discovery of a 47-million year old fossil, Darwinius masillae (nicknamed Ida), the media went berserk this week. The extremely well preserved fossil skeleton has characteristics of anthropoids (which include humans, apes and monkeys) and another group of extinct primates, the adapiforms, and the discovery, just published in PLoS One, is being hyped to the max. There’s a book coming out, and a History Channel TV show about to air. The scientists claim it changes the way we understand evolution, as if it is the missing link that has been sought for so long. One of the scientists, Jens Lorenz Franzen, is actually quoted, on their glitzy website, Revealing The Link, “When our results are published it will be just like an asteroid hitting the earth.”

Seriously? Seriously?! Um, yea. Maybe not.

Now, I have been passionate about science education for many years now. I have taught college biology, testified before the Texas State Board of Education over evolution education and textbooks, and am even in the midst of writing a book, to be published by Beacon Press, on making peace between evolution and Christianity (and I believe both, by the way). So I wasn’t privy to the media circus, I didn’t attend the press conference, but when I read science writer Carl Zimmer’s blog post over at Discover Magazine, I realized he’d hit the nail squarely on the head (to use a tired old cliché).

The problem with such claims is science doesn’t really work that way, and it’s to the detriment of society’s understanding of science to hype a discovery when it’s not yet a scientific consensus. The scientists are excited, they made a major discovery. But the PR folks need to tone down their rhetoric because in my opinion, they’re doing a disservice to the general public’s already woeful understanding of how science works. It’s just the kind of thing that those folks dead-set on disproving evolution for various reasons will latch onto when other discoveries show this fossil is perhaps not an ancient anthropoid/human ancestor but something else altogether. Of course, the anti-evolution claims will also be hogwash, that is sort of their specialty, but it just ends up muddling the public’s understanding of science all the more.

I mean no disrespect to the History Channel, but maybe the producers there don’t quite understand this about science. Admittedly, it’s not like the cold fusion debacle, where two scientists claimed a (so-far) impossible feat, had a big media event, and then ended up disgraced when their claims proved untrue. In contrast, the published study of Darwinius is, as far as I can tell, valid science. It’s a legit scientific discovery, published in a respected peer reviewed scientific journal. And naturally the scientists are excited about their find. But some of their archaeologist colleagues strongly disagree about the significance, and about the interpretation of the fossil's place on the evolutionary tree of life. We are far from scientific consensus. It may or may not be a missing link to primate evolution. And that’s just the thing, there’s not only one missing link. Many different fossil species have been and will continue to be discovered showing gradual, and sometimes rapid changes between species.

So let’s just take a deep breath, and realize the hype is sort of like the swine flu. It may end up being more significant down the road. It is a news story of broad scientific significance. It is interesting to the general public, and it’s great to have anything excite the public’s imagination. It may make great television, and great reading. But the media hype is not the science. And I’m not sure at all that what they’re claiming is a new model of how scientific discoveries should be hyped is a positive step. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the opposite. What sets science apart is its piecemeal, slow, zigzag pace of filling in the giant puzzle of the mysterious past and present operations of our amazing universe.

Find out more about ancient species and their extinction from Animal Planet's hit show, "Animal Armageddon."


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