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pimping ida

new humanist online, may 2009

Max Clifford could not have better orchestrated this week’s publicity around Ida, the 47-million year old primate fossil and 'missing link' that scientists unveiled this week. There was a press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to reveal what one of the scientific team called 'the Holy Grail of paleontology', followed by an academic paper, a popular book and a TV documentary. Before the press conference there had been a TV teaser campaign with the tagline 'This changes everything'. Afterwards came worldwide headlines about the 'eighth wonder of the world' and a fossil that finally reveals 'our link to the animal world'.

This was science reborn for the age of celebrity. 'Any pop band is doing the same thing. Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.' So claimed Jørn Hurum, the paleontologist from Oslo University's Natural History Museum who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. But once scientists start acting like Madonna or David Beckham, it’s science itself that suffers.

Ida is certainly an important and beautiful fossil. She is an adapiform, an early form of primate. She is also extraordinarily well preserved – the fossil is 95 per cent complete. Most fossils comprise hard tissue, such as bone. Only in exceptional cases does soft tissue – skin or flesh – fossilize. In the case of Ida you can see not only individual hairs, but even her last meal – berries in her stomach have been preserved.

Ida had originally been discovered by an amateur fossil hunter in 1983 in the famous Messel pit near Darmstadt in Germany. Formed out of an ancient volcanic lake, 47 million years ago it provided the perfect conditions not just for fossilising creatures but often for pickling their soft tissues too, making it a source of exquisitely preserved fossils. More than 10,000 fish, sixty pigmy horses, some of them pregnant, eight species of crocodile, 1000 bats and insects with the colouration still visible, have all been unearthed there.

The anonymous fossil hunter kept his find under wraps for nearly 20 years before deciding to sell it. He then split the fossil into two, restoring the smaller part and in the process partly fabricating it to make it look more complete. It was bought from a collector in Frankfurt by Dr Burkhard Pohl of the Wyoming Dinosaur Centre, a private museum. The more complete part of the original fossil was sold through a German fossil dealer called Thomas Perner who approached Hurum at a mineral and fossil fair in Hamburg in December 2006. Perner never actually showed Hurum the fossil – just three photographs of it. On that evidence Hurum, excited by what was clearly an exceptional find, persuaded his museum to pay a reputed $1million for Ida. The fossil’s scientific name - Darwinius massillae – was chosen to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Its nickname – Ida – comes from Hurum’s daughter.

After purchasing Ida, Hurum assembled, in top secrecy, a scientific team to study the fossil. The team included Philip D Gingerich, one of America’s leading primate palaeontologists, B Holly Smith, a dental anthropologist, both from the University of Michigan, the German palaeontologist Wighart von Koenigswald and Jens Franzen, of the Natural History Museum in Basle, who recognised the fossil in the Wyoming museum as both partly fabricated and as the missing part of the fossil that Hurum had purchased.

Soon commercial partners were also on board. Hurum had already contacted London-based documentary producer Anthony Geffen about the possibility of filming his 'search for fossilised sea monsters' in the Arctic. Now, Geffen and his company, Atlantic Productions, took on the job of making The Link, a film about Ida. David Attenborough agreed to narrate it. A&E, owners of the History Channel, bought a majority share in the film, giving them editorial control and the right to the world premiere. A&E refuses to say how much those rights cost, but admits that it was the most it has ever paid for a single documentary. So hush-hush was the project that, according to the New York Times, 'within the halls of A&E it was simply called "Project Y"'. A&E subsequently sold the film to the BBC and ZDF, the German broadcaster.

A&E executives then brokered a deal with ABC News for exclusive access to Good Morning America (the fossil was in the studio on Wednesday), Nightline and World News. They also lined up Little, Brown to publish a book about Ida, written by the distinguished science writer Colin Tudge, and entitled, like the film, The Link. According to the New York Times, bookshops had to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to open the cartons that had been shipped before the publication date. A&E also took the project to New York’s Museum of Natural History to arrange a glitzy press conference, to be attended by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Finally, it hired two advertising agencies to help with the promotional work.

What is troubling in all this not just the media circus and the hype around Ida but also the distortion of scientific understanding and perhaps of the scientific process itself that has followed in its wake. Take the selling of Ida as the ‘missing link’. The idea of the missing link comes  from the concept of the Great Chain of Being, a pre-Darwinian view of the ordering of nature that was central to Christian theology until the 19th century. Two notions were key to it: the belief that every species emerged on Earth fully formed and the conviction that each species was assigned a unique place on the Chain, its closest relatives immediately above and below, so that the highest and lowest points on the scale were linked by a series of intermediate steps. The Chain formed a ladder of ascent from the most miserable creatures at the bottom to the Supreme Being at the top. Humans occupied a middling position, just below the angels. The missing links were gaps in the chain created not by extinction (species could neither be created nor destroyed) but by forms that had yet to be discovered.

