Darwinius: It delivers a pizza, and it lengthens, and it strengthens, and it finds that slipper that's been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks…

By Carl Zimmer | May 19, 2009 5:57 pm

darwinius440.jpgIf the world goes crazy for a lovely fossil, that’s fine with me. But if that fossil releases some kind of mysterious brain ray that makes people say crazy things and write lazy articles, a serious swarm of flies ends up in my ointment.

On Friday, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal got a scoop on a new paper on a 47-million-year-old primate fossil that was published today in PLOS One. The story mentioned that the discovery would be revealed at the American Museum of Natural History. It did not mention that the fossil was also the ceneterpiece of a show on the History Channel, along with a big web site and a book–all called “The Link. Yesterday and today there have been a torrent of news articles on the new primate, dubbed Darwinius masillae. Publications that normally wouldn’t give two picas to paleontology, such as New York Magazine and Gawker jumped on the bandwagon.

So what made this primate worth all the attention? Well, reporters who attended a press conference this morning heard things like this (courtesy of the Guardian)

Nancy Dubuc of the History Channel that will be showing the film said Ida “promised to change everything that we thought we understood about the origins of human life”….

Dr Jorn Hurum, the scientist at the heart of the project, made the most exotic parallels. He screened photographs of the Mona Lisa and the Rosetta Stone, without elucidation, though the implication was clear. He variously described the fossil as the Holy Grail of paleontology and the lost ark of archeology.

I watched this media event balloon as I tried to do other work, but I kept getting distracted. I kept waiting to see an article that sought out some opinions from experts who were not involved in the discovery and analysis of the fossil, which might corroborate that this was indeed the Holy Grail of paleontology, or perhaps something just a wee bit more Earthbound than that. I never found one.

It finally got to the point where I found myself dispatching emails to two prominent primatologists–John Fleagle of SUNY Stony Brook and Chris Beard of the Carnegie Museum–to see what they thought.

Both researchers agreed that it was a lovely fossil, in terms of its exquisite preservation. “It’s really wonderful,” Fleagle said. It’s got bones, fur, and even its last meal in its stomach. Fleagle observed that it will be possible to learn many details about the biology of early primates from Darwinius, down to the stages by which it teeth erupted.

But does this “change everything”? Is it, as the Sun claims, “the missing link in human evolution”?

Actually, I didn’t ask Beard or Fleagle those questions. That would be a bit ridiculous. No scientist, including the co-authors of the Darwinius paper, would ever pretend that they had found a single fossil that was “the” missing link. For some reason reporters (and apparently television producers) are obsessed with the idea, as I wrote about long ago when another primate fossil was touted in a similar fashion. Newly discovered fossils are important instead in helping to resolve the order in which traits evolved, and how groups of species are related to one another. And the more fossils that are discovered, the clearer these pictures become.

Instead, I asked what Fleagle and Beard thought about the actual argument in the paper, which has to do with where humans, apes, and monkeys (known as anthropoids) fit in the primate family tree. Some of the co-authors on the new paper have argued in the past that an extinct group of primates called adapiforms gave rise to anthropoids. Others have favored a common ancestry with small primates known as tarsiers. (Laelaps has a nice history of the debate.) The authors of the new paper argue that Darwinius is an adapiform, but it also has traits that link it with  anthropoids. So, according to them, it’s an early relative of our own anthropoid lineage.

Both Fleagle and Beard were not impressed with this argument. Fleagle observed that, ironically, most of the evidence presented in the paper is old news. Except for the ankle and a few other traits, most of the traits offered to link adapiforms to anthropoids “have been known for decades,” said Fleagle. It’s nice to have those traits all in one primate fossil, but they don’t advance the debate. Fleagle is intrigued by the anthropoid-like ankle of the fossil, but he also notes that it’s “roadkill,” flattened down to a 2-millimeter pancake. He wonders whether their interpretation of the ankle will hold up to scrutiny.

Beard has similar things to say via email.

