Late last week I received a rather curious e-mail. It read;
WORLD RENOWNED SCIENTISTS REVEAL A REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC FIND THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING
Ground-Breaking Global Announcement
What: An international press conference to unveil a major historic scientific find. After two years of research a team of world-renowned scientists will announce their findings, which address a long-standing scientific puzzle.
The find is lauded as the most significant scientific discovery of recent times. History brings this momentous find to America and will follow with the premiere of a major television special on Monday, May 25 at 9 pm ET/PT chronicling the discovery and investigation.
Who: Mayor Michael Bloomberg; International team of scientists who researched the find; Abbe Raven, President and CEO, A&E Television Networks; Nancy Dubuc, Executive Vice President and General Manager, History; Ellen Futter, President, American Museum of Natural History
“The most significant scientific discovery of recent times”, eh? What could it be? Life on Mars? Time-travel? Teleportation? The Higgs Boson? A diet cola that doesn’t taste absolutely awful? Well, no. It’s all about a little primate from Germany.
Last week periodicals like the Wall Street Journal and the Mail Online heralded the discovery of a 47-million-year old adapid primate from the famous Messel deposits in Germany. These deposits are well-known for containing exceptionally well-preserved mammals, and this particular lemur-like primate fossil contains soft tissue impressions and gut contents.
An exceptionally preserved fossil primate is pretty exciting, but that’s not why the publicist for tomorrow’s AMNH event wrote one of the most overblown press releases I have ever seen. No, the paper, which will be released in PLoS One tomorrow, claims that this particular primate is of vital importance to the origin of anthropoid primates (or monkeys and apes, with our species being included in the latter category). As might be expected during this significant year, it is going to be called Darwinius masillae and you can get a “sneak peek” at it here. According to the authors of the paper Darwinius supports the hypothesis that anthropoid primates evolved from lemur-like animals.
I have yet to see the paper, but I am skeptical of this conclusion. First, one of the main authors of the paper is Philip Gingerich, who has been maintaining the evolution of anthropoid primates from adapids for years despite evidence to the contrary. (See Chris Beard’s The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey for a good review.) This is directly related to the second problem, which is that adapids were strepsirrhine (popularly called “wet-nosed”) primates more closely related to modern-day lemurs, lorises, and bush babies. Instead anthropoids and the stock from which they arose are haplorrhines (“dry-nosed” primates), with tarsiers and an extinct group of tarsier-like primates called omomyids being much closer to them than the adapids.
According to preliminary reports Gingerich et al. link Darwinius to anthropoids by saying that it lacks a tooth comb and a toilet claw, two characteristics of strepsirrhine primates. As the author of A Primate of Modern Aspect writes, though, the lack of these two features does not automatically make Darwinius a transitional form from adapids to early anthropoids. It could be, and may be more likely to be, a unique part of the adapid family tree, and I will be very interested to see if the new paper contains a cladistic analysis. (I was a bit disappointed that Gingerich’s last major descriptive paper on the early whale Maiacetus did not contain a cladogram).
I have the feeling that this fossil, while spectacular, is being oversold. This raises an important question about the way scientific discoveries, particularly fossil finds, are being popularized. Darwinius is just the latest is a string of significant fossils to be hyped in the media before being scientifically described (or at least before that information is released to the public). Other recent examples include “Dakota” the Edmontosaurus, the pliosaur “Predator X“, and “Lyuba” the baby mammoth. I am glad that these finds are stirring excitement, but I am a bit put off by the way they are presented.
Companies like National Geographic and the History Channel are taking a larger role in how these discoveries are being presented. Each of the fossils I mentioned above have had books, feature articles, documentaries, or some combination thereof produced about them before any scientific description of them has been published. These promotional materials make grand claims but are vague on details, which are reserved for later academic publications. This can potentially create problems for effective science communication.
Consider, for example, the grand claims made about finds like Darwinius. It is being heavily promoted but scientists have not yet had a chance to see the fossil or read the paper describing it. When they get a call from a journalist or are asked their opinion on it, then, it can be difficult to discuss the find because they do not know the details. This can be harmful as it can not only lead to the spread of overblown assertions but it can also make us look foolish if these finds do not turn out to be all they were cracked up to be. This could especially be the case with Darwinius. Though heralded in documentaries and in the news as one of our direct ancestors, it is probably a very interesting lemur-like primate on a different evolutionary branch. I can only imagine the field day creationists are going to have if this is the case, and I am frustrated by the way mass media outlets manage to bungle genuinely interesting scientific discoveries.