In the post-Darwinian world we visualise life not as a chain but as a tree or a bush. We talk not of 'missing links' but of 'common ancestors'. Any two creatures – living or extinct – will always be linked by an ancestral form common to both. Where two branches meet on the evolutionary tree, the animal or plant at that node will be an ancestor to all subsequently evolved beings on those two branches.

Not only does it make little sense to talk about Ida as 'the missing link', still less as 'the missing link that proves Darwinism', as the London Evening Standard put it, there is also considerable doubt about the claim that Ida is a true ancestor of humans at all .Like humans, Ida belongs to the order of primates, along with apes, monkeys, lemurs and bush babies. There are two major groups (or sub-orders) of living primates: the prosimians (which include lemurs, lorises and tarsiers) and the anthropoids, comprising monkeys, apes and humans (humans belong, in fact, to the same infra-order as Old World monkeys and apes). There are also two extinct lineages: the omomyids and the adapids, the group to which Ida belongs. Both of these groups flourished in the Eocene period, around 55 to 34 million years ago.

There has been a long debate among paleontologists about the origins of anthropoids. Did the first anthropoid evolve from adapids, omomyids or tarsiers? The current consensus, based on a combination of fossil, genetic, and morphological evidence, is that anthropoids are most closely related to tarsiers and omomyids. Adapids are generally regarded as forming a side branch, more closely related to living lemurs and lorises.

Not everyone agrees, however. One of the dissenters is Philip Gingerich, who argues that adapids – of which Ida is one - are best seen as the ancestors of anthropoids. He is also one of the authors of the academic paper about Darwinius massillae published in the online journal PLoS ONE. The paper suggests that Ida lacks two key characteristics possessed by lemurs but missing in anthropoids – a grooming claw on her second toe and a fused set of teeth called a tooth comb. She has nails rather than the claw typical of non-anthropoid primates and her teeth are similar to those of monkeys. Her talus, an ankle bone, is shaped like it is in anthropoids. All this has led Gingerich and his colleagues to suggest that Ida belongs to the evolutionary line leading to anthropoids just after it split with the lineage that gave rise to modern-day lemurs and tarsiers. She is, in other words, the common ancestor of all anthropoids.

Many paleontologists are, however, unimpressed. As Chris Beard, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and one of the foremost experts on early primates, put in the New Scientist:

The fact that she retains primitive features that commonly occurred among all early primates, such as simple incisors rather than a full-fledged toothcomb, indicates that Ida belongs somewhere closer to the base of the tree than living lemurs do. But this does not necessarily make Ida a close relative of anthropoids... In order to establish that connection, Ida would have to have anthropoid-like features that evolved after anthropoids split away from lemurs and other early primates. Here, alas, Ida fails miserably.

Others point out that Hurum and Gingerich's analysis compared 30 traits in the new fossil with primitive and higher primates when standard practice is to analyse 200 to 400 traits. 'There is no phylogenetic analysis to support the claims, and the data is cherry-picked', Duke University paleontologist Richard Kay has suggested, while another leading researcher, Callum Ross of the University of Chicago in Illinois, argues that the Ida team’s claims are 'unsupportable in light of modern methods of classification.

There is something else that is curious about the Ida saga. Atlantic Productions had contacted a number of authors in January about writing a book about Ida, the first draft of which had to be delivered in around 8 weeks. Most, including the Times science editor Mark Henderson, turned down the offer because of the astonishingly short turnaround demanded.
Why did Atlantic want the book to be written so quickly? Because it hoped to publish the book in May to coincide with the PLoS ONE paper and the TV documentary. Philip Gingerich told the Wall Street Journal that they were forced to rush the paper to meet the commercial deadlines: 'There was a TV company involved and time pressure. We've been pushed to finish the study; it's not how I like to do science.'

However, what is 'weird', as Peter Tallack, a literary agent who specializes in science books points out, is that the paper was not submitted to PLoS until 19 March and not accepted till 12 May. So how did the publishers and the TV production company know when the paper was to be published even before it had been submitted, let alone accepted?

I contacted Peter Binfield, the managing director of PLoS ONE. 'The production company', he insists, 'would not have known when the paper was going to publish. In fact even we did not know that it would publish on the 19th, until the afternoon of the 18th.' He suggests that 'the authors could have made a reasonable estimate, knowing the rough timeframe that PLoS ONE operates under, as to how long it might take us to review, accept and produce any given paper.'

Whatever the truth in all this, one thing is clear: the absurd hype around fossil Ida can only be damaging both to the image of science and the understanding of evolution. It has helped distort popular perception of evolution and hijacked the scientific debate about the origins of anthropoids. It has also provided ammunition for Creationists, many of whom are now suggesting that evolutionary theory itself is simply a hyped-up PR ploy. Darwinius massillae is an awe-inspiring fossil. She never needed to be turned into the eighth wonder of the world.