Michael Bloomberg, check your messages. In “Weak Link: Fossil Darwinius Has Its 15 Minutes: Skepticism about a fossil cast as a missing link in human ancestry” (Scientific American, July 21, 2009), Kate Wong observes,
And in an elaborate public-relations campaign, in which the release of a Web site, a book and a documentary on the History Channel were timed to coincide with the publication of the scientific paper describing her in PLoS ONE, Ida’s significance was described in no uncertain terms as the missing link between us humans and our primate kin. In news reports, team members called her “the eighth wonder of the world,” “the Holy Grail,” and “a Rosetta Stone.”
The orchestration paid off, as Ida graced the front page of countless newspapers and made appearances on the morning (and evening) news programs. Gossip outlets, such as People and Gawker, took note of her, too. And Google incorporated her image into its logo on the main search page for a day.
And then it all just melted away, with SciAm being only the latest source to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Shut off the canned wonder track for a minute, will you?”
I will certainly propose for this overall story as a down-list item for the ten top Darwin and Design stories of the year (here is 2008’s list). It’s rare indeed that popular media actually revolt against a proposition in “evolution,” even one as patently foolish as this one – but evidently it happens. And who knows? – raindrops seldom fall solo. More Wong:
Critics concur that Ida is an adapiform, but they dispute the alleged ties to anthropoids. Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago charges that some of the traits used to align Ida with the anthropoids do not in fact support such a relationship. Fusion of the lower jaw, for instance, is not present in the earliest unequivocal anthropoids, suggesting that it was not an ancestral feature of this group. Moreover, the trait has arisen independently in several lineages of mammals—including some lemurs—through convergent evolution. Martin further notes that Ida also lacks a defining feature of the anthropoids: a bony wall at the back of the eye socket. “I am utterly convinced that Darwinius has nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of higher primates,” he declares.
The real story here is the desperate need for a secular materialist establishment to find icons of evolution to venerate, Bloomberg-style – and it won’t be their fault if they don’t get a bunch more bogus relics.
My instinct about what went wrong is this: Popular media consider themselves gatekeepers when it comes to creating a craze, and they resent scientists, like the Ida team, who usurp their time-honoured right. Hence their swift revenge.