Readers with any chaste interest in the sciences will have noticed an appalling load of codswallop being sledged through mass media this last week. I refer to reports of the “discovery” of what has been dubbed “Darwinius masellae”—or “Ida,” as its impresarios also call it.
The “star” of this Greatest Show on Earth is the nearly complete fossil skeleton of an animal from the middle Eocene (about 47 million years ago) from Messen, Germany. In a co-ordinated media blitz resembling a popular movie launch, “Ida” has been presented as the common ancestor of lemurs, apes and monkeys, and thus direct ancestor to ourselves.
Well, that understates the hype considerably. Consult the main publicity website (revealingthelink.com) and we learn that Ida is The Missing Link That Proves Darwinism! and paradoxically, The Fossil That Overturns Everything We Knew! It is “the Eighth Wonder of the World”! It is “like an Asteroid Falling Down to Earth”!
Dr. Jorn Hurum, the Norwegian pop paleontologist who is the brains behind this media splash, has been flashing pictures of the Mona Lisa and the Rosetta Stone alongside his Ida. He calls her, “The Holy Grail of Paleontology!” and “The Lost Ark of Archaeology!”
Read The Book! (It is by Colin Tudge.)
See The Movie! (Made by Atlantic Productions.)
Buy The Souvenirs! (Various.)
Step Right Up! You’ve Never Seen B.S. On This Scale!
The attentive journalist, with some idea about science and a nose to detect odours, will find on inquiry that this fossil—genuinely remarkable for its completeness, given its age—is otherwise nothing special. It is of a kind of animal, adapiforms, known for decades, and for as long the subject of speculation about its place in the evolutionary sequence prior to anthropoids. The alternative hypothesis is that we descend from tarsiers.
The specimen itself was not, in fact, dug up a couple of years ago. It was instead purchased, for a reported $1 million, from an obscure private collector, who had held it for at least 20 years. From the beginning, the “research program” was an exercise in entrepreneurship, with an investment to be recouped. In the end, direct participants in this circus included the History Channel, the BBC, Little Brown, Hachette Livre, and other mainstream media “content providers.”
All of these agreed to prepare the media hit in secret. As part of the launch, a formal scientific paper by the team that studied the fossil was published in the open-access online journal PLoS One.
Actually read that paper, and the hype evaporates. The authors methodically distance themselves from every sensational claim in the fine print:
“Note that Darwinius masillae, and adapoids contemporary with early tarsioids, could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids.”
This is one of several remarks disowning the very assertions they have associated themselves with by participating in the extravaganza. They want to have it both ways: to pocket the stardust, while protecting their academic reputations.
More formidable criticism will follow. Already I have read initial critiques from two prominently established paleontologists, solicited by a journalist in Discovery magazine, about dubious assertions in the rest of the paper. But it is in the nature of modern media that the outrageous claim gets 100 times the coverage of any later retraction.
Popular Darwinism has been sold by this method for a long time. Quite apart from the money it makes for the people who invest in it, there is the anti-Christian message to be driven home (“man is just an accidental product of nature”), and the thrill of playing on the gullibility of the public.
The principal hype artist in this case—Dr. Hurum mentioned above—has done several similar splashes. The last one he styled “Predator X.” It was mounted on the discovery in Svalbard of part of the jaw of a large and carnivorous Pliosaur that swam the oceans of the Jurassic. That, too, was nothing special: just a better-than-usual chunk of fossil evidence for an animal that was hardly new to science. But an integrated multi-media presentation of a science fiction monster, extrapolated loosely from that jaw fragment, was ready-to-air when the discovery was announced.
Dr. Hurum specializes in avoiding publication in such traditional journals as Nature or Science, with their irritating habit of forming their own judgments about the importance of scientific discoveries and the timing of their release. Such journals tend to be ill-disposed to contributors who must get their own media campaign ready and their cashpoints all in place.
He poses as a “man of the people,” since people can read PLoS One without paying the nominal fee that Nature or Science would charge. Instead, they can save their money for his Books, Films, and Trinkets.
The Ringling Brothers, Messrs Barnum and Bailey—these were also “men of the people,” as it were, laughing at the stupidity of the masses all the way to the bank.