Pop or Primate?

Ida: Pop or Primate Referred to as “the most significant scientific discovery of recent time,” Darwinius masillae also referred to as “Ida” has created quite a media frenzy. “The Missing Link,” Ida is a 47-million-year old female adapid primate discovered in the well known Messel deposits in Germany. The discovery has resulted in a flurry of promotional activity beginning with an elaborate event at The American Museum of Natural History, as well as a History Channel documentary, book release, and a web site. A television teaser’s slogan proclaims, “This changes everything!” and has compared the discovery to landing on the moon. Ida has also been referred to as the holy grail of paleontology, the lost ark of archeology and has even been compared to the Rosetta Stone.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.” While Hurum may think the extensive media coverage is positive, many in the science field disagree.

Professor Matthew Nisbet of the School of Communication at American University acknowledges that normally it would be very exciting to have so much attention turned towards science. He explains that complications arise when this kind of media hype is directed to a single study rather than the whole area of research. At the same time, when the media submits the public to this kind of hype, public trust as well as important communication between scientists and journalists is put as risk. Many scientists are cautioning the pubic that the significance of this discovery may not be known for years.

Others in the science field, such as John Wilkins, are adamant that this primate is being misrepresented by calling it a "missing link." Wilkins resolutely states in his blog, "There is no missing link." Instead, he explains Ida is one missing branch among an "an indefinite number of missing branches." Evolution is often referred to as a tree - not as a chain and so it is inaccurate for Ida to be promoted as the missing link.

With all the hype around Darwinius masillae, one has to realize that the peer reviewed article presenting Ida contains no promises or expectations of what this discovery can lead to. It concludes, "Darwinius masillae is important in being exceptionally well preserved and providing a much more complete understanding of the paleobiology of an Eocene primate than was available in the past."

* Science Blogs - There is no Missing link * Science Blogs - More Darwinius masillae Buzz: Ida Goes Google Logo * Follow Ida on Twitter - @IdaTheLink

To learn more about Ida read:

Franzen, J., Gingerich, P., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., von Koenigswald, W., & Smith, B. (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723