I’ve been deluged today by journalists regarding this. It is a marketing campaign for the ages. The fossil is nice because it is so complete, but it is a rather vanilla-flavored adapiform that does not differ appreciably from other members of that well-known group of Eocene primates…

Beard was also puzzled that the authors did not compare Darwinius to an important early anthropoid fossil Beard found, known as Eosimias. In fact, he was underwhelmed by the entire comparison of Darwinius to other primates (a phylogenetic analysis):

The phylogenetic analysis is not very complete, and I would certainly interpret many of the characters they do cite very differently than they do. But one of the most shocking things of all about the technical paper is that they found room to cite 89 references, but there is not one mention of Eosimias to be found there. This is bizarre indeed. In a paper that purports to tell us something about anthropoid origins, the authors have conveniently ignored the single most significant fossil that has been published to date. Incomprehensible.

We certainly haven’t heard the last of Darwinius–on that, even the critics agree. But let’s hope that we’ve heard the last of the Holy Grail.

[Title from the great Tom Waits: lyrics, video]

[Image: PLOS One]

Update: In response to comments from Kilian and Brett, I thought I’d add a little more detail here on the evolutionary relationships the authors argue for in the paper. Scientists have long split the primate order into two suborders: strepsirrhines and haplorhines. Strepsirrhines included lemurs, galagos, and a few other species, which all share certain traits, such as a wet nose (the root of the name strepsirrhine). Monkeys, apes, and tarsiers are typically included in the Haplorhines. The Darwinius team argues that their new fossil, Darwinius, is more closely related to haplorhines (which includes monkeys and apes) than it is to strepsirrhines. Therefore, it (and other adapiforms) are ancient relatives of monkeys and apes.

Brett wondered whether there was a tree in the paper. There is, and thanks to PLOS’s open access policy, I can post it right here:

darwinius-tree440.jpgA couple points here:

1. They need to fix the typo in Strepsirrhini.

2. This is what Beard would call “not very complete.” Three branches makes for a pretty bare tree, especially when you consider that there are a fair number of early primate fossils known at this point. Fleagle pointed out to me that there are some early anthropoid fossils that lack some of the traits that supposedly join Darwinius to anthropoids. This could all be sorted out with a detailed phylogenetic analysis, which no doubt someone will carry out. The authors of the study get kudos from Fleagle for providing so much anatomical detail and high-resolution images of the primate, because that will enable lots of scientists to take their own stab at placing Darwinius in the primate tree.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Darwinius, Evolution, Meta

Comments (71)

Links to this Post

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  1. I think it also cures cancer…just a guess! Good article.

  2. So many thanks for this, Carl. I’m sure I’m not the only scientist who appreciates your post- it, in your usual apt language, sums up the concerns with all the hoopla media language over this fossil, language that can be quite misleading to the beginning students of evolutionary science that we teach (not to mention to members of the public). I also appreciate the early critique of the PLOS article’s literarure review: strange omission!! I’ve already got your post up on Facebook…

  3. Dom

    Carl, thanks for bringing some sanity to the media coverage of this find. I started reading Chris Beard’s book on fossil primates a few days ago, and was also struck by how few reporters cited his opinions. The team that found Darwinius really seems interested in self-promotion. On the other hand, if it gets more people interested in science, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

  4. thank you for being distracted enough to post about this … I feel a little better now.

  5. T-Dawg

    One thing that should be noted is that Chris Beard is the discoverer of Eosimias, and has been purporting it’s an anthropoid primate since he found it (he wrote a whole popular science book on it: Hunt for the Dawn Monkey). Many people don’t agree with him about that, and having seen the fossil myself, I don’t know if I do either.
    Darwinius is great because it’s complete, and it adds fuel to this debate.

  6. I’m always excited when we find a complete skeleton including fur and stomach contents from an animal that died 47 million years ago. Wouldn’t this Darwinius be significant enough if they just stuck to the facts?

