Evolution in the News - June 2009
by Do-While Jones

Ida, The Missing Link

The Internet went crazy over the report of a new human ancestor. This tells us more about the news media than about human evolution.

First, let us thank all the people who sent us Internet links to news stories regarding a fossil primate named Ida (pronounced EE-duh). We really appreciate all of you keeping your eyes and ears open for evolutionary news, and sending the links to us.

According to these news stories, Ida was a human ancestor. Ida was also the subject of a two-hour special titled, The Link, on the History Channel.

In case you missed it, here are the pure, unvarnished facts, with all the sensational speculation removed:

For two years scientists have been secretly studying an exceptionally well preserved fossil. At first glance (and second glance, and third glance) the skeleton appears to be identical to a lemur. But, upon very careful examination, it was discovered that Ida is missing a grooming claw on one finger and has slightly different front teeth from a lemur. And, upon very very very careful examination, it was discovered that one of her ankle bones looks slightly more like a monkey’s than a lemur’s. This “amazing combination of monkey and lemur characteristics” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the monkeys in Africa evolved from this lemur in Germany.

Commentary

Let’s ponder what this fossil tells us, not only about evolution, but also about the news media.

As we said, we were inundated by emails from people giving us links to a variety of Internet news sources proclaiming that Ida was the proof that men and apes have a common ancestor. Here is a sampling.

Scientists have unveiled a 47-million-year-old fossilised skeleton of a monkey hailed as the missing link in human evolution. 1

Scientists say the fossil, dubbed "Ida," is a transitional species, living around the time the primate lineage split into two groups: A line that would eventually produce humans and monkeys, and another that would give rise to primates such as lemurs. 2

The 47m-year-old primate – named Ida – has been hailed as the fossil equivalent of a "Rosetta Stone" for understanding the critical early stages of primate evolution. 3

"This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of the mammals. This is the one that connects us directly with them," trumpeted Britain's nature television star Sir David Attenborough about today's announcement that "Ida," a lemur-like fossil that has been studied in secret for years, is now being unveiled to the world. 4

The unveiling, at New York's Museum of Natural History, was promoted by a press release for the cable TV show History, which called it a "revolutionary scientific find that will change everything."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among the speakers at the news conference, called it an "astonishing breakthrough." 5

The questions that should immediately arise are, where, and how, did these news sources get their information? We don’t know, but we are pretty sure we know how it DIDN’T happen. Those Internet news sources weren’t reading the technical literature, and reporting on something interesting they read (and understood). They could not possibly have reached those conclusions if they had actually read it. Here’s how the peer-reviewed article begins.

Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology

Jens L. Franzen, Philip D. Gingerich, Jörg Habersetzer, Jørn H. Hurum, Wighart von Koenigswald, B. Holly Smith

Abstract

Background

The best European locality for complete Eocene mammal skeletons is Grube Messel, near Darmstadt, Germany. Although the site was surrounded by a para-tropical rain forest in the Eocene, primates are remarkably rare there, and only eight fragmentary specimens were known until now. Messel has now yielded a full primate skeleton. The specimen has an unusual history: it was privately collected and sold in two parts, with only the lesser part previously known. The second part, which has just come to light, shows the skeleton to be the most complete primate known in the fossil record.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We describe the morphology and investigate the paleobiology of the skeleton. The specimen is described as Darwinius masillae n.gen. n.sp. belonging to the Cercamoniinae. Because the skeleton is lightly crushed and bones cannot be handled individually, imaging studies are of particular importance. Skull radiography shows a host of teeth developing within the juvenile face. Investigation of growth and proportion suggest that the individual was a weaned and independent-feeding female that died in her first year of life, and might have attained a body weight of 650–900 g had she lived to adulthood. She was an agile, nail-bearing, generalized arboreal quadruped living above the floor of the Messel rain forest.

