The recent report of a set of fossils of geniune significance for our understanding of human evolution highlights just how scientifically pathetic the PR circus over the primate fossil Darwinius masillae really was. Paleontologist Jørn Hurum, who purchased the fossil from a collector, clearly thought he had made the find of his life, and so he decided to milk it for all it was worth. The result was science via PR blitz.

Making ridiculous statements like "This is like finding the Holy Grail for paleontologists... This is the first link to all humans," Hurun hyped the fossil (which he nicknamed Ida, after his daughter, as a nod to the famous fossil Lucy) with a BBC special, a press conference, a popular book, and, almost as an afterthought, a rather inadequate paper in PLoS One, written by his "dream team" of specialists.

Hurum has defended the hype by arguing that scientists need to reach out to the public, and that they could learn a thing or two about promotion from rock stars, whom Hurum, perhaps in a moment of mid-career anxiety over some lost childhood fantasy, thinks he is emulating.

I have to agree with Christopher Beard, who responded to this line of argument by saying "when you make these breathless statements, you have to have the goods to back it up. Otherwise, we all lose credibility with the public. The only thing we have going for us that Hollywood and politicians don't is objectivity."

And Hurum doesn't have the goods. Exhibit #1 is the book written to accompany the PR campaign. This is one book you can easily judge by its cover. The misinformation begins at the top, with the book's subtitle (placed above the actual title): 'Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor'.

This statement is meaningless. Our earliest ancestor was a bacterium living 3.5 billion years ago. Ida is neither our earliest multicellular, chordate, vertebrate, tetrapod, or mammalian ancestor. Nor is Ida our earliest ancestor to diverge from the lineage that led to chimps. Ida is not even our earliest primate ancestor.

The actual title of the book, The Link is just as ridiculous, and shares the confusion of the subtitle. Ida is a link between what? Our earliest ancestor and us? What's really meant is that Ida is some sort of transitional fossil at a significant point during primate evolution. (But not the beginning of primate evolution. I'm not getting into that aspect - look here for more on where Ida might fall in primate evolution.)

Moving on in our judgment of the cover of this book, we read on the dust jacket that the author is Colin Tudge, who appears to have written some respectable science books in the past. As I delved into the first chapter of The Link, my first thought was, Tudge is a terrible writer who doesn't know jack about science. I encountered nonsensical sentences like this:

"Deep underground, the earth's crust split, sending boiling-hot molten magma rushing toward the surface. Just before the magma broke through the surface, it collided with a layer of groundwater and instantly turned to steam, a process that eliminated all of the lava."

I would be interested in knowing just how molten rock turns into steam, which is, by definition, made of water.

It turns out that the author listed on the dust jacket did not write that sentence. In the acknowledgements, you find that the worst chapters of the book were written by someone named Josh Young. Young wrote the opening and final chapters, which are filled with unintentionally revealing statements about Hurum's and his team's quest for fame. Ida is described, in quotes by the scientists themselves, as "the eighth wonder of the world," "like an asteroid hitting earth," "a symbol to every human being on the planet," something that will "rewrite history," "the Rosetta stone," and "our oldest ancestor and possibly one of the missing links." In emphasizing Ida's message of peace and harmony to the world, Hurum at one point expresses the profound thought that "no matter what age, race, or creed, we're all primates." From the beginning, apparently, Ida was already more about hype than about science.

Flipping over to the back of the book's cover, we find some breathless endorsements of the Ida project - made entirely by members of the scientific team or people who worked on the PR project. Could the book's publishers not find a single outside scientist to make a positive comment? Well, apparently they didn't try, because the whole project was kept wrapped up in extreme secrecy until the great unveiling, in an effort to make as large an impact as possible.

Leaving aside the cover and delving into the book, the scene doesn't get much better. The book begins with two chapters describing how Hurum purchased the fossil and assembled his dream team. The heart of the book consists of a very detailed description of the geological history of the Messel pit (the geological formation in Germany where Ida was found) and the flora and fauna of the Eocene. Thankfully, Tudge is a much better writer than Josh Young, and these middle chapters provide some context for Ida by explaining the types of large-scale environmental changes that occurred during the Eocene. However, these descriptions tend to devolve into tedious recitation of details, presented without a single supporting reference.

A serious flaw in this book is the lack of an informed, coherent discussion of existing fossil evidence of primate evolution. Nor is there any discussion of genetic evidence, and how it does or does not mesh with the existing fossil record. The book is stuffed with detail, and yet, in the end, it fails to put Ida in her proper place in the context of other research.

A fitting epilogue to this sorry story is today's publication, in Nature, of a paper describing a new primate fossil. The authors argue that this new fossil demonstrates that Ida is firmly in the lineage leading to lemurs. As one paleontologist put it, "Ida is as far away from the human lineage as you can get and still be considered a primate."

The Link is the worst book I've encountered in this year of Darwin celebrations, and it demonstrates the failure of the science-by-PR-blitz approach. Scientists aren't rock stars, and, as Hurum should have known, even rock stars can't completely hide a lack of talent or substance with hype.

Front page image by Franzen, et. al, courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons.

The Link, by Colin Tudge and Josh Young
Little, Brown 2009

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