  7. Nice post, Carl. Both Chris Beard’s and John Fleagle’s comments are key here. It’s a very nice fossil that is indeed highly informative. I think what we have here may be a case (and not the first such example) of the media tail wagging the scientific dog. With the pressures of orchestrating all of the multimedia for simultaneous release, the scientific report in PLoS ONE may have been somewhat rushed. I’ve looked over the paper pretty closely but, truth be told, haven’t yet dissected it. If Beard says the phylogenetic analysis is inadequate (indeed, how can they not cite Eosimias?), I believe it. That said, there are some pretty interesting aspects to the paper. It may indeed be that the lead scientist jumped into the hyperbolic pool a little too enthusiastically, perhaps too eager to please and meet expectations, but I’ve rarely seen an “event” like this, and I’ll give Jorn Hurum the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t play it exactly right. If I set aside all that makes me cringe here, what I’m left with is a strong evolutionary message about a beautiful fossil named to h0nor Charles Darwin presented on an international stage. That doesn’t sound like such a bad outcome. This whole thing is still just hours old. You’ve got people (like me!) commenting without having scrutinized the paper. It’ll take some time to find out whether Darwinius merits all this attention.

  8. I wonder how many of the reporters – and how many people who read the news stories – actually read the article, which, since it’s in PLoS, is freely available. One of the reasons we started PLoS in the first place was to enable and encourage people who are interested in a particular topic in the popular science literature to actually examine the science behind the story. The paper (well, parts of it) is pretty accessible and makes an interesting read.

  9. As time goes on, I’ve been getting more and more angry about the presentation here. This is a phenomenal find, but they’ve turned it into a circus, and it has every mark of something that will soon become snide fodder for creationists to poo-poo evolution. Perhaps the authors can be forgiven in part because many (all?) of them are not from the US, and thus may not realize how our media works and the sort of people scientists have to deal with here.

    But the huge drudge headlines touting the “eighth wonder of the world” will quite soon turn into critical sneering about how “evolutionists” can’t shoot straight, and that their claims are bogus and overblown (thus allowing them to yet again tar evolution as a whole). I can see it all coming, it’s all so predictable and irritating, and it royally pisses me off. Which is a shame, because it really IS a cool find.

  10. It’s also kind of funny to go back and read the press coverage of Eosimias. You might not have asked Beard whether this was the missing link, because “No scientist would ever pretend that they had found a single fossil that was ‘the’ missing link.” But Beard did just that:

    Dr. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, an author of the study, said the fossil was “probably the biggest missing link or gap in what we know about primate and human evolution.” [http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/09/science/fossil-may-fill-a-gap-in-early-primate-evolution.html]

    I’m not trying to take him to task for this – he was using layman’s language to try to explain the significance of the fossil – just trying to point out the simplifying and uniquifying that the Darwinius authors did is more par for the course than singular sin.

  11. Skeptikor

    Yeah, this distasteful compulsion of the media to tart up interesting finds does no service to either science or the readers. I’ve been playing Whack-a-Mole with the creationists who have been popping up around this one on other sites and am feeling really grouchy about the whole thing.

    Cool fossil; not too much that’s new. Ancestor? Yep, probably. Let’s move on.

  12. Harking back to tarsiers feels like a hope to be special and not descended from plain old monkeys. I distrust conclusions that seem to be emotionally driven or reaching for a particular ancestor.

    It is odd that we don’t hear more about the probable lines of evolution from monkey to ape. Is it really not known?

  13. Kilian Hekhuis

    Carl, you write: “The authors of the new paper argue that Darwinius is an adapiform, but it also has traits that link it with anthropoids. So, according to them, it’s an early relative of our own anthropoid lineage.”

    However, reading the conclusion on PLoS, it says: “We do not interpret Darwinius as anthropoid, but the adapoid primates it represents deserve more careful comparison with higher primates than they have received in the past.”

    I think they are deliberately careful in their conclusion, and your first sentence above is correct. However, the second one is very close to being a strawman, as they do not (“according to them”) claim “it’s an early relative” of anthropoids as such.

  14. Oh dear.
    I can already imagine the next headline of ‘New Scientist’

    ” Darwinius Was Wrong!”

  15. Skeptokor said
    “Ancestor? Yep, probably. Let’s move on.”
    Calling any fossil a direct ancestor of a particular living animal is pure speculation.
    It is a mistake to use such language as its pretty easy for anyone to figure out that you don’t have enough evidence to back up this claim.
    It is certainly in the family tree (but then again, what isn’t?) but it is much more likely to be a sidebranch.

