Tag Archives: hype

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

Darwinius masillae

Waddya know? It's a tree!

The infamous New Scientist cover

The latest 15 editions of New Scientist, unopened since their stupid Darwin Was Wrong marketing hype.

They're backing up like turds in a poorly maintained sewer. Ever since New Scientist published its stupid and irresponsible Darwin Was Wrong story in the midst of the Darwin bicentenary celebrations, this particular long-term subscriber just hasn't felt like reading the damn rag. And, as with a sewage back-up, I'm not at all sure what to do about it.

Darwin was wrong, you see, because species aren't really related to each other in a tree-like structure.

Meanwhile, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which has been amassing genetic sequences for three decades, recently published the largest phylogenetic tree ever constructed.

Yes, that's right, a tree.

Do you think someone should tell the poor dupes that they've got it all wrong?

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See also:

Dead trees

Letter to New Scientist:

Sir/Madam,

Compare and contrast:

"Nobody is arguing—yet —that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants… [I]t is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another" [Graham Lawton, New Scientist, 24 Jan 2009].

"Darwin was wrong: cutting down the tree of life" [New Scientist cover, 24 Jan 2009].

I appreciate you need to hype up your headlines to sell more dead trees, but I expected better of New Scientist—especially just one week after your own editorial vowed to strive to avoid sexing up headlines in future. Do your marketing people think they've identified a gap in the creationist market or something?

I presume, in future, whenever you show a clade diagram in one of your articles, its caption will come with the disclaimer, "Please Note: This is wrong".

More science, less marketing hype please.

Richard Carter, FCD
The Friends of Charles Darwin
http://friendsofdarwin.com/
Charlie is our Darwin

Hands off our tree!

Tree of Life

I think so too!

*sigh*

The latest edition of New Scientist (my butler reads it) contains a very interesting, albeit irritating article entitled Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life, which asserts that, what with horizontal gene transfer and hybridisation and all that malarkey, life's genealogy should not be represented, as Darwin said, by a tree, but rather by a convoluted web.

I say bollocks to that.

Yes, the history of life on Earth is indeed far more complex than even Darwin could have imagined. Life really isn't that simple. It never is. Newton's Laws of Motion are a wonderfully elegant set of equations that explain the motions of the heavens. They also, to Einstein's great regret, happen to be flawed. But they were still good enough to get us to the sodding moon. Rutherford's model of the atom is, we now realise, wrong, but it's a hell of a lot easier to explain to young would-be scientists than fuzzy blobs which don't seem to be able to make up their minds whether to be waves or particles. Such horrors are best held in reserve for unleashing on unsuspecting undergraduates. (I write from bitter personal experience.)

Darwin's tree of life is still a pretty good approximation of the genealogy of species—whatever that word means in this hopelessly complex genetic age. It's a useful metaphor that even young children can understand. It makes a great T-shirt and a damn fine fridge magnet.

Hands off our tree! Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.