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Missing Link Gets Big Media Push

John on May 19, 2009 at 10:43 am

Sky News has the story:

Scientists have unveiled a 47-million-year-old fossilised skeleton of a monkey hailed as the missing link in human evolution.

The search for a direct connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom has taken 200 years – but it was presented to the world today at a special news conference in New York.

The discovery of the 95%-complete ‘lemur monkey’ – dubbed Ida – is described by experts as the “eighth wonder of the world”.

They say its impact on the world of palaeontology will be “somewhat like an asteroid falling down to Earth”.

Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the then radical, outlandish ideas he came up with during his time aboard the Beagle.

Sir David Attenborough said Darwin “would have been thrilled” to have seen the fossil – and says it tells us who we are and where we came from.

The bold in the article isn’t me, it’s Sky News. If the whole thing sounds a bit breathless, that’s no accident. The NY Times has an article on the carefully orchestrated hype:

[T]he event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

[...]

But despite a television teaser campaign with the slogan “This changes everything” and comparisons to the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination, the significance of this discovery may not be known for years. An article to be published on Tuesday in PLoS, a scientific journal, will report more prosaically that the scientists involved said the fossil could be a “stem group” that was a precursor to higher primates, with the caveat, “but we are not advocating this.”

It does sound like this may be a significant find, but I can’t help recalling the last media hyped discovery like this. Remember the Gospel of Judas? A couple years after the media hype (which was timed to coincide with The DaVinci Code’s release to theaters) the NY Times ran an op-ed pointing out that most of the claims made about the Gospel were wrong. Again, I’m not saying this isn’t a significant find, just that the hype is overblown.

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Category: Science & Tech |

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