Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Ida? I hardly knew her!

The interwebz are abuzz with news of the discovery of what has been termed "a missing link" in the ancestry of human evolution. Called Ida, it's big news and many news agencies, forums, etc, have caught the reporting bug, and therein lies the problem. The thing is, there isn't anything inherently wrong with spreading the news of the discovery; no, the problem is when articles and reporters - particularly major ones - make a hash of the entire dissemination of the science and fossil discovery.

Take the Sky News article, for instance. Within the first few paragraphs in the article, you find this gem:

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.

Wtf? Seriously? Finally confirms? No, this find doesn't finally confirm the theory of evolution: the many different lines of evidence for the occurrence of evolution ensured any confirmation years ago. What this find does is join a hot of other affirmations of the theory of evolution, and Darwin's "radical, outlandish ideas". Wait, actually, wouldn't it be a misnomer to call them simply ideas, considering the amount of work that went into building the theory?

Perhaps I'm being too pedantic. Then again, it might reduce the chance of several of the idiots - like the ones that responded to the sky article - getting muddled up about what the discovery entails.

That does bring me to an important point, though. For many, it would seem that the theory of evolution has no evidence. For some, that it's called a theory ("it's a theory, don't you know, a theory! Not fact") is enough dismiss the whole thing. While I find it a bizarre argument, I have heard it several times.

First, for anyone interested, a theory, a science theory, is the highest level of acceptance in science. To paraphrase that famous quip, theories aren't things that people think up on a drunken night out; they are findings that backed by some kind of evidence - see facts - and open to falsifiability. Thus, it should be understood that, contrary to what some misguided say, theories don't get "upgraded to laws". That doesn't happen. On the other hand, laws can be superseded - in a manner of speaking - by theories. For example, and probably the most famous case, Einstein's theory of relativity complementing and explaining some things that the Newton's law of gravity couldn't.

Second, there are several lines of evidence that affirm the theory of evolution. My personal favourite is the existence of shared endogenous retrovirus insertions between several species. That's all I'll write on the subject for now.

Third, fossilised remains of transitional organisms.

Anyway, this became longer than I intended. Welcome to the wide, wild world of celebridom, Ida.

The sky article gave the link and it's a good one: for any interested in Ida, the discovery of the fossilised remains, and the characteristics of the purported transitional.


Ida is the most complete early primate fossil ever found, and scientists believe that she could be one of our earliest
ancestors. She is a remarkable link between the first primates and modern humans and despite having
lived 47 million years ago, her features show striking similarities to our own.

Ida's discovery gives us unique insights into primate development at the root of anthropoid evolution – when primates were first developing features that would evolve in our own.

Key facts about the most complete primate fossil ever discovered