The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, May 22, 2009

Missing Lancelot Link

Popularizing Science Is a Good Thing. Using Hype to Misrepresent Is the Very Antithesis of Science.

Cast your mind back, if you can, into the not-too-distant past of 1970. If you were a kid or had kids of your own or maybe younger siblings then, you might recall an ABC Saturday morning program entitled Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. The show featured chimpanzees dressed up in human clothing, with human actors providing voice-overs. The eponymous character was a secret agent/spy who routinely battled an evil organization’s plot to take over the world.

It was a dismally awful show, which wore out its one-joke premise (i.e. chimps are freakin’ hilarious dressed up like people) about five minutes into its first episode. Regardless, the show promoted itself aggressively to its juvenile audience. One could buy Lancelot Link comic books, lunch boxes, Halloween costumes, and other merchandise. ABC/Dunhill records even released an album by “The Evolution Revolution,” an all-simian pop band that performed each week on the show.

The promotions apparently worked because the show continued for a second season, showing nothing but repeats from its first season. It was the quintessential example of a cult hit, whose hype, reputation, and fan devotion far exceeded its actual merits.

Now cast your mind back again to the first time you watched Nova or some other PBS program and learned about Lucy, the 3.2 million year old fragmentary skeleton of a young female Australopithecus afarensis, considered the earliest known example of a direct ancestor to modern humans.

Lucy comes from a line of creatures that split from the line of creatures eventually leading to Lancelot Link about 6.0 million years ago. One might say that Lucy is the great, great, great, great, great, great . . . great grandmother of us all. She is certainly one of the best-known transitional fossils ever discovered.

However, Lucy now has a contender that wishes to displace her. A young lady herself, some are billing the challenger, known as Ida, as the “missing link” from the period about 45 million years ago when anthropoids (i.e. simians) first broke off from early, more primitive types of primates. If, like Lucy, she leads directly to humans, Ida represents a link in the chain twenty times older. She would be Lucy’s great, great, great, great, great, great . . . great grandmother.

In life, Ida was a three-foot long lemur-like creature, categorized as Darwinius masillae, during the Eocene Epoch, known as the golden age of primates. She lived in the Grube Messel, near modern-day Darmstadt Germany. During the Eocene, the area was a lake that formed in a volcano’s crater, surrounded by subtropical forest.

Continued volcanic activity caused clouds of carbon dioxide to drift over the lake, overcoming animals such as Ida that came down to its shores to drink. After slipping into the waters and drowning, petroleum muck on the lake bottom preserved their bodies, similar to insects trapped in amber.

Ida’s remains were unearthed in two distinct pieces by a team of archeologists in 1983 and ended up in separate private collections. Jørn Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum, learned about the pieces and realized they represented something important. He arranged for the museum to buy and reconstruct them and then served on a team analyzing the results.

The team published its findings Tuesday in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. That same day, Hurum conducted a high profile unveiling of the fossil at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The press has reported on some very big things said during Ida’s debut.

They are touting Ida as a “missing link” in the evolutionary path that led primitive primates to branch into modern-day anthropoids. They say she helps explain how generalized mammals eventually wound up producing human beings. They are putting her forth as one of the most significant transitional fossils ever discovered.

British naturalist and television personality Sir David Attenborough, writing in the Guardian, rhapsodized over the find. “This beautiful little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of the mammals . . . She represents the seed from which the diversity of monkeys, apes and ultimately every person on the planet came.”

Unfortunately, there is little chance that any of it is true.

The find is unquestionably an important fossil because intact fossils are always incredibly rare and Ida contains over ninety-five percent of her skeleton as well as skin and fur impressions and even the stomach contents of her last meal.

It is also true that Ida exhibits some anthropoid characteristics, such as opposable big toes, nail-bearing tips on the fingers and toes, and the absence of a toilet claw and toothcomb. There are even developments in her feet and ankles, particularly the presence of a talus bone, which would help permit primates to someday stand and walk upright on the evolutionary path to humanity.

If nothing else, Anne Yoder, Director of the Duke Lemur Center, reports Ida had advanced features – including forward-facing eyes capable of 3-D vision and judging distance as well as an inner ear configuration – that demonstrate primates were around and developing much earlier in biological history than any previous evidence suggested.

Despite praise for the fossil and its relative importance, numerous scientists dealt with the more audacious claims made about Ida with reactions ranging from skepticism to dismay.

“What does it tell us about human evolution that we didn't know? Precious little,” said Stonybrook University paleoanthropologist John Fleagle.

“This fossil has been hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. Frankly I've got ten more in my basement,” agrees Chris Beard, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. “It's not a missing link, it's not even a terribly close relative to monkeys, apes and humans, which is the point they're trying to make.”

Although not definitive, most scientists believe that anthropoids evolved from either tarsiers or an extinct group known as omomyids. The researchers studying Ida propose they evolved from a third group, called adapids. They hold that Ida is an adapid with quasi-anthropoid features.

Without ruling out their hypothesis altogether, Chris Gilbert, a paleoanthropologist at Yale University, correctly notes that Ida’s researchers, as challengers to the consensus, bear the burden of proof. Instead, they present their alternate evolutionary line as a given.

Other scientists agree the researchers’ methods and conclusions are accurate to a point but woefully incomplete. For example, Ida’s anthropoid tendencies are less remarkable in light of the fact such features were common among primitive lemurs despite their absence in modern lemurs.

Paleontologist Richard Kay of Duke University criticizes the published paper for failing to cite a large body of ongoing research, dating back to 1984, which contradicts the researchers’ hypothesis. In particular, Kay said Ida’s researchers did not compare their find to other important fossil primates from this time, especially those from a group called eosimiads.

What is the cause of so much distortion and exaggeration regarding one little fossil? For that, we need to turn back to Jørn Hurum, Ida’s great champion. There is a huge disconnect between Hurum the scientific academic and Hurum the science popularizer.

In their scientific paper, of which Hurum is a co-author, Ida’s researchers specifically state in their conclusions, “We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid.” They go on to add, “The adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.” This is as bold as they get.

At the unveiling in New York, a very different Hurum took the microphone. “This is like a holy grail for paleontology,” he boomed as he showed slides of Ida next to those of the Mona Lisa and Rosetta stone to demonstrate her historical consequence. “This is the first link to all humans . . . truly a fossil that links world heritage," Hurum added.

The museum’s exhibit is dramatically entitled The Link. It is also the name of a coffee table science book about Ida, published by Little Brown. A documentary, scheduled for a May 25 premiere on the History Channel, bears this title a third time.

Hurum defends his hyperbole, explaining it as just “part of getting science out to the public to get attention.” Nobody argues with the benefits of popularizing science but hyped claims known to be misrepresentative are the very antithesis of empiricism and scientific inquiry.

Hurum’s academic research is sincere and valid but his possible hopes to fund them by creating a frenzy and then profiting from the sale of merchandise, such as Ida T-shirts, posters, and maybe even Halloween costumes are suspect. The same is true for bowing to a TV executive’s demands for appeal to the lowest common denominator.

There is no fear that his claims will set back paleontology and/or biology. Peer review and the scientific method will do their jobs nicely to correct his embellishments. Regrettably, a public eager to buy into his incendiary publicity may eventually see all science made more suspect as a result. Even more unfortunate, creationists are sure to grab upon eventual retractions over the initial hoopla regarding Ida as “proof” that no evolutionary facts exist to back up evolutionary theory.

Ida is almost certainly not Lucy’s grandmother but she is still a grande dame in her own right and deserves better than what she has gotten from Hurum. By peddling her as a missing link, he may well turn an important archeological find into Lancelot Link.

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