  16. Is there are clad tree somewhere showing where this is purported to fit?

  17. Kieran and Brett–You guys inspired me to update my post. See above.

  18. Dr_Snugglebunny

    If you think it’s overhyped, just don’t look at Google.com’s homepage, or if you do, try to suppress the screams. Darwinius has sensitive little ears.

  19. It is a beautiful fossil, but why must they make it out to be what it isn’t?

  20. Three branches makes for a pretty bare tree, especially when you consider that there are a fair number of early primate fossils known at this point. Fleagle pointed out to me that there are some early anthropoid fossils that lack some of the traits that supposedly join Darwinius to anthropoids.

    The paper doesn’t claim that Darwinius is aligned with anthropoids, as Haplorhini includes tarsioids and (probably) omomyids (Eocene tarsier-like primates). The authors point out some anthropoid-like features as interesting and worth further more detailed analysis. It is quite reasonable for Beard to think of Eosimias comparisons, just as many other scientists are likely thinking about how the fossil compares to other parts of the primate evolutionary record. But the paper focuses on description of the fossil, including its provenience, analysis of its life history, locomotion, and activity pattern. It includes just enough discussion of phylogenetic relations to contextualize the interest and importance of the fossil — that is why this is in the discussion. Personally, I think a full phylogenetic analysis including comparisons with all known Eocene primates would justify a monographic treatment, and would also have to synthesize a lot of genetic evidence from recent primates. This is not that paper.

    Now, as to whether the media should focus on the “missing link” aspect, or whether the authors should be accentuating that aspect in their communication with the media — I would say that similar issues seem to arise quite often in science communication. Clearly the strategy has drawn a lot of attention to the fossil and documentary. Unfortunately, it risks generating ill will. In paleontology, there are power issues beyond the ordinary communication of science — the publicity for this fossil may influence access to other fossils, field sites, future grants and museum support, and the activities of private collectors (this fossil was itself in private hands).

    I think that the full story is much more than just “communication versus hype” — there are other issues at play that make things more complex, and more interesting.

    [Carl: For those who don't read John Hawks's excellent blog, he's a University of Wisconsin anthropologist and the PLOS editor of the Darwinius paper.]

  21. Thanks for posting this, Carl. The idea of the “hurray! last missing link of the evolution chain is found!” distracted me more than anything.

  22. Larry Witmer writes:

    a beautiful fossil named to h0nor Charles Darwin presented on an international stage.

    But it isn’t named yet. This is starting to pop up in various comments now, surprisingly slowly, however.

    According to ICZN:

    Article 8.6 Works produced after 1999 by a method that does not employ printing on paper. For a work produced after 1999 by a method other than printing on paper to be accepted as published within the meaning of the Code, it must contain a statement that copies (in the form in which it is published) have been deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself.

    If, in fact, these conditions have not been met by this electronic publication, then “Darwinius” has not officially been published…

  23. David Marjanović

    If Beard says the phylogenetic analysis is inadequate

    No, it’s not inadequate, it’s absent. There is no phylogenetic analysis in the paper or in the supplementary information. This is already easy to see from the tree, because it has just three taxa… and the authors use the lack of crown-group strepsirhine features (like the tooth comb and the “toilet claw”) to place Darwinius on the haplorhine side. That’s simply a failure of peer-review. The authors should either have removed the grand pronouncements about the rearrangement of the entire tree of Paleogene primates, or done an analysis.

    Incidentally, Figure S7, which is the tree reproduced above, is a TIF with 4.73 MB. That’s right, PLoS ONE uploaded a black-and-white line drawing with black-on-white text as a stupendously huge file. That’s just silly. And very annoying if you sit behind a clogged connection.

  24. You’re absolutely right, Martin. Henry Gee (Nature) also has pointed to Article 8.6 (in a Facebook entry) and posted the link to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, for those that want to check out the rules: http://www.iczn.org/iczn/index.jsp. Article 8.6 is in Chapter 3.

