Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Missing Link and other Science Fictions

"In South America there are, if my memory serves me—you will check the observation, Professor Summerlee—some thirty-six species of monkeys, but the anthropoid ape is unknown. It is clear, however, that he exists in this country, and that he is not the hairy, gorilla-like variety, which is never seen out of Africa or the East." (I was inclined to interpolate, as I looked at him, that I had seen his first cousin in Kensington.) "This is a whiskered and colorless type, the latter characteristic pointing to the fact that he spends his days in arboreal seclusion. The question which we have to face is whether he approaches more closely to the ape or the man. In the latter case, he may well approximate to what the vulgar have called the 'missing link.' The solution of this problem is our immediate duty."
~ The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
If you've watched the news - or used Google today - you can't have missed all of the publicity about the well-preserved 47-million-year old primate fossil nicknamed "Ida" (or more technically, Darwinius masillae). She is both beautiful and important scientifically. As the authors summed up in their paper describing the find:
Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract. Study of all these features allows a fairly complete reconstruction of life history, locomotion, and diet. Any future study of Eocene-Oligocene primates should benefit from information preserved in the Darwinius holotype.
Ida is a prosimian in the family Adapidae - similar to present-day lemurs - and the type of primate that may have been ancestor to Anthropoidea - including present-day monkeys, apes and humans. The scientists studying Ida were careful not to claim that she was necessarily of a species ancestral to humans.
Note that Darwinius masillae, and adapoids contemporary with early tarsioids, could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids.
At least they were careful until they started talking to the press, where one author claimed Ida is "the closest thing we can get to a direct ancestor". The hype may have something to do with the History Channel special - "The Link" - featuring the discovery, which was announced alongside the paper. The program's web site has more hyperbolic quotes, my favorit being from the paper's lead author Jens Lorenz Franzen:
"When our results are published, it will be just like an asteroid hitting the Earth."
Presumably without all the death and destruction.

To add to the hype, many of the articles in the mainstream media have touted the find as "the missing link" - a non-sensical term, since every new fossil species is a new link in the evolutionary record. As the quote from The Lost World suggests, the phrase had already fallen out of favor by the beginning of the 20th century, so it's simply bad science journalism for news reports to be using it now.

And it's not just the media hype that's at issue. At Laelaps Brian Switek has raised some questions as to the quality of the paper's analysis of the fossil. I'm not well-versed enough in paleontology to give my opinion on that. However, I do find it troubling that the History channel's PR department and the scientists' own self-promotion are providing a false picture of the significance of this fossil find. I suspect that the over-the-top promotion will be a turnoff to many people who already assume that scientists routinely exaggerate their findings.

And I doubt Stephen Baxter will feel the need to add a chapter to Evolution.

For more coverage, Carl Zimmer has a nice post about the science and they hype and see Bora's roundup of related links at A Blog Around the Clock.

Images from Franzen JL et al. "Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology" PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. (2009) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723
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  1. since every new fossil species is a new link in the evolutionary record.Years of hanging out on has taught me that what you get is two new gaps...

  2. My favorite writing on this subject is over at Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science...

    I had no idea the hon. Mr. Yong had this kind of thing in him...

  3. James: So true. But this time around I think the creationists are going for "it's only a lemur so it doesn't count"

    Sean: I especially liked his Darwinus appearing in a piece of toast

  4. Anonymous6:34 AM


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  5. Me too -- it's a paleontological Jesus tortilla.

  6. This is my favourite subject in the industry...


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