Laelaps

New discovery fuels hominin hype

According to multiple reports released yesterday, scientists will announce the discovery of a new species of two-million-year-old hominin this week. Do you know what that means? That’s right; writers are breaking out the pop-sci boilerplate to tell us all about the new “missing link.” To paraphrase what I have seen in the headlines alone, the find is the “missing link which will shed new light on human evolution and rewrite what we thought we knew about our history.”

I don’t believe the hype, but I can only speculate on the actual significance of the specimens in question. According to the reports already issued, paleoanthropologists have described the remains of several juvenile australopithecines (a large group of early hominins which contains, but is not exclusively made up of, some of our ancestors) found in a two-million-year-old Sterkfontein, South Africa cave deposit. Although already being cast as intermediate between australopithecines and the earliest member of our own genus, Homo habilis, this hominin is probably in the wrong place at the wrong time to be our direct ancestor, but it may help us understand human evolution during a time when there was a radiation of species across Africa.

I would love to say more, but I can’t. The paper describing the new hominin has not yet been published, and it seems as if an embargo break has caused numerous news sources to issue early reports several days before the scheduled release of the paper. (Perhaps Ivan Oransky will be able to dig up more details for his excellent blog, Embargo Watch.) What this means is that it will be difficult to get good commentary on the find because no one (except those who have already received the embargoed paper) has had a chance to read it yet. The early reports all zero in on that favorite question “Was this one of our ancestors?”, and it seems like accurate, comprehensive reporting has taken a backseat to generating attention-getting headlines.

One of the most frustrating aspects of all this, of course, is the continued use of the phrase “missing link.” As I tried to explain during the hubbub over the fossil primate “Ida” last year, the concept does not reflect what we understand about evolution. The story of human evolution is not entirely confined to a single chain of ancestors linking us to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees. Instead our species is only the last surviving member of a much richer family tree, and if we only zero in on a linear series of “missing links” in our own ancestry we will have to ignore most of our relatives. The phrase fosters a false vision of what evolution is and how it works, and I would love for it to be discontinued. Nevertheless, those who write headlines still love to use the phrase, and it seems as if every time a new hominin is discovered it is cast a “missing link” which connects us to apes (with the inference being that apes are “lower” on the chain, another gross misunderstanding since we are apes, too!). I think it would be just as easy to write headlines like “New Fossil Fills Out Human Evolutionary Tree”, but apparently some folks at the newspapers are not on board yet.

And then there are the creationists. When newspapers and media companies hail new fossils as the “missing link” only to have those same fossils turn out to be close relatives rather than direct ancestors, religious fundamentalists jump all over the opportunity. Anika Smith of the Disco ‘Tute blog Evolution News and Views has already put up a confused dispatch about the find, confusing the as-yet-unannounced species with Homo habilis. I have no doubt other creationist organizations will eventually jump in as well, especially if the new species turns out to be (as I suspect) a close cousin rather than a direct ancestor. By running hyped headlines before scientists can get a chance to look at the published paper, newspapers only end up feeding creationist nonsense.

No one is well-served when newspapers or other media outlets jump the gun on new discoveries. When a story breaks before a paper is actually published there is a greater danger that it will be hyped or otherwise presented without a critical analysis by people who can best interpret the discovery in the proper context. During a time when it can be hard for a specialized science writer to find work, though, coverage of important new discoveries is often given to generalist feature writers who would not know a humerus from a femur if you hit them over the head with it. It is a problem that will be with us for some time to come, and it underscores the need for experienced science writers in the shifting media landscape.

Comments

  1. #1 tai haku
    April 5, 2010

    I was wondering why the slightly vague stories were coming out pre-publication. Very intrigued as to what this looks like; it sounded like a good specimen from what I read and Sterkfontein has a little history when it comes to producing awesome Australopithecine fossils.

  2. #2 Elf Eye
    April 5, 2010

    Just after I finished reading your post, I discovered that the next headline in my feed was “Two-million-year-old skeleton may hold clues to missing link: Discovery in South Africa could help to rewrite history of human evolution.” Read it and weep at

    http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/million+year+skeleton+hold+clues+missing+link/2764128/story.html

  3. #3 Zach Miller
    April 5, 2010

    I can only assume this fossil will change everything we thought we knew about human evolution AND cure cancer. Truly, we live in a guilded age.

  4. #4 Mike Keesey
    April 5, 2010

    “There is no single chain of ancestors linking us to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees.”

