Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Wrong, wrong, triple wrong."

I started talking about this subject a long time ago, touched on it a few more times in between other posts here at Superoceras, and I have no doubt that I'll write more in the future. But I want to finally finish up a post series that is long overdue, and answer a question that inspired me to start blogging in the first place: what do I think of the discovery or Ardipithecus ramidus, and the scientist that claimed that "apes descended from humans"?

I closed the last post by reiterating two points that I thought I had to make regarding the question. The first being that humans didn't descend from modern apes, and modern apes didn't descent from humans, but rather that we are more like cousins on the primate "family tree", sharing a common ancestor. With that out of the way, I went on to say that I didn't hear any scientist make a claim like that at all, but instead that the media had picked up on a story and sensationalized it without knowing the facts. I then presented a few other news stories "ripped from the headlines" that suffered similar misrepresentation. Let's touch on those briefly. In bold are the headlines, and in italics the glaring inaccuracies you can find in them, followed by other links with actual references (for those that wish to explore the topics further).

"Fossil Ida: Extraordinary find is 'missing link' in human evolution"
No one is going to argue that "Ida" isn't an extraordinary find. But she has literally nothing to do with human evolution. She's just another adapid primate; don't believe the hype. And please, stop using the term "missing link".

"The terrifying flying dinosaur that could unlock the mystery of human evolution"

I'm sorry, what terrifying bird (they are the only flying dinosaurs I know of) was discovered that has anything to do with human evolution? Oh, it's a pterosaur, not a dinosaur at all? And by "unlock the mystery of human evolution" you mean "shows an example of modular evolution"? Got it, thanks for clarifying.

"Venomous Dinosaur Discovered--Shocked Prey Like Snake?"
It's not impossible, but where's the evidence? Sure, there are poisonous birds and venomous squamates, but a couple of grooved teeth and an air sac aren't enough to prove any dinosaur was venomous. Sorry Dilophosaurus.

All old news, I know. So what is the point I'm trying to make with all of that? Basically, that you can't always trust what you see in print or on the web, and that whether journalist or reader at home, you have to check your sources. I try and do that every time I post here on Superoceras, and do my best to write honestly and reference the most up to date information on the subject I'm presenting. But that information is always subject to change. That's the brilliant thing about science. There is no dogma: all good science is founded in falsifiable hypotheses that can be independently tested, which means that new information is always becoming available. And when you examine that information, those hypotheses that have the most evidence to back them, are probably the most likely. That doesn't mean that new information won't one day be discovered that changes the way we look at things. No one alive in the 13th century would have believed the Earth was round and wasn't the center of the Universe.

But there is a significant amount of evidence in favor of both cases, just like there is evidence of anthropogenic climate change, and that humans evolved from extinct non-human primates. But a surprising amount of people still don't accept these hypotheses either. And I feel like part of the reason is because when you hear about some scientist who was wrong about this crazy idea they had, it's not because the scientist is crazy, or that they said anything wrong for that matter, but rather, because some news agency ran a highly exaggerated story that presented claims never made by a scientist or researcher in the first place. This hurts the scientific community, because it builds mistrust in the general public and distorts the public image of scientists and the work they do. And in this day in age and state of affairs that the world is in, we need people in support of science. We need to develop technology to clean up oil spills, reduce carbon emissions, and provide clean drinking water to people who have none. Medicines and vaccines against many deadly diseases and pathogens have yet to be uncovered. I've said it before and I'll say it again: we need science in order for these things to happen. We need people to support science, and be interested in science. Not be skeptical or afraid of it. But most of all, we need people to understand it. Because without the proper foundation, we're not going to have a shot at building a better future.

So to answer my friends question, what do I think of "Ardi" and the scientist who claims that "apes descended from humans"? I think "Ardi" is one more piece in a very large puzzle representing our family tree. But I don't think that modern-non human apes evolved from her species or our own, and there is no evidence that I'm aware of that proves modern humans evolved from her species either. I think I feel bad that he was misinformed right off the bat, and hope that what he and many other people remember about Ardipithecus isn't that bit of fictional trivia. I may not have been entirely pleased with the phrasing of the question (as you may have guessed), but I was pleased that it was being asked. Inquisitiveness is a trait that has served primates well over the last few million years. My advice to everyone reading this, whenever you have a question about a topic like this, seek out the answer. Keep an open mind while being equally skeptical of any claims being made that can't be substantiated. Learn as much as you can about your subject of interest so that you'll have the ability to separate the real evidence from the hearsay. And certainly don't take every hypothesis as fact without first seeing that it can't be falsified. And journalists, you might want to have a look at Dave Hone's Guide for Journalists. If you followed these rules, we'll all be a lot better off.

I'd like to thank my friend for asking me that question, as it was one of the primary motivations I had to start blogging here at Superoceras. I get really excited about science, and truly believe that every day can be filled with discovery if only we take the time to explore the world around us. I want to be able to share that excitement with others, and I hope that anyone that comes to read here can take something away from their visit. I know my thoughts might not always flow as eloquently as I'd like, and sometimes the rant goes on entirely too long (as it has with this post), but if I can get one person interested in science, or share one new piece of information with someone looking to learn, I feel like I'm accomplishing my goal. So again, thanks to all of you reading, and to my friend, sorry it took me so long to get back to you with an answer.

Brian Switek has gotten a paper published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach on the whole Darwinius mess. It's a very well written and well documented account. Check it out.

Original image of Darwinopterus by Nobu Tamura from:
Original image of Sinornithosaurus by FunkMonk from:

All images "remixed" as allowed by Creative Commons Attribution guidlines.

1 comment:

  1. What a well-cited post. I don't know if I've read one mainstream media story on biology that didn't skip over some very important information to (hopefully unintentionally) make the story fit a more exciting headline.