Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Here is a perfect example of why you should never accept at face value how the work of scientists is reported in the non-scientific media. They almost always get it wrong. Look at this report in the Associated Press on the new Pierolapithecus catalaunicus find and compare it to the report in Nature, a scientific magazine who has qualified writers on staff. It begins with the very first sentence:

A nearly 13 million-year-old ape discovered in Spain is the last probable common ancestor to all living humans and great apes, a research team says in Friday’s issue of Science magazine.

No, that’s not what the research team said. The abstract in Science says, “The overall pattern suggests that Pierolapithecus is probably close to the last common ancestor of great apes and humans.” There is a big difference between being close to the last common ancestor and being the last common ancestor. There’s no way to identify it that closely because at any given time there are likely multiple evolutionary cousins coexisting in various places. Just like we can’t determine with any certainty which of the numerous feathered theropod dinosaurs gave rise to birds, we can only say that the ancestor of modern birds must have looked something like them and must have existed in a given time frame. Indeed, the co-author of the Science article is quoted later in the AP story as saying exactly that:

“This does not mean that just this individual – or even this species, exactly this species – must have been the species that gave rise to everything else which came later in the great ape tree. But it is, if not the species, most probably a very closely related species that gave rise to it.”

The second sentence isn’t much better:


A husband-and-wife team of fossil sleuths unearthed an animal with a body like an ape, fingers like a chimp and the upright posture of humans.

But then compare that to the Nature report:

The creature would have weighed about 55 kilograms, making it about the size of a female chimpanzee, says Salvador Moyá-Solá of the Miquel Crusafont Institute of Palaeontology in Barcelona, whose team reports the discovery in this week’s Science1. But it would have looked more like a primitive gorilla, he adds…

The creature would have been able to lift itself into a standing position as modern apes can, but its short fingers mean that it would not have been able to grip branches with enough strength to swing from them.

Other media outlets likewise reported that this creature “walked upright like humans”, but that is emphatically not what the report says at all. It says that it could have pulled itself upright like great apes can, but that is a far cry from having an “upright posture” or being bipedal. Then there’s this line, which makes me grit my teeth:

Coaxed by a reporter to say Pierolapithecus catalaunicus represented a “missing link,” Meike Kohler, another of the paper’s co-authors, demurred. “I don’t like, very much, to use this word.”

Any reporter who is trying to “coax” a scientist to say something like this shouldn’t be doing any reporting on science at all. It just supports this patently absurd notion that paleontologists are somehow looking for that one “smoking gun” to fill in some mythical gap that will finally provide the proof for evolution. That’s ridiculous. As usual, Carl Zimmer, the finest science journalist in the country if not the world, gets it right:

A little googling unearths 59 articles that do their best to call Pierolapithecus a missing link, even if it means putting a question mark after it in a headline. Today, Ira Glass on Science Friday asked his paleoanthropologist guest whether the fossil is a missing link, even while he acknowledged that the scientist might not want to be “boxed in” with that phrase.

Now, if you learned about human origins 50 years ago, you might well have read things by scientists referring to a missing link in our evolution. The great paleoanthropologist Robert Broom even published a book in 1951 called Finding the Missing Link. But this was a time when so few fossils were known from human evolution that many researchers thought that our ancestry was pretty much linear until you got back to our common ancestor with other living apes. But fifty years later, it’s abundantly clear now that human evolution has produced many branches, all but one of which have ended in extinction. Some are close to our own ancestry, others are further away. Paleoanthropologists don’t get excited about a fossil because they think they’ve found the missing link (whatever that is), but because a fossil can show how early a trait such as a big brain evolved, and sometimes can even reveal traits that have evolved independently several times in evolution. That’s what gets them fired up about Pierolapithecus catalaunicus. So why shouldn’t journalists get fired up as well, rather than trotting out old cliches?

It’s not just lazy journalism, I’d argue, but abets some pernicious pseudoarguments made against evolution. Creationists try to cast doubt on the reality of evolution whenever a new fossil of a hominid is discovered. They crow that the latest fossil has a feature not found in living apes or living humans, meaning that it can’t bridge the gap between the two groups. These arguments hardly call human evolution into doubt. The only lesson that should be drawn from them is that the term “missing link” should be retired for good.

That’s the difference between a hack reporter with a journalism degree but no knowledge of science, frantically trying to put anything into an article they can to convey controversy, and a science journalist who actually understands the field he’s reporting on.

Comments

  1. #1 OGeorge
    November 23, 2004

    “As usual, Carl Zimmer, the finest science journalist in the country if not the world, gets it right.”

    This is great! I can say I knew him when. I’ve known Carl since he was an editor at Discover magazine and had the privilege of illustrating his first book, “At the Water’s Edge”. It’s great to see he’s now being widely recognised as the truly first rate writer and brilliant reporter of science he’s always been.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    November 23, 2004

    OGeorge-

    Oh, I had no idea you were the illustrator of that book, which is one of my absolute favorites. It’s on the shelf above my desk as we speak. Carl is truly one of our most gifted writers, and he recently won yet another award for it. When it comes to science reporting, there just isn’t a close second in my opinion.

  3. #3 iii
    November 24, 2004

    It isn’t just science – almost all specialist “features” reporting is bad in all but the largest and highest-end publications.

    Smaller papers and magazines often have a general “features” desk that covers anything that isn’t time-sensitive “hard news.” So the same group of people, usually people with degrees and backgrounds in journalism, covers science reporting (with no science background), arts reporting (with no art or theater background), consumer reporting (with no qualifications there, either), and on and on…
    This produces messed-up science headlines, contemporary art scandals, and many other tempests-in-teapots.

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