Conclusions/Significance

Darwinius masillae represents the most complete fossil primate ever found, including both skeleton, soft body outline and contents of the digestive tract. Study of all these features allows a fairly complete reconstruction of life history, locomotion, and diet. Any future study of Eocene-Oligocene primates should benefit from information preserved in the Darwinius holotype. Of particular importance to phylogenetic studies, the absence of a toilet claw and a toothcomb demonstrates that Darwinius masillae is not simply a fossil lemur, but part of a larger group of primates, Adapoidea, representative of the early haplorhine diversification. 6

If you read this, what would you naturally conclude? From the title you learn that it is a complete skeleton, that it was found in Germany, and that the article will talk about its shape (morphology) and the fossils in the rocks in which it was found (paleobiology). Since the earliest missing links are supposed to come from Africa, not Germany, one would not expect this article to have anything to do with human evolution. The abstract says the fossil is significant because it is so complete and well preserved. The only hint in the abstract that it could be any kind of link is the phrase, “not simply a fossil lemur, but part of a larger group of primates, Adapoidea, representative of the early haplorhine diversification.” Would that make journalists (using the term loosely) sit up and take notice?

If you print out the whole article, make sure there are at least 37 sheets of paper in your printer. In it you will find it consists of fascinating paragraphs like this one:

Rostrum and orbit.

Nasale: The anterior parts of the nasals are not preserved. The ventral suture with the premaxilla is about one-third of the length of the suture with the maxilla and lachrymal (or median process of maxilla, see below). Following the impressions, the right nasal extends mesially to above I2 whereas the left ends above the border between I1 and I2. The right nasal contains three similar sized slit-like nasal foramina. The most caudal one is situated above the anterior rim of the orbit. The most mesial one occurs above the tip of the deciduous upper canine. 7

We are thinking about marketing this paragraph as a sleep aid.

The title of the article promised to explain what the fossil looks like, and they really delivered on their promise. Everything you want to know about the shape of the fossil (and a lot of stuff you didn’t want to know) is in that paper. So, let’s just skip to the end of the paper and see what the author’s conclusions are.

Conclusions

We can now document the history of an extraordinary fossil, here named Darwinius masillae. Its two parts, although split by private collectors and dispersed to two continents, are virtually reunited here 26 years after discovery. The fossil, including an entire soft body outline (preserved in the Oslo specimen) as well as contents of the digestive tract (investigated in the Wyoming specimen), documents paleobiology and morphology of an extinct early primate from the Eocene of Germany.

After comparative study, we conclude that the Darwinius holotype was a juvenile female, weaned and feeding independently on fruit and leaves in the middle floor of early Middle Eocene rain forest of Messel. She may have been nocturnal. She moved as an agile, nail bearing arboreal quadruped and, although perhaps only 60 percent of adult weight at death (Fig. 12), would have grown to be the size of an adult female Hapalemur, in the range of 650–900 g. Her pattern of tooth development shows that her species grew up fairly quickly and suggests that she died before one year of age.

Darwinius masillae is now the third primate species from the Messel locality that belongs to the cercamoniine adapiforms, in addition to Europolemur koenigswaldi and E. kelleri. Darwinius masillae is unrelated to Godinotia neglecta from Geiseltal, which was much more slenderly built. Darwinius and Godinotia neglecta are similar, however, in the degree of reduction of their antemolar dentition. Morphological characteristics preserved in Darwinius masillae enable a rigorous comparison with the two principal subdivisions of living primates: Strepsirrhini and Haplorhini. Defining characters of Darwinius ally it with early haplorhines rather than strepsirrhines. We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.

Darwinius masillae is important in being exceptionally well preserved and providing a much more complete understanding of the paleobiology of an Eocene primate than was available in the past. 8

If this fossil really is the long sought-after missing link, shouldn’t the authors have mentioned it in the conclusion? But the last sentence merely says that Ida is important simply because the fossil is complete and well preserved.

This is why we believe that all those “journalists,” reading this paper, did not independently come to the conclusion that Ida is a missing link. Furthermore, the PLoSONE paper and the reviews were all published on the same day. The reviewers didn’t have time to notice the article and write their reviews. Clearly, somebody had to tell them what to write.

