Posts Tagged ‘scientific controversy’

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.

The 2004 discovery (reported in 2006) of a well-preserved fossil creature dubbed Tiktaalik was hailed as the “missing link” that finally solidified the “fish to tetrapod” transition — a “snapshot” of “a fossil fish in the act of adapting toward a life on land”. Dated to 375-383 Mya, Tiktaalik was concluded to be an intermediary between the sarcopterygian fishes (i.e., Eusthenopteron and Panderichthys) and early tetrapods (i.e., Acanthostega and Ichthyostega). Or, as some call it, a “fishapod”. Some paleontologists have made highly controversial claims of evidence for a “wrist” and fingers, as well as muscular forefins. It had a spiracle, and evidence suggests lungs & gills and eventual development of a more robust ribcage. Along with certain intercranial structures, all these developments were believed to allow Tiktaalik to breathe and support itself on solid ground. Tiktaalik is also the first fish (or, something like it) known to have a “neck”, because it lacked the bony plates in the gill area which restrict head movement.

Some have argued that it is more appropriate to classify Tiktaalik as simply a fish, rather than part-fish/part-amphibian. Notably, its fin is completely finlike, showing no real evidence of transforming into a foot, which is precisely the key feature needed to justify calling it a “transitional form” from fish to tetrapod.  It is also an “inconvenience” that Tiktaalik had no precursors to fingers like Panderichthys did, despite the fact that Tiktaalik is supposed to be further along the evolutionary ladder. Although the Tiktaalik specimens are incredibly well-preserved, they shed little light on the evolution of the soft anatomy requisite for living on land. Furthermore, a true intermediate form would have needed to simultaneously be evolving many features & abilities just to survive its transition from water-dweller to land-dweller — e.g., new ways to keep from drying out on land, specialized structures for breathing oxygen, new methods of obtaining food and water, etc.

In 2008, Jennifer Clack, Per Ahlberg, et al. published their findings on Ventastega, another fossil discovery dating to 365 Mya. This basil tetrapod, which some factors suggest lived in a tidal sea, was “probably more aquatic than terrestrial,” yet “it was more tetrapod than fish….” They classified it as intermediate between the ‘elpistostegids’ (e.g., Panderichthys & Tiktaalik) and Devonian tetrapods (e.g., Acanthostega & Ichthyostega). As far as I can tell, though, they have no actual Ventastega fossils dating earlier than Acanthostega, so this transitional status is no more than “educated speculation”. Plus, it isn’t as “advanced” as some other tetrapods, so it seems to be out of place or anachronistic.

Now, here is what blew everything out of the water, so to speak. Recently, at an old quarry in southeastern Poland were found multiple sets of tracks of a tetrapod — actually, from multiple individuals of different sizes — in what looks to be an ancient marine shoreline. According to Per Ahlberg of Sweden’s Uppsala University, a member of the team that found the tracks, “[They are] fossil of footprints that give us the earliest record of how our very distant ancestors moved out of the water and moved on to the land and took their first steps.”

Tetrapod tracks

397 Mya Tetrapod tracks (borrowed from BBC News)

The footprints, some of which show distinct signs of digits and ankles, date much earlier than they “should”; specifically, they are quite solidly placed at 395-397 million years old. That is 12 million years or more before Tiktaalik, which rules out Tiktaalik as transitional between fish and the first tetrapod. In fact, this now pushes the earliest known tetrapod (though we don’t have an actual skeletal fossil to name, yet) back by at least 18 million years. Furthermore, these trackways “show that the first tetrapods thrived in the sea, trampling the mud of coral-reef lagoons; this is at odds with the long-held view that river deltas and lakes were the necessary environments for the transition from water to land during vertebrate evolution.”

What to make of all this? It is a reminder of a few things that we often need reminding of. First, the oldest known example of a thing is not always the oldest ever. This is just as true in paleontology as it is in other historical sciences, like archaeology. This is often true for the latest known examples, as well. Second, morphologically transitional forms are not always chronologically transitional, and vice versa. That is, Thing X may have features that look to be a mix of Thing A and Thing B, but dating methods sometimes show that Thing X cannot possibly have been a developmental intermediate between A and B. Thus, any theory that assumed such would be false. (Remember the case of the Archaeopteryx?) This is all the more reason to remember that such theories must be held with reserve, always provisional upon things like further physical specimens for evidence, better and more-refined technologies, and mathematical probabilities of events within known parameters. Also, beware of letting assumptions & biases get in the way of facts.

This brings me to my third observation, which is that, once again, the “proof” for neo-Darwinism isn’t nearly as solid as many of its proponents like to proclaim. Indeed, even before this current discovery, there were many competing ideas of how to best classify the various fishes, potential fishapods, and primitive amphibians, precisely because the different mosaics of “transitional” features found in different epochs make it far from clearcut. For example, was Panderichthys a fish or a fishapod? Was Acanthostega a fishapod or a true tetrapod? One’s opinion on matters like these determine where one thinks they should go in the “tree of life”, which, of course, is actually more of a bush. Indeed, many different models have been advanced and then abandoned over the years. The trackways in Poland just throw another wrench into the works.

With the above said, this latest find does NOT necessarily disprove evolutionary theory. It merely means that the EARLIEST tetrapods are older than previously thought AND that they are not quite where they were expected. Paleontologists must now look at Early Devonian (416-397 Mya) formations for even EARLIER transitions. They will also need to find EVEN EARLIER lobe-finned or other fishes as candidates for the tetrapods’ progenitors. (Perhaps Coelacanth will get another chance?) And what of Tiktaalik and the other creatures discussed above? It is still possible that they do represent a separate and unrelated, fish-to-tetrapod transition. But, one has to wonder if the Darwinian process can account for all the genetic & systemic changes needed to go from fully aquatic to land-dwelling, especially in the required timeframe of just a few million years.

