Aaargh. When will the media learn? National Geographic is running this ridiculous headline right now: New Fossil Ape May Shatter Human Evolution Theory, in which the reporter claims a discovery of some teeth could “demolish a working theory of human evolution.” It’s not true. Where is this nonsense coming from?
I read the article. It’s titled “A new species of great ape from the late Miocene epoch in Ethiopia.” The exciting news is that the “combined evidence suggests that Chororapithecus may be a basal member of the gorilla clade, and that the latter exhibited some amount of adaptive and phyletic diversity at around 10-11 Myr ago.” It concludes with a suggestion that we need to do more research in sediments appropriate to Miocene apes. There aren’t an exploding paradigms or revolutions suggested.
I read the associated news article in Nature. It’s titled “Oldest gorilla ages our joint ancestor.” It says that this discovery pushes back the time of divergence of the gorilla lineage from our own. This is just ordinary science.
Now read the blogs — they’re doing a much better job of evaluating this work than the traditional media. For one thing, they’re actually looking at it critically. Afarensis points out that these are only a few teeth, and it’s awfully thin grounds for a substantial revision of the timeline. John Hawks makes a similar point, but also highlights the fact that there is an unresolved problem — we need to reconcile paleontological and molecular dates. Even John Wilkins, a “mere” philosopher, weighs in sensibly that teeth are plastic characters in phylogeny, and deplores this peculiar media habit of taking a recalibration of a historical detail as a major reformulation of theory. All these discussions are sober and interested and most important of all, accurate.
The lesson is clear: when you see some wild and crazy claim of scientific revolutions and the demolition of long-held theories, go immediately to the science blogs for some clear-eyed sanity and informed evaluation from experts.