Apparently the backlash against the media storm that came in with Ida has begun. Chris Beard wrote in the New Scientist this week utterly dismissing Ida as anything but an adapoid. With a diagram.
Where Beard sees Darwinius
The main thrust:
What does Ida’s anatomy tell us about her place on the family tree of humans and other primates? The fact that she retains primitive features that commonly occurred among all early primates, such as simple incisors rather than a full-fledged toothcomb, indicates that Ida belongs somewhere closer to the base of the tree than living lemurs do.
But this does not necessarily make Ida a close relative of anthropoids – the group of primates that includes monkeys, apes – and humans. In order to establish that connection, Ida would have to have anthropoid-like features that evolved after anthropoids split away from lemurs and other early primates. Here, alas, Ida fails miserably.
There’s still a deeper issue here that has yet to be fully addressed by the media. New Scientist‘s editorial wrote:
[T]here was little chance to seek disinterested comment on the researchers’ claim. By the time doubts about Ida’s role in our past emerged, the circus had moved on.
A good point, except that it’s hard to find a disinterested opinion in this field. Eocene primate paleontology is deeply political. There are just a handful of researchersand almost every one one of them has a well-staked out position in one of a few camps on every issue that no single fossil, even a beautiful on like Ida, is likely to change. Chris Beard thinks anthropoids are ancient and from Asia, with his Eosimias on the lineage. Phillip Gingrich thinks anthropoids descended from cercomoniine adapoids. Szlazy thinks they came from omomyoids; Matt Cartmill thinks they came from tarsiers. Ewlyn Simons and Tab Rasmussen will tend to take whatever position boosts the importance of the Fayum. Everyone is going to respond to Ida on those terms. So, what we’re likely to see in media is as much people scrambling to restate their old positions as new, truly skeptical analyses of Darwinius.
Oh, and, I think this blog scooped New Scientist on the first skeptical reaction to Ida. Yep, that’s right. I expect status as a science media juggarnought to be forthcoming.
I noticed this reading through the paper for my last post. I’ll quote how the authors describe Table 3:
Table 3 lists 30 anatomical and morphological characteristics commonly used to distinguish extant strepsirrhine and haplorhine primates. They were taken from the standard primate textbook by Fleagle , form the classic W. C. Osman Hill monographs of Strepsirrhine and Haplorhini [75, 76], and from additional references listed in Table 3.
Reference 74 is listed thus:
Fleagle, JG (1999) Primate Adaptation and Evolution, second edition. San Diego: Academic Press. 528 p.
That book is neither 528 pages in length nor does page 528 seem relevant at all to the paper. It is a part of a discussion on on the origins of bipedalism in the chapter on hominids. There’s no mention of haplorhines, strepsirhines, anthropoids, or even particularly any specific features. I can’t think what other meaning “528 p” could have. I noticed because I was actually curious what part of Fleagle the authors of the D. masillae paper were referring to. I can’t recall any similar listing of features, so they must have collated from a broad swath of the text. I don’t have copies of the other references, so can’t speak to them.
I could well be misunderstanding something in the citation. If not, weird. I don’t know what that says about PLoS ONE. Maybe these things are common.
I’ve finally gotten around to reading the PLoS ONE paper describing Darwnius masillae, the newly descrived adapoid from Messel, Germany, represented by a remarkably (95%) complete skeleton of an immature (approximately 1 y/o) female. The media blitz that accompanied the announcement of the fossil on May 20th put heavy emphasis on the notion that this fossil was a “missing link,” often put as being between “us and lemurs.” I’m sure the documentary soon to be aired and the book by Colin Tudge (which I have bought a copy of but haven’t yet read) will as well.
See any resemblance?
In storm of media hype, including a special tribute from Google, a new little adapiform fossil has surfaced from Messel, Germany, formerly of Archeopteryx fame. Her name is Darwinius masillae, or ‘Ida,’ apparently. And she is beautiful:
I’ve found myself doing a fair amount of reading in the history of paleontology recently, and I’ve come across two interesting cases of paleontologists dreaming up reconstructions of their fossils. The first involves the famous Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz. While he was still in Europe working on his monumental Researches sur les poissons fossiles, he came across a particular fossil fish that was so encased in rock he was unable to bring it to any recognizable form. Well,
For two nights in dreams he saw the fish, fully restored, but could not recapture its form the next day. On the third evening, he went to bed with paper and pencil near him, and, when the image returned again, half-awake he sketched it. Returning to the museum the next day, he soon managed to separate the fossil from the stone, discovering as he did so that here was the original, exactly as he had sketched it.
Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, 1960. p. 58.
The other story is about an American Agassiz protege, Edward Drinker Cope, while he was working in the Montana badlands in 1876. He and his men were working a strip of Cretaceous fossiliferous deposits on a perilously high cliff above the Missouri River, with threat of the Sioux impending. Apparently the stress was getting to old Cope:
In his dreams, the ancient beasts he was exhuming would come to life and torment him. ‘Every animal of which we found traces during the day played with him at night, tossing him into the air, kicking him, trampling upon him,’ Sternberg [his associate on the expedition] wrote.
Jaffe, Mark. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science, 2000. p. 179. What make’s Cope’s imagination the more remarkable was the fact that he was mostly only finding teeth.
I’d be interested to find more stories like these.
More on Louis Agassiz and probably a review of The Gilded Dinosaur later.