Of course, this assumes that the fishes & fishapods actually transitioned into anything new. Perhaps they were stable forms in their own right, well-adapted (or, well-designed, if you prefer) for living in their particular environment. After all, they seem to have been fully-functional, lacking any unfinished, half-formed adaptations. They were not mere works-in-progress.

I’ll finish with this quote from Henry Gee, editor of the journal Nature: “A fairly complete picture of tetrapod evolution, built up over the past twenty years, has been replaced by a blank canvas overnight…. It means that the neatly gift-wrapped correlation between stratigraphy and phylogeny, in which elpistostegids represent a transitional form in the swift evolution of tetrapods in the mid-Frasnian [stage of the Devonian Period], is a cruel illusion. If – as the Polish footprints show – tetrapods already existed in the Eifelian [stage], then an enormous evolutionary void has opened beneath our feet.”

At the very least, the discovery in Poland represents somewhat of a paradigm shift. It should be fascinating to see what evidence future discoveries bring to this debate….

First the California Science Center agreed to show the pro-Intelligent Design film “Darwin’s Dilemma” last October (along with a pro-Darwin film). Then they changed their minds when pressured by associates at the Smithsonian Institution. Their excuse was that a rental agreement had been violated by the film’s sponsor, the American Freedom Alliance (AFA). The AFA has brought suit and claims the cancellation was unconstitutional (see LA Times article here). Now, recent evidence has revealed an illegal cover-up of the details behind the censorship. Here‘s the story…

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.

For those who somehow missed this news item from several days ago, hundreds of email messages & other documents (some as old as 13 years) from the UK’s University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit were “leaked” to the public. Though illegally obtained (i.e., hacked), they have so far proven to be genuine. The correspondence between prominent climate change activist scientists are quite enlightening and damaging to the global warming / climate change cause.

As Paul Driessen discusses in his recent article, “They reveal an unprecedented, systematic conspiracy to stifle discussion and debate, conceal and manipulate data, revise temperature trends that contradict predictions of dangerous warming, skew the peer-review process, pressure scientific journals and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to publish alarmist studies and exclude dissenting analyses, and avoid compliance with Freedom of Information requests.” Serious accusations, but Driessen gives examples in his piece.

Now, no one is saying that EVERY scientist pushing the pro-global warming agenda is involved in some giant conspiracy to grab power and make fortunes while destroying jobs, ruining the world economy, etc. Many (perhaps most?) have simply been duped by fellow scientists & politicians, pressured by idealogues, and/or are guilty of sloppy science. (For example, programming their computer models with certain cause-and-effect assumptions that have not actually been firmly established, or leaving out / glossing over certain inconvenient data.) And the skeptic should, as always, take care not to overstate the impact of any particular statement or finding that seems to favor his case or discredit his opponent’s. But, anyone with a modicum of intellectual honesty must admit that these current revelations, regardless of how or when they came out, cast doubt not only on the integrity of those directly involved in these particular communications but on the validity of the whole Gore-ite argument for catastrophic, man-made global warming / climate change.

There is an excellent “companion” article from Christopher Booker at the The Telegraph. After laying out the significance of exactly who is involved in the scandal (e.g., CRU Director Phil Jones, Penn State’s Michael “Hockey-stick” Mann, etc.) and what they did, Booker concludes “Our hopelessly compromised scientific establishment cannot be allowed to get away with a whitewash of what has become the greatest scientific scandal of our age.”

If you want to read more material that is not the typical alarmist propaganda, I recommend books by people like Christopher C. Horner, Roy W. Spencer, Patrick J. Michaels, and Steven J. Milloy. They explain what the scientific evidence really says and what the consequences of following the alarmist agenda will be for America and the world if people don’t wake up and STOP it!

I don’t want to get into the whole “global warming / climate change” topic TOO much now, because I am still planning a series of posts about it. But, I thought this article in Germany’s Der Spiegel was worth bringing up.

According to studies by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Great Britain (known for being strongly pro-global warming), “the world grew warmer by 0.07 degrees Celsius from 1999 to 2008 and not by the 0.2 degrees Celsius assumed” by UN studies. After adjustments for “El Niño and La Niña, the resulting temperature trend is reduced to 0.0 degrees Celsius — in other words, a standstill.” How embarrassing! And somewhat ironic that these findings have been published so close to December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Climate Change "Standstill" Graphs

One very interesting concession is that “Even though the temperature standstill probably has no effect on the long-term warming trend, it does raise doubts about the predictive value of climate models….” For one thing, the validity of the whole “global average temperature” concept is questionable, given that the weather/climate system of the planet is so complex. Although there are over 500 weather stations in the global temperature-monitoring network (mostly erected in the past couple decades, as I recall), there are still blind-spots like the “Arctic hole”. So, our readings are, at best, incomplete.

As meteorologist Mojib Latif of the Leibniz Institute (and others) points out, “We have to explain to the public that greenhouse gases will not cause temperatures to keep rising from one record temperature to the next, but that they are still subject to natural fluctuations.” There are many natural factors — e.g., cyclic ocean currents, volcanic eruptions, solar activity, etc. — and scientists like Latif differ in opinion as to which has had the biggest affect on the recent stagnation. But, perhaps such candor is a sign of a corner being turned in the global warming / climate change debate?…

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.”