Ardi, officially known as Ardipithecus ramidus, is a million years older than Lucy, the Australopithecus fossil, and is offering us the latest data on human origins – and conclusions that have been mangled into sensationalist journalism.
“Science reporters are very prone to this problem of trying to put every discovery into the category of ‘The Most Important Thing Ever Discovered,’ and that’s often not the case,” explained PZ Myers, popular science blogger, self-proclaimed godless liberal, and University of Minnesota biology professor.
Fossils of the 4.4-million-year-old hominid, including 125 pieces from the same skeleton, were found in Ethiopia in the early nineties. Data from Ardi’s fossils indicate that the last common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, our closest DNA relatives, lived in the forest and walked on two feet. This means that chimpanzees developed their characteristic knuckled-walking after diverging from humans.
On October 2, the research journal Science published 11 papers produced by an international team of anthropologists and paleontologists, introducing Ardi to the scientific community and the general public. Three of the papers printed are jargon-free, and all of the papers are online and available to the public free of charge.
Yet even with the accessibility that Science offers, journalists have made more than one error in translation.
A National Geographic headline about Ardi includes the words “missing link” − an often-used phrase, which, according to Myers, is misleading.
“[Missing link] implies a linear series, a chain, where what you do is you go back and find one fossil, and then the next fossil in the series, and the next, and the next, and the next, and eventually you get a complete series, and that’s not the way it works,” said Myers.
Sarah Bean, manager of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill, agreed that the term is frequently misapplied.
“The notion of the ‘missing link’ …implies that evolutionary biology is waiting for some essential piece of evidence to prove its credibility, which is certainly not the case,” Bean said.
According to Myers, most of the individuals that came before us do not survive in preserved, fossilized form, making it impossible to construct a complete tree diagram to depict human evolution.
Myers further explained that Ardi is probably not a direct ancestor of humans. “I mean, it’s possible,” he said. “But because there are so many different species, and so many of them are lost, it’s highly unlikely.”
The Torstar News Service committed what Myers considers among the worst of the sensationalist offenses, publishing an article with the hook, “Man didn’t descend from apes.”
“We’ve always been thinking, well, you know, if we go back far enough what we will find is that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans probably looked more like a chimpanzee than us. What this fossil is saying, what Ardipithecus is saying, is that it’s a little different than that,” said Myers.
“[Ardi] has characteristics of humans, characteristics of chimps – but mostly characteristics that are neither chimp nor human,” said Hendrik Van Gijseghem, a professor in the anthropology department at McGill.
Van Gijseghem also offered a slightly more optimistic view of the media. “Generally speaking, [articles] recognize that the results raise more questions than they answer,” he said.
Myers has advice for navigating the voices of so many reporters. “Well, it’s actually something that I think is a little counter-intuitive. That what we need to do is encourage more skepticism,” Myers said.
Evolution in particular is a topic that the public can benefit from reading up on. “Human evolution is something that unites all of humanity, regardless of language, culture, socio-economic status, et cetera. Why shouldn’t we all be interested in learning as much as we can about our origins?” said Bean.
Still, skepticism and general appreciation for intellectualism seem to be beyond some. A piece on the ABC News web site devotes itself, headline and kicker, to the likes of David Menton, a Young Earth creationist with an Ivy League credential. Menton’s faith in the Bible is not budging, and is backed up by his opinion that Ardi is just an ape.
“What did Menton expect? A frickin’ giraffe?” blogged Myers.