Thursday, 28 May 2009

Hurricane Ida

Paleontology can be a dangerous business. Like archaeology, it fuses modern science with archaic quests for origins and buried treasure. Today it presents itself as rigorous and technical, reliant upon cutting-edge gadgetry, computer analysis and painstaking, careful analysis. Yet it has never entirely shaken off its buccaneering beginnings. It remains prone to hucksterism and exaggeration. The discovery of the perfectly-preserved fossil of a "missing link", or of a monstrous and unexpected new dinosaur, or just of something unimaginably old, is guaranteed to stir the popular imagination, garner huge media coverage, even gain the discoverer a modicum of fame. No DNA sequence, however laboriously reconstructed, can hope to rival the impact of a striking fossil. Even naturally cautious paleontologists can find themselves caught up in the excitement.

Jørn Hurum, the Norwegian paleontologist (and Meat Loaf lookalike) at the eye of Hurricane Ida (pronounced "Eeda"), is not famed for his caution. According to The Sunday Times, last year Jørn thrilled the world with his reconstruction of a "turbo-charged" pleisiosaur, which he dubbed "Predator X". This was, he announced, "the most ferocious hunter ever", despite the fact that he had made remarkably similar claims for a very similar pleisiosaur, "the Monster", the previous month. If Predator X sounds like something dreamt up by the creators of Primeval, Ida's appeal is partly aesthetic. It is, by any standards, wonderfully preserved and beautiful to look at. The unique conditions of the Messel Pit in Germany, where it was found, ensured that details of its nails, its fur, even the contents of its gut, have been preserved for around 47 million years. This lemur-like creature (Darwinius masillae, as it has been named) gives us all a glimpse into the world of the Eocene, and enabled paleontologists to glean fascinating information about the early history of primates.

That should be enough. But of course it isn't. Ida's unveiling has been attended more by Barnum-style humbug than by objective presentation of scientific data. A breathtakingly hyperbolic press release described it as "the most significant scientific discovery of recent times". At the New York launch, mayor Bloomberg "stood beside Ida’s glass box, his arm around a schoolgirl who was wearing a T-shirt advertising a television tie-in" (according to the Sunday Times). London had David Attenborough, who narrated the documentary in his usual breathy style and was keen to sing Ida's praises. There's also a book, whose title, The Link, says it all (as does the chosen name "Darwinius").

Hurum and his "dream team" of international experts have made remarkably ambitious claims about Ida, most notably that it represents the earliest known "human ancestor". Scientifically, this amounts to the suggestion that because Ida lacks certain stereotypical lemur-like features, and shares others (notably an ankle-bone) with apes and monkeys, it may claim to be the oldest known fossil of a proto-monkey. There are a number of scientists who disagree. The matter is unresolved, which is partly why there has been so much criticism of Hurum and his team for going public - and how! - at such an early stage. The suspicion is that Hurum and his colleagues are working to the schedules and agendas of a production company rather than following the dictates of disinterested science.

Indeed, the backlash has been tremendous, the Sunday Times leading the charge with an article titled Origin of the Specious. Ouch. Many scientists, the report said, were "shocked" by the "media circus" surrounding Ida. The paper in which Hurum and his team of "world renowned" (as the film had it) experts had announced their findings was considerably more modest in its claims - and even those were still highly controversial. UCL's Christophe Soligo warned of "discovery bias, where we read too much into a good fossil just because we have it available", surely a wise caveat. Christopher Beard, curator of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, condemned the paper as "shoddy scholarship". Elwyn Simons of Duke University called it "bad science" which "plays into the hands of creationists". Beard was also worried that the price Hurum paid for Ida ($750,000) could make it difficult for paleontologists to acquire good specimens. "The big problem is that we have to go to the Third World and convince our colleagues there that these fossils have only scientific worth and not commercial value," he said. (Though to judge from this article in The Guardian, Beard's notion of fossil acquisition is hopelessly idealistic.)

"What could have been a unique opportunity to communicate science has quickly developed into a fiasco," lamented Brian Switek in The Times. "Science proceeds through discovery and debate, and hypotheses do not become accepted by flooding the media with press releases".

Hurum has hit back, asking why museums shouldn’t acquire fossils in the same way that galleries acquire art - and provocatively telling the New Scientist that he finds scientific conferences "extremely boring". He does admit that the hype "got completely out of control". It "evolved" beyond his ability to keep within the bounds of scientific respectability. Listening to his soundbites on the Attenborough documentary, however, it's difficult to absolve him of much responsibility for what occurred. He has been openly revelling in the attention.

I watched the film - made by an outfit called Atlantic Productions but with the Beeb's imprimatur - which occupied a prime-time slot on BBC 1 the other night. In these days of uber-populism and ratings-chasing, for a science documentary to occupy such a position in the BBC schedules ought by itself to rouse suspicions about its content, or even its basic validity. (A recent Horizon film, for example, explored human perceptions of the body by persuading a group of volunteers to get naked and paint each other.) According to its closing credits, the film was "written and presented by David Attenborough", which suggests that the great man must at the very least have had a final say over the script. Which is a bit disappointing given the tone of the piece. It was more like a PR job than an objective documentary.

