Thank you, Mr Switek, for expressing what I could not in 140 characters:
The Times – The dangerous link between science and hype<br/> The fossil known as Ida is being presented as the holy grail of evolution. Such overstatement does serious research no favours, by Brian Switek (a science writer who blogs for ScienceBlogs.com and Smithsonian Magazine)
There is some irony in calling Ida the missing link. She was named Darwinius in honour of Charles Darwin, but the phrase “missing link” harkens back to a pre-evolutionary idea of nature. Called the Great Chain of Being, this interpreted all life as forming an immutable hierarchy, ordained by God, from “lower” to “higher”. Scholars believed that God favoured a full creation and each rank connected to the next, but “missing links” presented a problem. The link between humans and lower animals was the most elusive of all.
Cats. The answer is cats.
Our understanding of evolution could scarcely be more different. There is no evolutionary end point or fore-ordained hierarchy of beasts. Life is better understood from Darwin’s perspective – as a wildly branching bush constantly being pruned and sending out new shoots through evolution. Calling Ida a missing link may grab attention, but it is incongruous with what Darwin proposed.
But what about the scientists who described Ida? Are they victims of the media machine? Some, such as the University of Michigan palaeontologist Philip Gingerich, have confided their discomfort with being rushed in their research by Atlantic Productions, but his co-author, Jørn Hurum, from the University of Oslo, has been enjoying the limelight. In interview after interview he has asserted that Ida truly is our ancestor and that her picture will be in every science textbook for the next 100 years.
Great. So Christians, already suspicious of evolution as a ploy to rob them of their religion, annoyed by the out-of-control hype and made even more suspicious by the slick PR-ishness of it all, will now latch onto the first guy and scream just as loud as the second guy that the whole thing’s fake, research was being rushed, and we can’t believe any of it.
This is not the first time that showmanship has superseded science.
And he goes on to list the contributions of certain American cable TV channels. Oy.
If Ida does turn out be more closely related to lemurs than to humans, creationists may use the hype to paint evolutionary scientists as glory hounds who care more about publicity than accuracy. Ida would not be an “icon of evolution”, as Dr Hurum hopes, but a public embarrassment that creationists would surely use to sow further doubt about evolution. Likening Ida to the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark only compounds the problem; creationists will undoubtedly argue that these metaphors reveal that evolution is a religion with its own holy relics.
What could have been a unique opportunity to communicate science has quickly developed into a fiasco. Science proceeds through discovery and debate, and hypotheses do not become accepted by flooding the media with press releases. Scientific scrutiny of Ida has only just begun, and regardless of who her closest living relatives are, I hope the debate surrounding her will not sink away from sight. She truly is an amazing find, but for now I think that she has taught us more about science communication than our ancestry.