New discovery fuels hominin hype

According to multiple reports released yesterday, scientists will announce the discovery of a new species of two-million-year-old hominin this week. Do you know what that means? That’s right; writers are breaking out the pop-sci boilerplate to tell us all about the new “missing link.” To paraphrase what I have seen in the headlines alone, the find is the “missing link which will shed new light on human evolution and rewrite what we thought we knew about our history.”

I don’t believe the hype, but I can only speculate on the actual significance of the specimens in question. According to the reports already issued, paleoanthropologists have described the remains of several juvenile australopithecines (a large group of early hominins which contains, but is not exclusively made up of, some of our ancestors) found in a two-million-year-old Sterkfontein, South Africa cave deposit. Although already being cast as intermediate between australopithecines and the earliest member of our own genus, Homo habilis, this hominin is probably in the wrong place at the wrong time to be our direct ancestor, but it may help us understand human evolution during a time when there was a radiation of species across Africa.

I would love to say more, but I can’t. The paper describing the new hominin has not yet been published, and it seems as if an embargo break has caused numerous news sources to issue early reports several days before the scheduled release of the paper. (Perhaps Ivan Oransky will be able to dig up more details for his excellent blog, Embargo Watch.) What this means is that it will be difficult to get good commentary on the find because no one (except those who have already received the embargoed paper) has had a chance to read it yet. The early reports all zero in on that favorite question “Was this one of our ancestors?”, and it seems like accurate, comprehensive reporting has taken a backseat to generating attention-getting headlines.

One of the most frustrating aspects of all this, of course, is the continued use of the phrase “missing link.” As I tried to explain during the hubbub over the fossil primate “Ida” last year, the concept does not reflect what we understand about evolution. The story of human evolution is not entirely confined to a single chain of ancestors linking us to our last common ancestor with chimpanzees. Instead our species is only the last surviving member of a much richer family tree, and if we only zero in on a linear series of “missing links” in our own ancestry we will have to ignore most of our relatives. The phrase fosters a false vision of what evolution is and how it works, and I would love for it to be discontinued. Nevertheless, those who write headlines still love to use the phrase, and it seems as if every time a new hominin is discovered it is cast a “missing link” which connects us to apes (with the inference being that apes are “lower” on the chain, another gross misunderstanding since we are apes, too!). I think it would be just as easy to write headlines like “New Fossil Fills Out Human Evolutionary Tree”, but apparently some folks at the newspapers are not on board yet.

And then there are the creationists. When newspapers and media companies hail new fossils as the “missing link” only to have those same fossils turn out to be close relatives rather than direct ancestors, religious fundamentalists jump all over the opportunity. Anika Smith of the Disco ‘Tute blog Evolution News and Views has already put up a confused dispatch about the find, confusing the as-yet-unannounced species with Homo habilis. I have no doubt other creationist organizations will eventually jump in as well, especially if the new species turns out to be (as I suspect) a close cousin rather than a direct ancestor. By running hyped headlines before scientists can get a chance to look at the published paper, newspapers only end up feeding creationist nonsense.

No one is well-served when newspapers or other media outlets jump the gun on new discoveries. When a story breaks before a paper is actually published there is a greater danger that it will be hyped or otherwise presented without a critical analysis by people who can best interpret the discovery in the proper context. During a time when it can be hard for a specialized science writer to find work, though, coverage of important new discoveries is often given to generalist feature writers who would not know a humerus from a femur if you hit them over the head with it. It is a problem that will be with us for some time to come, and it underscores the need for experienced science writers in the shifting media landscape.

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