Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ore Ida

Speaking of science and science journalist, I just came across this Q&A in New Scientist about last week's fossil find. That is:
The publication last week of a paper describing Darwinius masillae, a new fossil primate also known as "Ida", generated massive hype for its claim that the fossil represents an early haplorhine – the "dry nosed" primates that include old world monkeys and apes, including humans.

Other scientists dispute the claim, arguing that the fossil may simply be an early type of lemur and not the "missing link" between the haplorhines and the "wet nosed" primates, the strepsirrhines, such as lemurs and lorises.
A little clarification from the "Father of Ida" and, it bears mentioning, father of the media hype:
The money spent on Ida – the starting price was $1 million – was that spent purely on the fact that it was an exceptionally preserved primate, or did it have something to do with its potential evolutionary relationship to humans?

No. We started off thinking it was the ancestor of all lemurs.

It may still turn out to be a lemur. Do you still have an open mind about that?

Of course, this is science. The discussions will go for a long time. And if other people's arguments are better than what we present here or what we are going to do in the next two papers, we will accept it, no problem.
I happen to have befriended an evolutionary biologist last week in Santa Fe named Diane Kelly who was a tad blasé about the news (“gorgeous specimen introduced with excessive hype” was the term she uses). She blogged about it at her "Science Made Cool" blog which, like my long-winded post below, also talked about some of the issues we discussed last week.
If you’ve somehow missed the media circus surrounding the fossil, its story can pretty much be summed up by “gorgeous specimen introduced with excessive hype.” ...[W]hen Jorn Hurum (University of Oslo) rediscovered the fossil (it had been in a private collection), he didn’t just describe it, he went looking for a filmmaker to build a media event around it. So when the description of Darwinius masillae appeared in PloS Science on May 19th, it was accompanied by a press conference, a TV documentary, a companion book and website, and a whole raft of misrepresentation about its scientific importance. It may be an effective way to get a lot of quick public attention, but it doesn’t help more run-of-the-mill relations between scientists and writers one bit.
And I'll end by cryptically pointing out that "Ida" doesn't look anything like Nancy Walker.

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