Posts Tagged ‘misguided scientists’

Fossil of Ida (Darwinius masillae)

Fossil of Ida (Darwinius masillae)

She’s back in the news, but just barely. That 47 million-years-old skeleton of what may be the earliest-known primate, Darwinius masillae (aka “Ida”), is getting some more attention — at least, in scientific circles.

As you may recall (go here, then come back), there was a lot of hype last year when Ida was revealed to the world with her being trumpeted as “clear proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution” and the “eighth wonder of the world”. Professor Jorn Hurum et al. were pushing the idea that Ida was not lemur-like enough to be a true strepsirrhine, so she had to be a proto-haplorhine, and therefore a distant “missing link” cousin of modern humans. But, in addition to turning up their noses at the sensationalism surrounding the find, critics said the claims being made about Ida’s place in the “family tree” (or, more accurately, “bush”) were questionable, at best, and the remains required further examination by additional experts.

Now, those experts have completed their study and published their own findings in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution,” says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What’s amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it’s nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn’t already know from fossils of closely related species.”

As Blythe Williams, lead researcher and anthropologist at Duke University, pointed out:

There’s this enormous body of literature that has built up over the years. The Darwinius research completely ignored that body of literature.”

Those who determined last year that Ida was a haplorhine highlighted certain features she shared with monkeys, apes and humans — namely, a short snout and a deep jaw. But, Williams’ team points out that this is not uncommon, even among strepsirrhines (i.e., lemurs & lorises). In fact, Ida is missing most of the key anatomical features — e.g., a middle ear with two chambers and a plate of bone that shields the eyes from the chewing muscles — that would place her firmly in the haplorhini Suborder. Thus, says Kirk. “[Y]ou can forget about Darwinius being a close relative of humans or other anthropoids.”

I knew it all along….

Al Gore

Al Gore contemplating how to "spin" the facts

The great bear of enviro-activism has poked his head out from a self-imposed hibernation. We haven’t heard from him in awhile, but Al Gore has a new op-ed piece in the New York Times. Not surprisingly, he minimizes the current climate data scandals, maintains support for the IPCC, and tries to obfuscate by marrying climate change activism with the necessity of energy independence. In other words, he “doubles down” on his support for the idea of, and the fight against, Manmade Catastrophic Global Warming — or Climate Change, if your prefer. (Plus, there are the requisite jabs at free-market capitalism and “showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment.”) This is, of course, not surprising.

I’d like to believe him when he says, “I, for one, genuinely wish that the climate crisis were an illusion.” But, I’m not so sure he is sincere. It depends how much of the phony science he actually believes. Still, Gore is so completely invested — time, money, power, reputation — in the Cause that he will go down fighting to the bitter end. It would take a man of incredible personal & professional integrity to admit he was wrong at this point and start working toward more sensible policies based on reasonable interpretations of real & verifiable data. But, I have no reason to believe that Al Gore is that man.

It seems an example of “climate change fascism” has peaked its head thru the curtain in Copenhagen. At a book-launching press conference today, Stanford’s Professor Stephen Schneider was answering questions from the audience, when journalist and documentarian Phelim McAleer asked the professor some frank questions about the ClimateGate scandal. While Schneider testily gave a non-answer, his assistant tried to take the mic from McAleer. At the end of the talk, McAleer waited patiently to the side for a chance to ask a follow-up. But, Schneider’s assistants got a burly, armed UN security guard to interfere. While the guard (who had no legal reason to do so) got in their faces and threatened the cameraman, Schneider snuck out.

Don’t the climate change doomsayers like Schneider realize how this looks? Can’t they see that avoiding questions and calling security to threaten and run interference only makes people wonder what they are afraid of? Regardless of the calm assurances of Gore et al., I think (and hope) that ClimateGate is the first of many very public cracks in the shaky foundation of Climate Change Science. The tide of opinion was already starting to turn before the scandal broke, but this is the tipping point.

For more details on this incident, read Mike Flynn’s article (with video) at BigGovernment.

Do you remember the introduction to the world of “Ida” this past May? The media frenzy and hype around this small, 47 million-year-old primate went far beyond the usual, even when it comes to the intriguing & controversial issue of human evolution. In addition to publication of the scientific paper itself in PLoS ONE, within a week’s time there was the public “unveiling” at the American Museum of Natural History by NYC Mayor Bloomberg, coverage by People magazine, debut of an official Ida web-site, a book (The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor), and a TV special narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Here’s what the fuss was about….