There was stirring music. There was the "overlooked masterpiece" meme: Ida was dug up as long ago as 1983 and then "lost" for a quarter of the century, like "an unknown Rembrandt" (or, later on, the Mona Lisa). There were dramatic reconstructions. Hurum's purchase of Ida from a dealer he met at a German fossil fair was portrayed as a cross between a shady cocaine deal and an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Scientists were filmed trying to pretend they were seeing the fossil for the first time. There were shots of Hurum's infant daughter, in whose honour the fossil was named (ahhh). As usual, the dramatic structure required a building up of revelations to a shattering conclusion.

But even by today's standards, the language of Attenborough's narration was shamelessly OTT. This was "the Rosetta stone" of paleontology. It will "feature in the textbooks for a hundred years" (said Hurum). It has "stunned the world", like "an asteroid hitting the earth". It was (in a particularly ludicrous non sequitur) "a fossil so detailed that it could help scientists reveal the origins of every person on the planet". Was it previously thought that there were people on the planet who might not be descended from early primates?

Attenborough made similarly excited claims in the accompanying interviews. "The link until now was missing. Well, it is no longer missing", for example. Which invites two responses. One, that there is not and never has been a "missing link" - the whole idea owing more to the treasure-hunting metanarrative of popular paleontology ("the Holy Grail of fossils") than to actual scientific procedure. And secondly, if there were such a thing as a missing link between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom, this certainly isn't it. As Cambridge professor Robert Foley, quoted in the Sunday Times, puts it,

This animal lived around 47m years ago but human-like creatures only appeared in the last 2m years. That’s a gap of around 45m years with many other species lying between us and that era. Any one of them could be called a missing link. Really, the term is meaningless

Attenborough/Hurum stressed that certain typical lemur features - notably the "grooming claw" and the "tooth comb" - were absent in Ida. This was taken as evidence that it was ancestral to us, and therefore on the "main line" of primate evolution. But the absence of these features could just as easily be evidence of Ida's primitiveness. Both the tooth comb and the grooming claw are specialised adaptations of lemurs which post-date the split between the two groups. There may have been other early primates directly ancestral neither to monkeys nor to lemurs, which merely died out. Almost certainly, there were. In reality, lemurs are no more "primitive" than monkeys or apes - they merely took a different evolutionary path. Their branch of the tree of life diverged earlier in time than the monkeys' from that which led to us. But they didn't stop evolving because of that.

No matter. Having established Ida's purported significance, the film rams the "missing link" point home with a largely irrelevant discussion of Lucy, the early hominid fossil. When Ida subsequently proves to have a monkey-like ankle-bone, we are explicitly invited to conclude that this creature represented the vital step towards humanity's manifest destiny of walking upright. And the film ended with a piece of rhetoric as meaningless as it was overblown:

We could all be descended from Ida... and, remarkably, exactly 150 years after Darwin first put forward the proposition that human beings are part of the rest of animal life, here at last we have a link which connects us not merely with apes and monkeys, but also with the entire animal kingdom.

HURUM: This fossil turns out to be really important for us as humans... truly it is a world heritage.. the first link to human evolution, long before we started to divide into different ethnic groups... a find like this is something for all humankind.

Long before we started to divide into ethnic groups? Seriously, is he taking the piss? Does he imagine that if he shows his Eocene fossil to some Israelis and Palestinians they will instantly patch up their differences?

Was this tendentious documentary really Sir David's work? Quite possibly. It's not the first time Attenborough has demonstrated what must be an unconscious preference for the discredited "ladder of evolution" model, in which the history of life is little more than an upwards progression with man at the top. It informed the whole structure of his magnum opus from the Seventies, Life on Earth. In the Ida documentary, the prejudice that lemurs represent a more "primitive" - and therefore original - type of mammal than the "advanced" apes and monkeys was very much to the fore. Attenborough commented, for example, that Ida represented "a crucial point in OUR evolution, when the early primates split into human and non-human groups". He might as well have said "into spider monkey and non-spider monkey groups" or "into Madagascan flying lemur and non-Madagascan flying lemur groups". Stephen Jay Gould once called this type of thinking the "most serious and pervasive of all misconceptions about evolution."

In a fairly critical article in The Age, Deborah Smith compared the reception accorded to Ida with that of a pop star. "Rarely, if ever, has an important scientific discovery been announced with so much hype," she wrote. Not so, I'm afraid. Scientific announcements are increasingly often attended by hype, whether it's a Martian meteorite that might just (but probably doesn't) contain evidence of life, or the detection of "ripples in time" offering evidence for the Big Bang, or merely some new treatment for cancer. Science has long since sold its soul to the PR machine. And for the historical reasons alluded to above, paleontology (along with archaeology) is especially vulnerable to this kind of treatment. Now, of course, we have computerised reconstructions of how the fossil animal (might have) looked and the awe-inspiring achievements of modern forensic technology to add to the age-old fascination of old things dug up. No wonder paleontology fires up journalistic juices.

