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MISSING LINK: (TOO) MUCH ADO ABOUT IDA

By Dr. Anton Espira

KUALA LAMPUR, MALAYSIA, 25 MAY 2009 - A scientific career is a dreary affair, offering little opportunity for social recognition. Some fields, though, offer more chances of redemption than others, engendering the occasional superstar scientist or blockbuster discovery that lingers in popular imagination. The search for our ancestors is one such field, occasionally captivating the public with its hero detectives, its extinct protagonists and its totally contorted plot lines that make Jerry Bruckheimer look like an amateur. Just think of the famous Leakey family, the still-unresolved hobbit discovery and the never-ending attempt to link us with our big-headed cousins, the Neanderthals.

"We are not dealing with our great-great-great-grandmother but perhaps our great-great-great-aunt."

- Dr. Jørn Hurum, palaeontologist, Natural History Museum, Oslo, Norway

Recent events have introduced a new character to the script. Aunt Ida - less affectionately known as Darwinius masillae - has, to use a much abused metaphor, stopped the presses, and is rushing her way to a channel near you in the immediate future. And she does come with quite a set of credentials. She seems to be a member of a group that marks the transition from lemurs, called prosimians, to us monkeys and apes, called anthropoids. At 47 million years old, she is remarkably well preserved to the point of having her stomach contents (Eocene leaves and berries, if you must know) being intact. But more interestingly, she has several features that place her squarely with us monkeys and apes, including opposable thumbs that allowed her to pick those berries and leaves, and that later developed into the precision grip that allowed us to make and handle the tools that are a fundamental part of human evolution.

For most scientific discoveries, these, and a few more dull facts, would have sufficed to make her a celebrated find. But the media, goaded by Ida's discoverers and promoters, and probably tired of morbid economic news and never-ending wars on terror, have clothed her in a celebrity status that distinctly reeks of hyperbole. All but a few publications have out-done each other in describing the importance of the find, calling it everything up to the eighth wonder of the world. Excited by the media frenzy, the politicians also took their turns, with Michael Bloomberg, no doubt looking to the next election, posing next to Ida's glass box with a school girl wearing a T-shirt with the logo "The Link. This changes everything," and Tora Aasland, Norwegian minister for higher education, lauding this German find as a wonder of Norwegian science. The History Channel, which will air a special on Ida, claims that this find promises "to change everything that we thought we understood about the origins of human life." But it was Dr. Jørn Hurum, credited with making the discovery, who, in a very unscientific way, made the most unwarranted parallels. Reportedly screening photographs of the Mona Lisa and the Rosetta Stone, he alluded to the fossil being the Holy Grail of palaeontology and the lost ark of archaeology.

All this could be dismissed as mere bad taste were it not for a few controversies. First, it appears that the official paper describing the find, published online at PLoS ONE, though peer-reviewed, is not up to standard, with scientists claiming that top journals, such as Nature and Science, where a discovery of this magnitude would normally have been published, would not have accepted the paper. It appears that TV producers, desperate for a quick buck, dictated the scientist's schedule, significantly diluting the rigour of the scientific method. The need for a print publication is being emphasised as a true litmus test for the discovery. Secondly, the fossil was actually acquired from a private collector who originally discovered it in the early eighties in Germany, and who, it appears, may have "restored" it to an uncertain degree. To add to the mix-up, the fossil was initially divided between two collections before being reunited for scientific study. As if that was not enough, it has also emerged that Darwinius masillae may not yet lay claim to her scientific name because in an arcane twist of scientific irony, the journal that published the research does not meet international regulations dictating the naming of new species.

It appears that Aunt Ida's PR team are to blame for turning this great discovery into a circus frenzy. Instead of over-hyping the discovery, they should have worked with the media and their scientific colleagues to better understand and explain this remarkable finding to the public. For one, talk of finding the ever-elusive missing link is just plain wrong because there can be no single missing link in the tree of life. Ida, rather, is one of several links in the multiple criss-crossing branches that have lead to me, and Mr. Bloomberg and his friends. Neither is she a direct ancestor of humans because she lies on an evolutionary branch that developed in parallel to the ancestral line of primates and humans.

She is no doubt one for the history books, but it may yet be too early to welcome Aunt Ida to our great family reunion. In time, though, it seems likely that she will take her honoured place by the side of Grandmother Lucy and Mother Eve.

Dr. Anton Espira is a young research zoologist based in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University in Tropical Ecology and writes on science, culture and politics. Dr. Espira last wrote The Evolution of Charles Darwin's Reputation for Culturekiosque.com .

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