Many primatologists & paleoanthropologists postulate that, roughly 50-60 million years ago, the original Primate gave “birth” to two Suborders — the Haplorhini (or, “Dry Noses”) and the Strepsirrhini (or, “Wet Noses”). (There’s at least one alternative “school” that breaks them out a little differently, but we’ll stick with this one, for now.) The haplorhines, in turn, gave rise to various branches that produced tarsiers, monkeys, apes, hominids, and eventually modern Man. Meanwhile, the strepsirrhines didn’t change much, leading to today’s lemurs, lorises, & bush babies.

What got people excited was the fact that, while she does have many lemur-like qualities, Ida does not have certain other physical characteristics that would normally place her among the strepsirrhines. Therefore, they concluded, she must be a primitive haplorhine — perhaps even the first! This would make her an evolutionary ancestor to humans, or, at least, a distant cousin.

So, the 95%-complete skeleton became the latest find touted to be a “missing link” in the evolutionary development of Man and “clear proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution”. As Attenborough put it, Ida is “a link between the apes, monkeys and us with the rest of the mammals and ultimately the whole animal kingdom. I think Darwin would have been thrilled.” Lead researcher Jorn Hurum (who named the fossil after his daughter) said, “This fossil rewrites our understanding of the evolution of primates.” At least one paper even called her the “eighth wonder of the world.”


Ida fossil & her x-ray

But, other experts were either surprisingly mum or expressed concern over the hyperbole. Professor John Fleagle of Stony Brook University in New York challenged the claims, cautioning that the paper’s full significance would not be known until other scientists had a chance to properly examine the findings and engage in extensive debate.

The August 2009 issue of the august (pun intended) journal Science featured a review of the Ida book called “Much Hype and Many Errors” by paleoanthropologist Richard F. Kay of Duke University. Noting the sensationalistic writing style in several chapters, Kay laments, “Ida is a reprise of the seamier side of paleontology: the exploitation, with the complicity of major museums, of our natural heritage for profit.” He goes on to point out many inaccuracies and misleading statements, hinting the many errors were largely the result of a fame-seeking carelessness in rushing the book to press in time for the media blitz. Kay then questions the paleontological classification of the fossil by Philip Gingerich, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, concluding “So [Ida] cannot be both an adapoid and a monkey ancestor. [. . .] So, Link‘s premise, that Ida is our ancestor, is fallacious. Ida is a lemur.”

And so the controversy went….

Now, it seems, the final nail may have been put in the coffin of the Ida-as-missing-link theory. Stony Brook University’s Erik Seiffert recently led a team of primatologists and paleoanthropologists that analyzed and compared 360 specific anatomical features of 117 primate species (living & extinct), including another recent (though less complete) specimen, Afradapis longicristatus, from Egypt. The goal of the study was to construct a decisive “family tree” for the Primate Order. Actually, most of the work was done a few months ago, but they put off publication until they had a chance to examine & compare Ida, too. The just-out issue of the journal Nature contains their findings.

As reported by the Associated Press, “The scientists who formally announced the finding said they weren’t claiming [Ida] was a direct ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans. But they did argue that it belongs in the same major evolutionary grouping, and that it showed what an actual ancestor of that era might have looked like. The new analysis says [Ida] does not belong in the same primate category as monkeys, apes and humans. Instead, the analysis concluded, it falls into the other major grouping, which includes lemurs.” (Sound familiar?)

More precisely, while all agree that Ida represents a new genus & species of early primate (Darwinius massillae), it now seems that she does indeed belong in the haplorhine lineage, though as part of a small side-branch that quickly went extinct. Of course, this means she cannot be a “missing link” to humans. Another very important point is that those characteristics Ida shares with the higher primates must have appeared separately from the anthropoids. This is yet another case of “convergent evolution” — something that appears to have happened quite a bit over the eons but is not supposed to be possible within the neo-Darwinian paradigm. How embarrassing!

