Ida: Epic science fail or a product of the hype machine?

Remember Ida?  I do.  Last year I was all up in a tizzy at the revelation of a fossil discovered in a quarry in Germany that seemed to reveal a very early ancestor from our past.  The reveal was driven into the public spotlight with a simultaneous book release, television special and museum exhibit.

Well one year later, science has a new perspective on the discovery.

In an article now available online in the Journal of Human Evolution (here), four scientists present evidence that the 47-million-year-old Darwinius masillae (aka Ida) is not a primate like humans, apes and monkeys, as the 2009 research claimed.  The authors, Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin, Blythe Williams and Richard Kay of Duke, and evolutionary biologist Callum Ross of the University of Chicago claim that the article on Ida published last year in the journal PLoS ONE ignores two decades of published research showing that similar fossils are actually strepsirrhines, the primate group that includes lemurs and lorises.

The fossil group to which Ida belongs is called adapiforms and includes dozens of primate species represented by thousands of fossils recovered in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some adapiforms are known from nearly complete skeletons like that of Darwinius. Most analyses of primate evolution over the past two decades have concluded that adapiforms are not direct ancestors of modern humans.

So I’m left to ask, what gives? How does such a blunder happen?  Is this an example of the researchers consciously ignoring the facts for personal agenda? With such a massive publicity machine hyping this fossil, was there ever a thought of how damaging this could be to the popularization of science if Ida wasn’t what it was hyped to be? With evolution constantly being challenged by the bullshit the intelligent design proponents try to muster, the last thing it needs is a recall on information.

Don’t get me wrong, Ida is a gorgeous fossil and a fine example of evolution, just not human evolution.  Maybe next time less emphasis should be put on selling books and television specials and more time spent on collaborating with researchers and avoiding inaccurate claims.

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