Evolution and the Public

Recently a close friend of mine sent me an article in the New York Daily News about the discovery of “Ida” or as it is known scientifically, Darwinius masillae, which is an early Eocene primate with many superficially lemur-like characteristics.  Ida was revealed to the public in 2009 (which is also when the article was written) and was presented as the long sought after “missing link” between prosimians and anthropoids.  I was aware at the time that this find was likely over-hyped for more press coverage, as many primate fossils are, so it didn’t surprise me that this article claimed that Ida was the missing link.  What struck me about the 2009 New York Daily News article was the sheer lack of anthropological and evolutionary knowledge by the people writing the article itself.  The scale of unnecessarily inaccurate information was startling for someone who studies primates and evolution.

Two major inaccuracies struck me:

1. “A team of researchers Tuesday unveiled an almost perfectly intact fossil of a 47 million-year-old primate they say represents the long-sought missing link between humans and apes.”

2. “Scientists say the cat-sized animal’s hind legs offer evidence of evolutionary changes that led to primates standing upright – a breakthrough that could finally confirm Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

Did you catch the unnecessary and misleading inaccuracies?

For the first statement the authors claim that this 47 million year old fossil is the missing link between humans and apes.  Humans diverged from our last common ancestors, chimpanzees and bonobos, approximately 5-7mya.  In what universe does a 47 million year old Adapiform have to do with that divergence?

Answer: nothing.

The reason this was stated was pure and simple:  when talking about primate evolution most of the public wants to hear about human ancestry and the missing link between us and our closest ancestors.  A 47 million year old primate fossil can tell us a lot about early primate evolution and potentially the speciation of anthropoids, however it can tell us exactly nothing about our ancestor with apes.

As much as that statement annoyed me, I think the second statement is worse.  The authors claim that this find “confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution”.  This is incredibly misleading and dangerous, especially when published in a reputable American newspaper.  It insinuates that evolution was in need of more evidence to prove its accuracy as a theory that can explain the history of all life on Earth.  However, evolution did not (and does not) need Ida anymore than the theory of gravity needs scientists to drop an apple from a tree to see whether it hits the ground.

Evolution as a phenomenon is a proven fact.

All life on Earth evolved over the past 3.5-4 billion years from a single common ancestor.  All that is left to do is refine the theory and learn more about how that happened, not whether it happened.  There is an important distinction.  And the reason it is dangerous that the authors of this article did not make it is because there are several powerful and influential people in America attempting to subvert the teaching of evolution in public education and they can use articles like this to say “look it is just a theory, you haven’t proven anything yet.”

I hope the point of this blog post makes it clear that there needs to be more anthropologists writing about findings in anthropology.  The public’s understanding of our origins as a species and an order depend on it.  I’d like to emphasize that point by directing you to a recent Gallup Poll that Science World recently reported on (here), indicating that the American public is in sore need of a better evolutionary education.

Here is a link to the New York Daily News article as well (here).

 

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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