The Loom

Old Apes and Bad Links

pierolapithecus.gifThere are lots of news stories today (as well as PZ Myers’ take) about the fabulous new discovery in Spain of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, a 13-million year old fossil close to the common ancestor of all living great apes.

The early evolution of apes is where some of the most interesting developments are emerging. Until the recent discoveries of fossils of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus and other early species, the fossil record from this period of our history was pretty scanty. These new fossils are starting to shed light on some pretty major questions, such as how our upright stance came to be and how our brains got so big. Meanwhile, new genetic work is raising the curtain on the evolution of cognition in these early apes, which set the stage for our subsequent explosion.

Yet for all the excitement a story like can engenders, some of the coverage has been pretty irritating. Certain hoary misconceptions about science have a way of taking hold in the journalistic world and seem to be impossible to dislodge. One of these is the notion that paleoanthropologists are focused on discovering "the missing link," and that only the missing link can tell us anything of real importance about our origins. Just consider Diedtra Henderson’s article on MSNBC.com. It includes this rather revealing sentence–

"Coaxed by a reporter to say Pierolapithecus catalaunicus represented a ‘missing link,’ co-author Meike Kohler demurred. ‘I donít like, very much, to use this word because it is a very old concept.’"

That’s right–coaxed. As in, "Come on, professor, just give us a smile and say it’s a missing link. It won’t kill you, right?"

Henderson is hardly alone. 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 Flatow 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Sarah Berel-Harrop
    November 19, 2004

    No, it’s not Meyers, it’s Mairz. I think. Maybe it is Mahers. Or Myers. No, definitely not Myers. Not in a million years. (forgive, that is a talk.origins standard. Cannot resist.)

  2. #2 Carl Buell
    November 19, 2004

    The real “missing link” appears to be the one between scientists (their actual ideas and information) and the lay public. Nice article Carl, hopefully a few science “correspondents” will read it!

  3. #3 Nick
    November 19, 2004

    Howdy,

    Excellent point about “the” missing link bit. It wouldn’t kill reporters to ask questions like “We understand that it’s impossible to tell whether or not a fossil is direct lineal ancestor of humans, so, Mr. Scientist, do you think this fossil was close, or far, from the line that led to humans?”

    I’m convinced, however, that many science journalism stories are written using The All-Purpose Template for Scientific Press Releases and Science News Articles.

    PS: You mean Ira Flatow of Science Friday, not Ira Glass of This American Life. For some reason the only two people I’ve ever heard of named Ira work for NPR.

    Yours in pedantry,
    Nick

  4. #4 vernaculo
    November 20, 2004

    Well, if it’s a chain, everybody on it’s a link, right? So anybody whose link is missing from the record is a missing link?
    But the term comes from the denial that was so virulent, as the truth of our origins became impossible to refute. Wilberforce’s homeboys demanding something precisely between themselves and existent apes such as chimps and gorillas. Half-man half-monkey, wugga wugga. Something to look down on, and discard.
    But – again – it’s a chain of being, of changing being isn’t it?
    Phylogeny and ontogeny being somewhat parallel – where’s the missing link between our adult selves and our childhood selves? Spread through every day of our lives since then.

  5. #5 Aaron
    November 21, 2004

    “Well, if it’s a chain, everybody on it’s a link, right?”

    Er… well, I assume you know it’s not a chain, but I figured I should make sure.

  6. #6 vernaculo
    November 21, 2004

    Aaron- Thank you for that genteel “Er…”; but it is a chain I think.
    An ape there, a man here, and a series of connected “links” between them, though time makes it look more triangular than linear. Because Wilberforce and his heirs reduce it to a mere three, one at each end and the missing one in the middle – and then throw it away as nonsense – doesn’t make it not a chain, in that context. That the evolutionary flow looks more like a river delta or a mountainside in actuality is beside the point.
    As far as ancestry and simian cousinhood go, it’s the connectivity that’s most germane, the linkage if you will.

  7. #7 Steve Reuland
    November 22, 2004

    Small correction:

    Today, Ira Glass on Science Friday asked his paleoanthropologist guest whether the fossil is a missing link…

    You mean Ira Flatow. Ira Glass hosts This American Life.

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