The Dogs That Didn’t Bark

Sherlock Holms once solved a mystery by noting that a dog, which should have barked, did not. There were some dogs that should have barked about this article, but didn’t. There was nothing in Science, Nature, or New Scientist about Ida. They must not have been told in advance, because they didn’t say anything about Ida until their next regularly scheduled issues. They did some real journalism, and they told a completely different story.

We will start with the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science. The AAAS, as you probably know, is a powerful political lobbying group that strongly supports teaching only evolution in the American public schools. If Ida really is a missing link, they would be the first to say so. Instead, they make a personal attack on one of the authors before dismissing his findings.

The man behind the fossil is paleontologist Jørn Hurum of the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo. With a lock of long hair falling boyishly over his face, a photogenic smile, and a Nordic accent, Hurum—who stars in a weekly children's science show on Norwegian television—makes the dusty science of primate origins come alive as he describes Ida. "This is like finding the Holy Grail for paleontologists," he enthused. "This is the first link to all humans."

Maybe so—but probably not. Many of the leading scientists who study primate evolution don't think Ida lives up to Hurum's billing as a human ancestor; most think she's a relative of lemurs instead. 9

The subtitle of the Nature article on the subject was

A hyped-up fossil find highlights the potential dangers of publicity machines. 10

It focused on that fact that “the circumstances surrounding the paper's publication were anything but normal.” Nature dismissed Ida as a well-preserved, but insignificant fossil.

New Scientist didn’t have anything good to say, either. On page 3 they criticized the researchers in a one-paragraph editorial titled, “Overselling Ida”. A few pages later they printed a short, very critical article in which they said,

But this does not necessarily make Ida a close relative of anthropoids – the group of primates that includes monkeys, apes – and humans. In order to establish that connection, Ida would have to have anthropoid-like features that evolved after anthropoids split away from lemurs and other early primates. Here, alas, Ida fails miserably.

So, Ida is not a "missing link" – at least not between anthropoids and more primitive primates. Further study may reveal her to be a missing link between other species of Eocene adapiforms, but this hardly solidifies her status as the "eighth wonder of the world". 11

Incompetent, Undependable News

So, the real significance of Ida has more to do with the incompetence of the popular news media than with evolution. The news media was manipulated into promoting a History Channel special titled, The Link. They were willing accomplices because they wanted to present evidence that the missing link has been found, even though it hasn’t.

The History Channel was duped, too. But they wanted to believe the lie because the show probably got higher ratings than most of their other shows. It’s a short-term gain; but in the long run, the History Channel loses credibility and gets a big black eye for making Ida out to be something she’s not.

Unfortunately, innocently ignorant people will think that a missing link has been found which proves humans evolved from apes. You can’t really blame them because they hear the lie from so many sources.

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Footnotes:

1 Watts, Sky News Online. May 20, 2009 “Scientists Unveil Missing Link In Evolution”, http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Missing-Link-Scientists-In-New-York-Unveil-Fossil-Of-Lemur-Monkey-Hailed-As-Mans-Earliest-Ancestor/Article/200905315284582
2 CNN, May 19, 2009, “Scientists piece together human ancestry”, http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/05/19/human.ancestor/
3 James Randerson guardian.co.uk, 19 May 2009, “Fossil Ida: extraordinary find is 'missing link' in human evolution”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/may/19/ida-fossil-missing-link
4 Drew Zahn, WorldNetDaily, May 19, 2009 “Media blitz: 'We found missing link'”, http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=98642
5 Ritter, AP Science Write, May 19, 2009, “Early skeleton sheds light on primate evolution”, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090519/ap_on_sc/ancient_primate_4
6 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0005723
7 ibid.
8 ibid.
9 Ann Gibbons, Science, 29 May 2009, “Celebrity Fossil Primate: Missing Link or Weak Link?” pp. 1124 - 1125
10 Editorial, Nature, 28 May 2009, “Media frenzy”, p. 484
11 Chris Beard, New Scientist, 21 May 2009, “A fine fossil – but a missing link she’s not”, pages 18-19, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17173-why-ida-fossil-is-not-the-missing-link.html