    I feel that statement could be taken the wrong way. We *do* have ancestral lineages going back to our final common ancestor with chimpanzees — it’s just a lot more complex than a simple sequence, what with branching and coalescence.

    “New Fossil Fills Out Human Evolutionary Tree”

    That is an EXCELLENT alternative.

  5. #5 Christopher Taylor
    April 5, 2010

    I know I’m a bit of a pedant in these matters, but Sterkfontein is already the type locality for Australopithecus transvaalensis and close to the type locality of Paranthropus crassidens. If the authors of the new paper are indeed erecting a new species, I’m hoping that they’ve made sure neither of these older names are applicable. Palaeoanthropologists have a sad history of being particularly sloppy when it comes to taxonomy.

    Of course, I’m perfectly ready to withdraw my comments if necessary once the actual paper comes out.

  6. #6 alison
    April 5, 2010

    Thanks, Brian – as always, excellent commentary :-) (& headline!)

  7. #7 Rutger Jansma
    April 6, 2010

    For a while now we know about the existence of a supposed “generalized” early species of Homo from Sterkfontein. It remained unnamed for the last 50 years or so, being referred to H. habilis, H. erectus or something new. This paper might hold important clues about the status of these specimens! :)

  8. #8 Adam Yates
    April 6, 2010

    I can’t say too much before the release (sad to see the embargo has been broken), but the fossils in question ARE truly spectacular and very definately worthy of a little hype. Hopefully more insightfull commentry will emerge after the release.

  9. #9 Occam's Razor
    April 6, 2010

    It’s another australopith, a late-surviving one from a region blessed with many fossil hominins. The hype is in it’s supposed similarities to and touted affinities with early Homo. Beautiful specimens, dubious inferences.

  10. #10 Ian
    April 6, 2010

    I used to be very interested in paleoanthropology, but now I’m starting to lose that interest due to the excessive hype that’s made about it. While our own evolution is quite interesting, there are many other transitions in the fossil record that are just as interesting, if not moreso.

  11. #11 MadScientist
    April 8, 2010

    But – have they made a movie and a book? And do the specimens have a cast of fur? How can it be “The Real Missing Link” without a book and movie?

    Can we get some consensus to *never* provide any funding to groups who claim such bullshit as “missing link” or how a discovery will “revolutionize” our ideas of evolution? I’m pretty sick of seeing press releases to that effect. Are we really producing such inferior scientists these days that “science by press release” is becoming the norm? Don’t even try to convince real experts, let the public vote!

  12. #12 MadScientist
    April 8, 2010

    @Elf Eye: Nice – complete with the “linear evolution” cartoon too. It just makes me want to go postal.

    @Adam Yates: How spectacular a fossil is has almost nothing to do with the science. Just look at ‘Ardi’ – there is no disputing that as far as fossils go it is a beautiful specimen. And yet the owners have completely botched the study. So how does Ardi fit into the picture? It’s merely another primate fossil to place on the record. I think people who believe there is some reason to ‘hype’ anything have something wrong with their heads and shouldn’t be in science. What’s wrong with saying you’ve got an extraordinarily preserved fossil and leaving it at that? If it happens to be a good match to a less complete fossil then there are probably some ideas that need to be modified and if it’s a unique beast then we have yet another animal to put into the tree.

  13. #13 dhogaza
    April 9, 2010

    The NYTimes has a decent piece on it, and quoting researchers makes it clear that the question as to whether or not this represents a species on the branch of hominid evolution that led to modern humans, or on a branch that petered out, is an open question.

    No “missing link” garbage there.

    The site sounds amazing, apparently thus far they’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.

  14. #14 adam yates
    April 10, 2010

    MadScientist

    Perhaps I should have said ‘fanfare’ rather than ‘hype’ for what ever you think of the interpretations presented in the paper we’ve just been given a terrific load of new information for us to understand, argue about and assimilate into our hypotheses on the evolution of our own species. That is cause for celebration. (The same goes for the Ardipithecus papers).

  15. #15 bcoppola
    April 11, 2010

    Here’s a quote from the story in this morning’s Detroit Free Press Science page (probably via a wire service). Gives one a bit of hope.

    Some have characterized the find as a so-called missing link, but that is a concept no longer accepted by science. “The missing link made sense when we could take the earliest fossils and the latest ones and line them up in a row. It was easy back then” said Smithsonian Institution biologist Richard Potts. But now, researchers know there was a great diversity of branches in the human family tree rather than a single smooth line.

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