But there's something deeper underlying all of this. In another of his essays, Gould noticed a facet of human psychology that is certainly relevant to the Ida case, the innate preference for origin myths over accurate scientific descriptions:

We yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favour of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace). The hankering after an origin myth has always been especially strong for the closest subject of all, the human race. But we extend the same psychic need to our accomplishments and institutions - and we have origin myths and stories for the beginning of hunting, of language, of art, of kindness, of war, of boxing, bow ties and brassieres...

(From The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, in Bully for Brontosaurus)

The Ida saga isn't just a matter of scientific fact, or PR, or academic debate, or the compromises that science makes when it attempts to puts its discoveries before a wider public. It does indeed tell us about human nature. Not where we came from so much as what we are: people who love a good story, the more dramatic the better, above all when it's about us.


valdemar squelch said...

Yes, this was a shameful episode and proof that corporate media values (or value-free methods) corrupt everything they touch. New Labour, now New Science.

The Ida story edged out some much better science which was basic, unpretentious research. I refer to the clever crows, a real finding that was treated as a minor 'oddly enough' item because it didn't involve zillions of dollars, just a proper experiment. Science, it seems, is either the new rock 'n' roll - bloated, wealthy and loud - or the new light entertainment.

That said, be fair to Sir David. He must have been seriously deranged when his brother recreated all those dinosaurs.

Matt said...

"It does indeed tell us about human nature. Not where we came from so much as what we are: people who love a good story, the more dramatic the better, above all when it's about us."

And also lovers of simplicity; whereby all the naturally complex questions of an immensely complex world are reduced to simple answers that fit in a handy headline: "Take this sugar pill and cure all your ills", "Don't eat this and you'll never get cancer" etc etc. Evolution is no different.

But people are. Not all of us are seduced.

It's tempting to draw a line between the intelligent and the dim-witted as those who understand and revel in understanding the complex, and those who can see nothing but the simple, but then you realise that there are millions of real experts out there who know all the intricacies of premier league football tactics, or years of convoluted story lines in six different soap operas.

It's not intelligence people lack, just taste in subject matters. And that's - well - just a matter of taste.

Isn't it?


The Heresiarch said...

I'm not sure knowing the plotlines of Neighbours going back twenty years calls for any great intelligence. It's a memory trick. But then so is a knowledge of Greek irregular verbs.

As for the football tactics: yes, there are intellectual possibilities there. But there's also narrative. Sports fixtures fall naturally into a dramatic structure. A scientific account might look at pitch and weather conditions, underlying medical factors affecting the players, the mathematics of ball trajectory, etc. But for most fans, the interesting part is surely the human stand-off between the teams. There are off-pitch stories, too, which I personally always find more interesting than the match itself. Power struggles within Premiership clubs rival anything politics has to offer.

Irina from Dublin said...

Said above: Yes, this was a shameful episode and proof that corporate media values (or value-free methods) corrupt everything they touch. New Labour, now New Science.New Media, new world, ask Alastair Campbell

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I am slightly torn between being pleased that something from the realm of science has made it into the national press and general awareness and regret that it is so over-hyped.

There was a similar media hoohah around this time last year about CERN going 'first beam'.

It will fade and pass, soon everyone will have forgotten except a few like me.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Out of interest why is memorising the plots and characters of neighbours any less of an intellectual achievement than memorising those of Greek Mythology? Or a theology PhD for that matter?

I'm sure the Heresiarch is correct, but I'd love to have some good arguments to deploy rather than innate snobbery.

Someone? Anyone?

doesnotexist said...

"innate snobbery" Woolly? Does that come with being born with a silver spoon in your mouth?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

doesnotexist said... "innate snobbery" Woolly? Does that come with being born with a silver spoon in your mouth?.

Some are born snobbish, some achieve snobbery, and some have snobbery thrust upon them.

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Nick said...

Matt, excellent points.

At the end of the day the evolved human brain does not naturally lend itself to mathematics, science in general, and other ‘unnatural’ interests.
As a consequence of our evolved nature, interest in sex is near universal, but palaeontology is always going to be a minority sport.
Frankly, we’re the freaks, so there’s no point getting upset about the majorities preference for a good story.

Justin said...

And on topic - I'd like to add that I think the fossil in question is a really beautiful specimen - but it really doesn't demonstrate anything to us that we didn't already know with a great deal of certainty (unlike the archeopteryx for example).

If it wasn't for the fact that a shameful percentage of us still subscribed to medieval myths, it wouldn't be big news.