Sunday, June 7, 2009

The link between science and the media is missing

As promised, today’s post has to do with the newly discovered “missing link” in our evolution. Or maybe it has to do with hype-craving media machines. You decide.

I have painstakingly read through the 27 pages of the original article on the fossil so you wouldn’t miss out on the exciting data behind this newsworthy finding. Essentially, researchers recovered the near complete skeleton of a fossil primate and described it as a new genus and species called Darwinius masillae. Did they name it Darwin because it confirms Darwin’s theory? Nope. They named it Darwin to honor his 200th birthday.

The fossil was unearthed from sediments in Messel, Germany in 1983 and dates from the middle Eocene period, roughly 55 to 33 million years ago. The really striking feature of this fossil was that is was almost entirely complete and extremely well preserved, even including remains in the digestive tract. The researchers used radiographs and other imaging techniques (such as CT scans) to carefully examine the fossil’s bones (and every single tooth!) and compare them to other fossils and living animals. The article describes all those bones and teeth (one by one) and reconstructs aspects of the life history, life stage and locomotion of the Darwinius.

Now if this fossil is the missing link, then the important thing is where it stands in the phylogenetic tree. The article goes into a lot of detail about this, but I'll make it easy for you. There are two suborders of primates. The first, Strepsirrhini, includes lemurs and such while the second, Haplorhini, includes different types of higher primates and anthropoids (literally, “human-like”). While the fossil seems to have characteristics of both suborders, the authors conclude that Darwinius masillae is part of the Haplorhini group. Does that make it the “missing link”? Here’s what the researchers had to say about that:

“Note that Darwinius masillae (...) could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider (...) Darwinius (...) to be anthropoids.”

Wow. Talk about a solid statement. It sounds like they are saying “This could be really cool, exciting and relevant, but we’re not suggesting that at all”.

The fact that the skeleton was so intact clarified a lot of things and made the community question the established knowledge about the origin of higher primates. For example, even though the Darwinius is not considered to be anthropoid (human-like), the category of primates it represents can now be carefully compared with higher primates. This is very relevant and exciting from an evolutionary standpoint. But it doesn’t make it the missing link*. And I don’t know about you, but I could swear that I saw at least 20 different headlines using the words “missing link” when the story came out.

Why all the hype? Why the blatant misinterpretation by the media? How did this article gain worldwide exposure in the media while others never escape the dungeons of scientific publications? Well, it helps to know that before the article was even submitted (maybe even written!), a company had already commissioned a TV documentary and a book on the topic. That the topic caught the eye of a production company is not surprising given its potential implications. The trouble is that the relevance of the article was drastically misrepresented. For example, both the movie and the book had the evocative words “The Link” in their title. In addition, The BBC, The History Channel and countless news articles called the Darwinius “our ancestor”. Another contributing factor to the extreme hype was that everything happened very, very fast (it will come as no surprise to fellow scientists that they had time to make the entire movie before the paper was published!). Since the article wasn’t available prior to all the media coverage and press conferences, there were no opinions available from other experts in the field, and by that time there was no way to stop the marketing machine.

There’s a lesson here. For real and relevant scientific news that aren't overly hyped by the media, trust Scientific Chick.

*Don't get me wrong: I totally buy Darwin’s theory and the relevance of transitional fossils.

This little girl generated a media hype of epic proportions

Reference: Complete primate skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: morphology and paleobiology. Franzen J.L., Gingerich P.D., Habersetzer J., Hurum J.H., von Koenigswald W., Smith B.H. PLoS ONE 2009 19:4(5):e5723.

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