Ida: on second viewing

In a barrage of stage-managed publicity, a genuine rock-star has been unveiled to the world. Older than Keith Richards, bonier than Mick Jagger, a better sax player than Clarence Clemons, Ida the fossilised, lemur-monkey creature is already better-known than Pink and Hannah Montana—whoever the hell they are.

If the hype-machine is to be believed, Ida (pronounced Eeda, but more properly pronounced Darwinius masillae) is the biggest event in biology since the Cambrian Explosion: she is the Rosetta Stone, an asteroid hitting the Earth, the greatest fossil find of the century (are we really 8½ years into it already?); Ida is the Second-Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, Duke Nukem Forever, dark energy, the secret Coke™ formula; she is Catherine Deneuve, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Imbruglia, and Cheryl Ladd in that black bikini (you had the be there, kids) all rolled into one. Above all, Ida is The Missing Link between us primates and the rest of the Animal Kingdom. W00t!!

I watched the TV documentary, of course. Bolstered by several stiff whiskies, I watched and tweeted with like-minded, equally irritated individuals. At the end, I gave the documentary two fully opposable thumbs down.

But was I being fair to the documentary? Had my immense—and, as far as I'm concerned, totally justified—irritation at the media hype surrounding Ida's launch pre-disposed me to dismiss the documentary? This morning, I decided to watch it again, trying to imagine my reaction had I known nothing about the hype.

On second viewing, I don't think the documentary was all that bad. Yes, they should never have used the misleading phrase missing link, and, yes, Sir David Attenborough's script could have been made less misleading in places, and, yes, there were a few subjects conveniently glossed over (such as why was there a need to keep Ida so secret? where did the money to buy her come from? and who was excluded from the dream team which got to examine her?). But, on the whole—well, on 90% of the whole—I think the documentary gave the viewer some interesting insights into the fossil trade, the wonderful Messel Pit, primate evolution, and, in particular, how scientists go about making deductions from fossil evidence.

As to the case made for Ida being an early anthropoid rather than an early prosimian (i.e. on the primate branch of the family tree, rather than on the branch containing lemurs, lorises and tarsiers), I, a total non-expert, think the scientists made some pretty compelling arguments. But I guess we'll have to wait for the peer reviews.

Three things are for certain, though:

  1. media hype only does disservice to science;
  2. Ida is most definitely not a missing link (because there is no such thing as a missing link);
  3. Ida really is very, very beautiful:
Darwinius masillae

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…


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