A 47-million-year-old fossil and the dangers of popularizing science

REUTERS/Mike Segar
The primate fossil known as “Ida”: 47 million years old and touted as the “missing link” in the evolution of humans.

New research related to the famous 47-million-year-old fossil Ida cuts open controversy on more than one level. It also offers some sobering lessons for science popularizers.

Remember Ida aka Darwinius masillae? The fossil won instant fame after her debut in May this year. She was featured in a History Channel special and a book, given her own website and even given a temporary starring role as the double O in Google’s logo.

Ida was touted as the “missing link” in the evolution of humans and other higher primates. One television report suggested we humans think of her as our very early aunt.


From the get-go, though, evolutionary biologists debunked the hype. University of Minnesota-Morris Professor PZ Myers put it this way on his Pharyngula blog:

“She’s beautiful and interesting and important, but I do have to take exception to the surprisingly frantic news coverage I’m seeing. She’s being called the ‘missing link in human evolution,’ which is annoying. The whole ‘missing link’ category is a bit of journalistic trumpery: almost every fossil could be called a link, and it feeds the simplistic notion that there could be a single definitive bridge between ancient and modern species. There isn’t: there is the slow shift of whole populations which can branch and diverge.”

Wellllll. Ida actually came from an extinct group of primates that was more closely related to lemurs than to monkeys, apes and humans, the journal Nature  reported this week.

To be sure, she shared features with higher primates.

But those features are an example of convergent evolution not direct lineage, said Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University in New York who was the lead scientist on the research reported this week. In other words, the features evolved independently in unrelated creatures.

Seiffert’s conclusions are based on analysis of another fossil primate, Afradapis longicristatus, which lived some 37 million years ago in Egypt. Seiffert and his team concluded that Ida and this younger fossil both came from adapoids, a group more closely linked to lemurs than to humans.

You can read BBC analysis of Nature’s report here.

Humans: Inevitable or accidental?

Meanwhile, Ida plays into yet another controversy as an example of convergent evolution in which organisms from unrelated ancestors develop similar useful features. Take the wings of bats, birds and insects. They evolved independently, yet they serve similar purposes.

Here’s the controversy in a nutshell:

British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris and others argue that life evolves toward optimum ends. It’s an optimistic view, suggesting that evolution serves our understanding of progress. In that light, intelligence was inevitable, Morris claims. You can find a link here to one of his lectures on the inevitability of humans. In his lectures, Morris rests his arguments on example after example of beneficial features shared by organisms that evolved independently.

But Stephen Jay Gould famously argues in his book “Wonderful Life” that if the tape of life were rewound and played again, it could take a very different course because of chance. Humans might not appear at all in this theoretical second playing of life’s tape. In particular, Gould argued that the human brain was not an inevitable evolutionary adaptation but rather a by-product of natural selection. His was a pessimistic view of evolution in that it debunked the notion that life evolved along a ladder of progress.

Now Ida no doubt will serve Conway Morris’s side of the debate as yet another example of beneficial traits developing through convergent evolution.

Myers, the U of M biologist, is no fan of Conway Morris’ arguments. “Curse you, Simon Conway Morris!” Myers wrote in a commentary on Conway Morris’ book “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe.”

It’s certainly likely that some properties of life are inevitable, Myers acknowledged.

“Conway Morris wants to go further, though, and considers a specifically human-like form and intelligence to be as certain as the appearance of critters that eat other critters,” Myers said. “This is a remarkable conclusion. When I look at the diversity and history of life on Earth, I see a paucity of forms that resemble us—we seem to be oddballs.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/23/2009 - 08:58 am.

    My faith tells me that there is an underlying, intelligent negentropic force at work in all of this, yet allows me to value and appreciate science and scientists for the way it and they broaden our understanding of all things physical and biological and in the process improve the quality of our physical, intellectual, and emotional lives and that of our society.

    I am saddened for those who, out of their lack of trust in God’s presence and guidance, or even in the benevolence of the universe, confine their understanding of the cosmos to the flat earth and domed sky of our ancestors of three thousand years ago, taking as physical and biological truth scriptural accounts that were never understood by those who wrote them and those who used them as anything more than stories that illustrated theological/spiritual truth up until just over 100 years ago when “fundamentalism” and “Biblical inerrancy” were invented ex nihilo in the effort to preserve faith in the face of early science which seemed, at that time, likely to destroy it (the danger of which is now, clearly, passed).

  2. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 10/23/2009 - 06:22 pm.

    Greg, I am not sure what your religious beliefs are, and I share your dismay the prevalente of biblical literalism and its interference with the study of science. None of the rest of what you write can I understand.

    Science cannot claim a teleology of form is inevitable in evolution, because there is no way to test it and there have been so far no indications in any of the means of evolutionary change to indicate that there ever was a “goal” and that once reached evolution in any species will stop. The only way for evolution to stop for any species is extinction.

    Morris can claim that higher intelligence has been an inevitable result of evolution, but it is just a story until something comes along to demonstrate a “purpose.”

  3. Submitted by Terry Trainor on 10/24/2009 - 07:20 am.

    The danger of popularizing science is that the general public might hear and accept some of the concrete claims being made. Then, when those ideas are later discarded, the sheeple might catch on to the fact that the claims were radically overstated in the first place. It is only through popularizing science that people became aware of the Nebraska Man fiasco, the piltdown hoax, the Biogenetic Law hoax, etc. It is only through popularizing science that people became aware that Science accepted the Archaeopteraptor hoax as legitimate evidence of the evolution of dinosaurs to birds. It is only through popularizing science that the public was told that Archaepoteryx was the first bird, now told they are not a bird at all.

    Evolution is a fact.
    Living things do change.
    But common descent is only a poor hypothesis; man and oak tree did NOT descend from a common ancestor.

    Come and discuss the aspects of origins in a CIVIL manner at Talk About Origins forum.

  4. Submitted by Terry Trainor on 10/24/2009 - 07:22 am.

    I thought my web-site would show with my comment;
    Please add it:

  5. Submitted by John Grimes on 10/27/2009 - 01:24 am.

    Terry, You are half-right; popularizing science is a very good idea, if it’s done correctly. But if it’s done incorrectly then indeed, people’s understanding will leave much to be desired, and therefore their expectations will be unrealistic.

    But in any case is it important to note that unlike religion, science doesn’t represent itself as perfect, and it is worthwhile to point out that the hoaxes – all of which date back to the first half of the 20th century – of which you speak form only a very small part of science, and were themselves uncovered as hoaxes by scientists who were working on finding the truth and who didn’t simply accept the finding as dogma.

    And even though they were hoaxes, or errors, (or both) they were still important because scientists have to learn to deal with errors and liars. In the past, since scientific fraud was relatively rare, scientists have generally tended to be a little naive, believing that people are usually honest in their reporting. Now, however, with creation “science”and intelligent design, they are accepting that some people are inveterate liars, and others are sincere but divorced from reality.

    When a scientific theory – what Terry labels as an “idea” – is discarded, it is because scientists have discovered more about a natural phenomena, and have, by consensus, accepted the new theory as a better explanation of the phenomenon.

    This is called “learning,” and it’s a very useful concept. The fact is, religion has never helped us understand even a tiny little shred of how the real world works – religious people certainly have, but their religion was as useful to their research as their choice of soap.

    As long as science is popularized by scientists such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, people who understand and can explain it properly – including mistakes made along the way – it’s a good thing. But it’s true, the media by itself is not capable of doing a good job.

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