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"Missing Link" Cut Short

on March 6, 2010
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ScienceDaily: “
‘Missing Link’ Fossil Was Not Human Ancestor
as Claimed, Anthropologists Say
Many readers have probably forgotten “Ida,” the fossil primate whose fifteen minutes of media-frenzied fame as a “missing link” was cut short.

We tipped readers off about the find last May, shortly before its widely publicized unveiling. Almost immediately, prominent scientists heavily criticized the exaggerated claims in their talks with journalists, and less than a week after Ida was presented, we wrote:

“I would be absolutely dumbfounded if it turns out to be a potential ancestor to humans.”

The bigger story now is how so much of the media was irresponsibly caught up in the hype—and why there was a coordinated media effort in the first place. While the fossil is definitely not a fraud, it appears the hype was: the dramatic “missing link” conclusions presented to the public were not present in the scientific paper, having been removed during the peer review process. Our guess is that after paying an undisclosed but presumably significant sum for the fossil, the financial backers are demanding a high return on the documentary and book—hence the hype, such as comments like, “When our results are published, it will be just like an asteroid hitting the earth” (from study coauthor Jens Franzen, via the promotional website). . . .

Instead, the better journalists and more skeptical scientists responded in just the opposite way, accusing the study authors of “cherry picking” which facts to highlight. “It’s not a missing link, it’s not even a terribly close relative to monkeys, apes and humans, which is the point they’re trying to make,” said Chris Beard, a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He added, “I would be absolutely dumbfounded if it turns out to be a potential ancestor to humans.”

Shortly thereafter Ida’s price tag—$750,000—was revealed, which seemed to seal popular and scientific opinion against the claims its buyers had presented. But it was not until October, by which time the media had forgotten about Ida, that four U.S. scientists authored a more formal criticism of Ida in a Nature letter.

Which brings us to the present, almost a year after Ida’s announcement. A team of scientists piles on more criticism of the “missing link” interpretation of Ida in new papers appearing in the Journal of Human Evolution and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors are the anthropologists Chris Kirk of the University of Texas–Austin and Duke University’s Blythe Williams and Richard Kay, along with evolutionary biologist Callum Ross of the University of Chicago. Williams, the lead author, noted that “The Darwinius research completely ignored [the previous] body of literature [on similar fossils].”

Kirk added, “Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human 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.” Summing the team’s argument, he concluded, “You can forget about Darwinius being a close relative of humans or other anthropoids.”

The scientists (who, we recognize, probably disagree with our view as well) believe Ida is actually an ancestor of modern lemurs and lorises. This is quite similar (minus the evolution) to what we said at the time, and what we still believe: that “[n]othing about this fossil suggests it is anything other than an extinct, lemur-like creature.”


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