Smithsonian Writer on “Missing Link” Fossil

May 21st, 2009 by

Smithsonian Magazine’s Brian Switek had the following to say with regard to the Ida fossil being described as “the missing link” by many:

Is Darwinius important to understanding primate evolution? Of course! It is an exceptionally preserved specimen that could do much to aid our understanding of adapid evolution and paleobiology. The grand claims about it being our ancestor, though, can not be upheld as true. The researchers simply did not do the work to support their case, and even if their language was more reserved in the technical paper they have gone hand-in-hand with the History Channel to create an aura of sensationalism around the fossil. I hardly think this is a responsible way to conduct or communicate science, flooding the media with poorly supported claims, but as reported in the New York Times some of this paper’s authors care more about marketing than about good science;

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

This is a shame. I would have hoped that this fossil would receive the care and attention it deserves, but for now it looks like a cash cow for the History Channel. Indeed, this association may not have only presented overblown claims to the public, but hindered good science, as well. As Karen James has suggested, the overall poor quality of the paper and the disproportionate hyping of the find make me wonder if this research was rushed into publication so that the media splash would occur on time. The paper tried to cover so much, so quickly, and contained so many shortfalls that I honestly have to wonder why it was allowed to be published in such a state. Perhaps we will never know, but I am sickened by the way in which a cable network has bastardized a legitimately fascinating scientific discovery, with the scientists themselves going along with it every step of the way. I can only hope that Darwinius will eventually receive the careful analysis it deserves.

We are clearly blessed to have such a well-preserved fossil to aid in our understanding of biology and human origins, but let’s be patient in our search for truth. When someone like Switek, who it should be noted makes evolution a focus in his writings for the Smithsonian, argues that “the grand claims about [Ida] being our ancestor […] can not be upheld as true,” and “the researchers simply did not do the work to support their case,” we should be careful not to extrapolate scientific truth from the fossil prematurely, particularly as it relates to any sort of “final verdict” on human origins.

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