Sensational findings or sensation hunting

“The Missing Link has finally been discovered”, “the Eighth Wonder of the world”, “The Rosetta Stone pathology”, Darwin was right”, “The theory of evolution has finally been proven”. The world press dished out huge headlines when a new fossil was presented in 2009.

Darwinius masillae, a primate resembling a lemur, is quite remarkable. 47 million years old and incredibly well preserved: approximately 95% intact and with a dark shadow around the skeleton indicating what was once flesh and fur. The fossil is even determined to be female and in her stomach we can see the remains of her last meal which consisted of fruits and leaves. And she has been given the nickname Ida. That is irresistible.

Impressively coordinated media stunt

Ida was presented to the world on May 17, 2009 at an impressive press conference at the American Museum of Natural History with the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and full media coverage. The flame of sensational press was blazing: Ida was not just “the missing link”, she was “The Link!” – the connection to our common past with all other primates.

She is 20 times older than most other famous fossils which have given us answers to the human evolution so far, says the press statement. Compared to Ida, Lucy (one of the most famous fossils among our evolutionary ancestors from the species Australopithecus aphaeresis) is a mere baby at just 3.2 million years – or as mentioned 20 times younger than Ida.

However, it did not end with the press conference. The sensational launch has been carefully planned for a number of years and culminates in a until now unseen media stunt which with perfect timing launches the scientific article, a comprehensive and well produced website containing nothing less than a comment from legendary David Attenborough, a television broadcast, and a popular scientific book pretty much all at the same time. 

All the elements of a good story were present – and it was masterfully coordinated by the scientists themselves in an impressively choreographed launch which quickly secured sensational headlines and maximum attention on a worldwide scale. Even Google changed their logo in celebration of the event. But everything did not run smoothly and not everyone was equally pleased.

The world’s most misused headline

“This discovery will revolutionise everything we know”. It is no wonder that newsrooms gave in to the temptation to once again run this headline. The only problem was that even though Ida was an incredibly well preserved fossil and that we can learn a lot from studying it, it does not change the fact that we already know the evolution of man. Furthermore, the results of the fossil analysis had to be tested. They were completed later that year and contrary to the sensational statements in May, they showed that Ida was not directly related to us humans.

The initial study of Ida was made public in the open and freely accessible online magazine PLoS ONE. Two of the world’s leading scientific magazines - and rivals – Science and Nature were quick to voice critical opinions and rival teams of scientists immediately raised doubts about the classification of Ida. In other words, the story of Ida is far from over. The impressive coordinated publication is not a conclusion. It is only the beginning.

“The missing link” is a myth

However, there is another fundamental problem with the launch. It is not the first time this year that “the missing link” has been used to create media frenzy. In fact, it still happens all the time. The problem here is that by focusing on one of the greatest icons of evolution during the last 150 years, the famous “Missing Link”, you unfortunately reinforce the continuously widespread myth that our understanding of human evolution depends on a particular link to tie the history of man together with that of the apes.

With regards to the evolutionary history of man, the idea of “the missing link” came to life during the years following the release of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. At first, it was perceived as a scientific challenge to discover what was considered to be the conclusive evolutionary proof of the evolution of man.  But from the 1920s onwards, the idea of “the missing link” lost its scientific significance and has no relevance whatsoever in the evolutionary research of today.

However, “The missing link” is still deeply rooted in the minds of the public, not least due to the uncritical use of the expression by the media and the misguided need for attention by certain scientists. Sadly, the latter backfires and leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding about our scientific knowledge concerning the evolution of life. All fossils are links in a long evolutionary chain. The idea of decisive transitional forms that connect two species and supply us with the missing proof to the study of evolution makes no sense. In a sense, all species are transitional forms.

In fact, the most important message is that today, we do not need to find a “missing link”. Presently, we possess such an extensive amount of fossil and genetic material which beyond any doubt and with absolute certainty proves the kinship of Homo sapiens with other primates.

We still have a lot to learn about the evolution of man. However, Ida revolutionises neither science nor our perception of ourselves. The announcement of darwinius massilae is but one among many exciting and important paleontological research results in recent years. And there are more to come. It is a field of research in rapid development. Ida is not the missing link which will make everything fall into place for us. But her story is an exciting one and nonetheless, she is very impressive!

Peter C. Kjærgaard

[Original publication data]

Extended knowledge

Read more about human evolution and sensation hunting in the article Ida og Ardi: chimpanseproblemet.