The launch of Ida, alias Darwinius masillae, in May this year was unprecedented. It raised eyebrows across the whole range of media-savvy people. Whilst scientists have learned how to capture the interest of the media and promote their work, this particular indulgence was a shock and it was quickly recognised as hype.
"Indeed, Ida has had the public impact of an asteroid. The debut of Darwinius was a media juggernaut: the scientific paper, a public unveiling by New York City's Mayor Bloomberg, a Web site, coverage in People magazine, a television special, and the book all appeared within a week. On the day of the announcement, the traffic at the Web site exceeded that for www.sciencemag.org. But has this fossil rocked our understanding of primate evolution?"
David Attenborough narrated the documentary on Ida, Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link (source here)
Thus far, the book has received little attention from the scientific literature. Science has remedied this with an incisive review that leaves readers in no doubt that big mistakes have been made.
"Of the book's nine chapters, the first three and final are written by Young in a sensational style: "Hurum pulled out one final key card and opened the door.... Geffen was stunned." These parts are the most entertaining or, depending on one's point of view, disturbing. Ida is a reprise of the seamier side of paleontology: the exploitation, with the complicity of major museums, of our natural heritage for profit."
The reference to "profit" draws attention to the purchase price of the fossil: reputed to be "a stunning $750,000". The reviewer was one of the signatories to a letter in Nature that expressed "[o]utrage at [the] high price paid for a fossil". When palaeontologists join the ranks of fossil traders, their integrity is suspect. As an Editorial in Nature said: "such arrangements introduce conflicting incentives that can all too easily undermine the process of the assessment and communication of science."
The reviewer is not impressed with the attention to detail that is displayed by coauthor Colin Tudge. This again stimulates comments about the whole process of launching Ida to the world.
"Tudge also offers a tour of primate ecology, behavior, and evolution that is often inaccurate and at times misleading. (For example, he misstates the age of the earliest New World monkey by 6 million years and that of the African anthropoid fossil Apidium by 10 million years.) Why are there so many errors? Perhaps because the book had no scientific editor to check facts or demand reviews that would have uncovered these inaccuracies. The book was rushed out, and the whole project from purchase of the fossil up to the media blitz was cloaked in secrecy."
The palaeontological expertise provided by Philip Gingerich is called into question. This is at the heart of the technical analysis of Ida's significance.
"In short, the interpretation favored by Gingerich and described by Tudge is incompatible with a basal split of anthropoids from lemurs and lorises. Adapoids cannot simultaneously be the source of lemurs, lorises, and anthropoids to the exclusion of tarsiers because tarsiers and anthropoids form a clade. So Darwinius cannot be both an adapoid and a monkey ancestor.
[. . .]
So, Link's premise, that Ida is our ancestor, is fallacious. Ida is a lemur. While the search for anthropoid origins goes on, we shouldn't look for human ancestors in Darwinius or its close relatives."
Why is this relevant to a blog addressing issues of Intelligent Design? A previous blog drew attention to some of the reasons for taking an interest in this case. The science community does not like being confronted by a fait accompli: it expects and demands peer review. It does not welcome situations where the judgment of scholars could be influenced by financial commitments. It does not welcome teams who want to control the publicising of their work by publishing their own resources (documentary, book and web site) contemporaneously with publishing their research. The review by Kay is valuable because it articulates very well the human face of science. The big question is whether this represents the tip of an iceberg (and there is much more of this under the surface) or whether it is exceptional. In my assessment, the Ida-team has overstepped the mark but what they have done is not that unusual. Science does not have the objectivity that the textbooks claim. That is why it is essential to have vigorous debate within science. That is why the questions raised by Intelligent Design are important and why it can only be healthy for science to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Much Hype and Many Errors
Richard F. Kay
Science 28 August 2009: 1074-1075.
Summary: This account of Darwinius masillae, its discovery, and its importance was rushed into print as part of the hype surrounding the public announcement of the work.
Book reviewed- The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor by Colin Tudge, with Josh Young Little, Brown, New York, 2009. 304 pp. ISBN 9780316070089.
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