Anthropology professor Eric Sargis of Yale is “not surprised” at the results of the Seiffert team’s analysis. The University of Toronto’s paleoanthropologist David Begun says this “confirms what most scientists think.” For his part, Hurum seems unfazed, saying “we are happy to start the scientific discussion” about where Ida & her kin fit in the primate “family tree”.

Why do I bring up all of this controversy over Ida, anyway? Well, it is NOT to cast aspersions upon scientists in general or evolutionists, or to accuse anyone of duplicity. But there are a few lessons to be had from all this, reminders of things we should always keep in mind.

1) Scientists are human, too. (Heh!) OK, what I mean is that, despite the objective nature of the scientific process, the people doing the science still have biases to deal with. It may be a particular philosophy of and approach to science; or, favoring a particular (personal?) model/theory; or, pressure to publish a paper or make sufficient progress to keep their grant; etc. These can lead to hopeful, yet hasty, conclusions, however rational they may seem at the time.

2) A certain amount of “talking up” one’s research is to be expected and is generally accepted within the scientific community. In order to justify funding, obtain desirable positions and other opportunities, etc., one must show progress, publish papers, and get people excited about what they are doing. Sometimes doing this amongst fellow researchers and academics is sufficient; but, sometimes they need a little boost, so they take it to the public via the media. (NASA and others in space exploration do this all the time.) Unfortunately, this can be taken too far, as with the case of Ida. Which leads to our third lesson….

3) As exemplified by Professors Fleagle and Kay’s comments above, the flap within the scientific community centers on two separate-but-related things. First, the lack of detailed documentation to support the initial researchers’ interpretation of the data presented in the paper, book, and documentary. As pointed out by freelance science writer & blogger Brian Switek: “Even though the authors of the paper constructed a very simple cladogram, they did not undertake a full, rigorous cladistic analysis to support their claims. I am baffled as to how they could stress the significance of this fossil without undertaking the requisite research to support their hypothesis.” From what I have read, Hurum’s supporting analysis/documentation is still a work in progress.

The other half of this is, of course, the necessity for peer review. It isn’t perfect, but the peer review process allows for more objective analysis by other scientists. Most welcome this (at least to some degree), because such critiques lead to identification of weaknesses in their theories and interpretations, which then shows them what areas to concentrate on in order to strengthen those theories. Everyone — scientists, media, politicians, and the rest of us — must recognize the need for rigorous research standards, healthy exchange of ideas, and vigorous debate.

(Ironically, though the media blitz was not nearly as great, Charles Darwin bypassed peer review when he published his book On the Origin of Species.)

The second issue is that of the questionable motives — ostensibly, profit and fame — that drove Hurum and others to sensationalize the find and push it out to the general public so quickly. As Kay said, this belies the “seamier side” of science. Some may think such a “purist” opinion is too stiff or behind-the-times or just unrealistic. Regardless, the concern that money & headlines can compromise the accuracy and objectivity of scientific research is a valid one.

4) The whole business of properly classifying the fossil record, especially hominids and humans, is all very complicated and depends on relatively few bones and a lot of inference & conjecture, with no definitive links. (I’ve probably rankled quite a few with that statement, but I’ll address the broader issue of “missing links” some other time.) Indeed, there are many different positions within the scientific community on the details of how the various species are connected. Those who try to figure it out solely through morphology (i.e., the shapes of anatomical structures), such as Seiffert’s team, often conclude one set of connections, while those who look at the genetics come up with a different “family tree”. Remember this the next time you hear or read somebody speaking as if everything is very well-known and fits together all neat & tidy.

Here’s the bottom line….

Ida is indeed a fantastic find — an amazingly preserved, near-complete skeleton of a new genus & species — that is proving to be very interesting. Her existence may even throw (yet another) monkey wrench into the reigning understanding of primate evolution. But, it is becoming clearer & clearer that she is not the much-trumpeted “missing link” that Hurum et al. would like us to think she is. At least, that’s my take on it.

I conclude with a quote from David Tyler of the Access Research Network ( “The best outcome of all this is for scientists to demonstrate more humility in handling data. So many seem to grasp at some data and brandish ‘evidence’ as though it provides a definitive answer to controversy. But this is not how data should be handled in research. Data needs to be interpreted and history shows that there is always more than one way of interpreting it. If we can all adopt a ‘multiple working hypotheses’ approach when using the scientific method, it will be progress indeed.”