    The Code has a copyright of 1999, so one has to wonder how they’ll rule on online-only names, such as Darwinius. And Darwinius is only one of a growing number of cases. I’m sure the Commission is looking at the whole issue. In fact, maybe one benefit that may come from the unprecedented over-the-top attention given to “Ida” is that it may bring this whole taxonomic issue to the fore.

    I’m part of a group that had been looking at PLoS ONE as a potential venue for our manuscript (mostly because of the ability to include more graphics and movies), but we decided against it for precisely this reason. Would the new name be valid?

  25. Anna

    And it’s featured on Google today! Hmm . . . .

  26. A voice of reason

    What you’re seeing a peek of here is how the News Media has become an instrument for disinformation and social engineering. Take an objective look and see it isn’t compartmentalized and limited to this subject, but runs the entire gamut.

  27. DaveG

    Respectfully, a correction: it’s “Chaise Longue”.

  28. Briteone

    Other web sites from researching scientists have already shown that this is nothing more than a lemur monkey. And imagine that after two years of study, they have determined that a lemur monkey fossil is the “missing link” from monkey to humans. If this is what it is as the evolutionists want us to believe, then why aren’t there millions more of these fossils being found (to show that there were millions of monkeys on the earth?) Also, if this fossil is such a “holy grail” of a find, how come it has taken 26 years from the time is was unearthed in 1983 to get attention. Notice that the scientists making the most noise about this are the ones that were part of this study. When the rest of the scientific world has time to dissect this, the media frenzy will come to a halt as the imaginations of evolutionists who want anything to hold on their belief will have nothing more than another fossil for their research.

    [Carl: Briteone, how about a link to one of these "researching scientists" who have shown that this is a "lemur monkey"? The term "lemur monkey" is a contradiction in terms. It's like calling something a "cat dog." So I'm a bit skeptical about your claim without a bit of evidence.]

  29. Briteone

    One other point–T-shirt makers should start creating darwinius t-shirts. If nothing else, this should help the economy!

  30. Raimo Kangasniemi

    I find it funny how especially Beard whines about publicity for this find and then gets himself to practically every article and blog post I have read about Darwinius. What I don’t find funny is that for example in an Associated Press article he tells of this wonderful fossil prinate from China that is from the same time and is much closer to our lineage according to him – and then forgets to tell who was one of it’s finders, certain C. Beard…

  31. SusanL

    Wasn’t it just a year ago that some guys were on national TV in the US for discovering and capturing “Big Foot”? Yeah, that turned out really swell.

    Serious money is thrown at these discoveries. Sounds like an idea born out of a corporate office and not a dig site. Because, we all know, the History Channel is RIGHT THERE when it happens!!!!

  32. Jerry Gray

    Roger Lewin’s great book “Bones of Contention” suggests that Physical Anthropology is often an intellectually juvenile world not above self-promotion and “look-at-me” showmanship. Disappointing that this incident demonstrates the field is still capable of bad science. I think this story also gives Science in general a bloody nose in the eyes of the layperson. It is a particularly irresponsible move on the part of the scientists involved in this media-driven “discovery.” Not a terrifically scholarly approach here. Too bad people like that get grant money…

  33. Malcolm Ritter

    As the reporter who covered this story for The Associated Press, I’d like to point out two things: 1. Major journals generally make upcoming papers available to reporters a few days ahead of publication so we can get independent comment for our stories. But PLoS ONE withheld the Darwinius paper until 10 minutes after the Hurum press conference began (judging by the time stamp on the PLoS email to me). So reporters had nothing to show outside experts to solicit some perspective before Hurum et al. started talking. 2. Carl, you said you never found a news story that had comments from independent experts. I’m not sure when you checked, but my story quoting both Beard and Fleagle went out at 4:40 p.m. (It replaced a preliminary version that I’d written off the press conference. I’d contacted both men beforehand an arranged to speak after we’d all seen the paper).

  34. 220mya

    Carl – further commentary by Ron Jenner along the lines of yours is in the newest issue of the Palaeontological Association Newsletter, available free here:

    http://newsletter.palass-pubs.org/pdf/News71.pdf

    Go to page 94.

  35. it’s to bad when the media sensationalizes things.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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