Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not That Monkey Again

Once again, Darwinus maxillae (aka 'Ida') is back in the news. This Eocene adapid primate from Messel, Germany, was announced to a spellbound world in May of this year as the most important fossil for 47 million years, the closest thing to our direct ancestor, blah, blah, blah. Of course, as various skeptical paleontologists, science journalists (as opposed to the regular variety, who accepted the story uncritically), and many bloggers noted, it was no such thing. Now judgement day has arrived for Ida, in the form of a paper published by Erik Sieffert and colleagues in today's Nature. Or has it?

Sieffert et al's paper includes a large-scale phylogentic analysis of 117 species of living and fossil primates, utilizing 360 characters. It includes both Darwinius and another newly descriped adpid taxon called Afradapsis. Boiling this study down to its bare bones, Sieffert and his coworkers have shown that while the adapids share some characters with haplorrhines, the group of primates that contains, monkeys, apes, and us, the overall distribution of characters suggests that adapids belong in the other major group of primates, the strepsirrhines. This means that rather than being our cousin, Ida is the cousin of that annoying King Julien character from the Madagascar movies. The characters they share with "us" are more likely to be the result of convergent evolution than evidence of shared ancestry. And to add insult to injury, literally, it seems that the absence of some crucial strepsirrhine characters from Darwinius may actually be the result of the less-than-reported perfection of Ida. They are all present and correct in her close relative Afradapsis.

Ever keen to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, the media are selling this latest paper as a devastating blow to Ida and her discoverer, Jorn Hurum. This is the sort of thing that makes a good story. Which is why I find myself raising a skeptical eyebrow. Isn't this how this whole mess got started in the first place? In describing Ida, Hurum and his colleagues cherry-picked a set of 30 characters that they thought would clarify the position of the fossil in the evolutionary "tree" of primates. Understandably, having found that their characters placed the fossil in the "more interesting" branch of the tree (let's face it - no-one is going to win everlasting fame and fortune by uncovering the origins of the aye-aye) they were disinclined to dig deeper. All that has happened is what happens all the time in systematic biology: another research group has come along with a new fossil, more taxa, and a bigger character set and changed the tree topology. This is what science is all about.

Horum actually said this today, but no-one is listening to him because he is one of the main reasons that this has degenerated from a measured scientific debate into the media equivalent of a WWE slamdown. I'm actually less inclined to blame him than some, because I suspect that the History Channel, who orchestrated the orgy of hype surrounding Darwinius, waved a fair amount of money under his nose, and then pushed him very hard to stretch his conclusions to the limit and to remove as much uncertainty from his statements as possible. This is a media problem, not a science problem - you can argue that Horum should have had the spine to resist the hype, but the media are past masters when it comes to nudging people along by small stepwise stages (rather like evolution, readers!) until they find themselves in a position a long way from where they started off. And wondering how they got there.

So ultimately Darwinius is important because it teaches us a lot about the perils and pitfalls of press coverage. Big media companies piously tell us that they want to help educate the public by bringing science to a wider audience. This is crap. They care about science in the same way they care about major league baseball, NASCAR, or Susan Boyle (remember her?) - as a hook to sell advertising time. Unfortunately, they have plenty of money to spend and most researchers never have enough. So the temptation to climb into bed with them will always be there.

There is, however, an answer. If you are interested in science, and you want to want to understand the real issues behind discoveries like Ida, go find yourself a good blog. No, not this blog - I wouldn't trust anything written by me - but one written by one of the many, many excellent science writers out there. I would say Carl Zimmer, but I'm mad because last night in the pub he accused me of "losing my edge" as a blogger. So no free PR for you Zimmer! (Not that he needs it). You might also want to try Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science. One of the few rays of light in the whole Darwinius mess was the way in which the bloggers rapidly dissected this problem and stripped away the hype. These basic reporting skills seemed to have eluded the mainstream media, even respectible outlets like the BBC. If ever there was proof that the future of news lies with the blogosphere, it was Darwinius.

No comments:

Post a Comment