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another missing link...

This morning's NZ Herald carried a story from the UK Telegraph under the headline "Child's skeleton missing link to man's ape-like forebears.' It could have been worse: the Telegraph's headline was 'Missing link between man & apes found' (sigh). I read the article & have to confess a certain amount of disappointment - because this seems to be another case of the press release pre-dating the actual scientific paper describing the remains. (A bit like all the hoo-rah surrounding 'Ida', really. And one has to wonder why this is so.)

The new fossil appears to be contemporaneous with Homo habilis, & in fact the story suggests that it may provide a link between habilis & the more 'ape-like' australopiths (an interesting idea, given that habilis is itself fairly similar to the australopiths in many ways). Regardless of this, it does sound like an interesting specimen, given that it's described as 'an almost-complete skeleton' in the Telegraph story.

But some of the statements seem rather overblown - we're told that the skeleton 'will allow scientists to answer key questions... [such as] when they began walking upright on two legs.'  Yet we already know that the trend to bipedalism began much earlier than this (& may even have been a trait found in the most recent common ancestor between chimps and humans), so this is not really a biggie. And while the new fossil may well prove to fill some gaps in our knowledge of our family tree, it is not going to have us 'rewrite the story of human evolution'! (Several of the experts quoted in the story qualify their statements with 'may' & 'if' &  'could': they too will be waiting with interest for the actual release of the full scientific description of this find.)

I would love for this new fossil to be a clear window into our past. But I wish, oh how I wish, that press release and scientific paper could have appeared together, instead of the media flurry preceding the information that would let us make sense of it all. Not least because, by the time the actual paper comes out - later this week, according to the Telegraph release - the 'yet another missing link' idea will be firmly at the front of people's minds, with all the polarisation of opinion that this implies. (Read the comments following the news story, to get a feel for what I mean.)

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My reading is that this "press release" isn't just ahead of a scientific publication, it's ahead of their own formal announcement, which isn't to come until Thursday. The word "teaser" comes to mind.

The creationists are at it the comments to the Telegraph piece too...

Which is just what you'd expect. Every time some sub-editor comes up with a phrase like 'rewrite the story of human evolution', you can guarantee a creationist response along the lines of 'see, those silly scientists, they just make stuff up. If they have to rewrite it, then obviously evolution is wrong.'
And yes, I know that last comment will doubtless be quote-mined in 5... 4... 3... :-)

Laelaps (author of the article Alison pointed to in her previous post for those not familiar with him) has just tweeted:

"Who is helped when writers who know almost zip about human evo hype a discovery that is not even published yet? No one"

and earlier,

"I wonder why hype over latest hominin find has erupted before the paper has become available" (pointing to a Times article on the same story)

followed by,

"How can we accurately appraise the new find if we can't see it? Are early reports accurate, or is it mostly PR hype?"

The latter is exactly the same point I commented on my blog a little while ago in a different context (post-embargo publication delays):

http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/02/25/post-embargo-publication-delays-be-gone/

PS: I suspect you beat Brian on this :-)

My thoughts exactly. On the face of it this is another PR-hyping exercise, just as we saw for 'Ida' (see link in post above). And if this really is the case, then why? To drive up interest in another TV program? The Telegraph item is certainly more puff than substance.

Brian (aka Laelaps to clue others in...) was pointing at this article:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article7087670.ece

which does better. The first comment to this article is interesting :

"30 years ago, Phillip Tobias (mentioned above) told me how the University of Witwatersrand acquired the Sterkfontein fossil site (and the nearby Kromdrai farm) - to stop the Afrikaaner Dutch Reformed Church buying it. They wanted to dynamite the site as fossils were considered the 'works of the devil'.

"He also told me a story about delivering a lecture on Sterkfontein hominids in South Africa, and being asked at the end if the 'creature was black'"

Brings to mind part of the story (perhaps apocryphal?) around Dart's discovery of the Taung child. By implication this likely human ancestor would have been black - didn't go down too well... (I forget where I first heard that one.)

Read this on twitter:

edyong209 #doinitright ;-) RT @hannahdev I had a big warning sign at the top of my copy **Do Not put "missing link" in header**

Brian now has an article up about this issue:

http://scienceblogs.com/laelaps/2010/04/hominin_hype.php

(Haven't time to read it until later.)

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Recent Comments

  • Grant: Read this on twitter: edyong209 #doinitright ;-) RT @hannahdev I read more
  • Alison Campbell: Brings to mind part of the story (perhaps apocryphal?) around read more
  • Grant: Brian (aka Laelaps to clue others in...) was pointing at read more
  • Alison Campbell: My thoughts exactly. On the face of it this is read more
  • Grant: Laelaps (author of the article Alison pointed to in her read more
  • Alison Campbell: Which is just what you'd expect. Every time some sub-editor read more
  • Grant: My reading is that this "press release" isn't just ahead read more