1 Comment »Posted on Wednesday 27 May 2009 at 11:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong

By now you’ve probably heard about Ida, the newly discovered fossil being heralded by many as “the missing link” in human evolution. Last night saw the broadcast of Uncovering our Earliest Ancestor, a documentary about the fossil narrated by an almost obligatory Sir David Attenborough.

As a student of science communication, I watched dutifully. I was not impressed. It felt like sitting through an episode of CSI or 24, with crash zooms and blinking maps featuring heavily. Scientists breathlessly compared the impact of Ida to “an asteroid hitting the Earth”

In the lead up to last night’s programme, Ida has been riding a hype wave that would be the envy of any Hollywood starlet. Unveiled by a press conference last week, and paraded around the media, Ida is big news. But is she big science? Anyone watching last night would certainly think so, but the scientific paper published in PloS One tells a slightly different story.

Ignore for a moment the fact that most biologists now question the need for a “missing link” in our evolution. The fossil record demonstrates the transition from early primates all the way along the evolutionary tree to humans. Although a somewhat outdated model of evolution – see New Scientist’s Darwin Was Wrong cover – the tree idea is still useful for thinking about how one species evolves in to another.

For us to be descended from Darwinus masillae, you would expect to trace a line down from Ida’s position on the tree to ours. That is what the documentary would have you believe, but as far as I can tell, it isn’t what the scientific paper says. As this diagram from New Scientist suggests, Ida belongs on the lemur track of evolution – although she herself was not a lemur.

Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.
Ida doesn't necessarily lie on our evolutionary branch.

I’m concerned by the extent to which Atlantic Productions, who made the documentary, influenced the science behind Ida. It is clear that they were involved from a fairly early stage – one scene in the documentary is a suspicious looking “home video” of the first discovery of Ida by lead scientist Dr Jørn Hurum. Scientists working on the fossil were asked to sign contracts and NDAs and some have even complained of being forced to work to media schedules. “It’s not how I like to do science,” said co-author Dr Philip Gingerich.

What would Atlantic have done, if Ida was shown to be a fairly uninteresting example of a lemur? Can the documentary, and lose their investment? Or would they have pressed for the scientists to reconsider their decision, to find the story? Worryingly, it appears this might be what happened.

At the end of the day, Ida is an amazingly complete example of such an ancient fossil. She is a great find for science, but unfortunately just does not deserve the hype afforded to her. And whilst Darwinus masillae is certainly related to us, as all animals are in some way related to us via the very earliest life forms, Ida cannot possibly be our earliest ancestor. For one thing, she died before ever reaching sexual maturity, and thus never bore any children. But on a broader scale, she zigged when our ancestors zagged. Somewhere out there might be a fossil that directly relates to us both, but even that does not deserve the label “missing link”. Of course that won’t stop another media circus, should it ever be discovered.

  1. One Comment

  2. “I’m concerned by the extent to which Atlantic Productions, who made the documentary, influenced the science behind Ida. It is clear that they were involved from a fairly early stage…”

    That’s a troubling possibility, actually. Of course we have no idea if it really happened, but it’s a conflict of interest waiting to happen.

    By Neuroskeptic on Thursday 28 May, 2009 at 5:18 pm

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