Are You My Early Human Relative? Not So Fast…
It costs thousands of dollars to run a summer-long paleontological excavation with a small crew in a developed country. If the dig continues for more than one field season, employs more than three people or takes place in a hard-to-reach locale, budgets climb into the millions. All scientists need sponsors and grants to cover these costs, and those with money like some assurance that their funding is going to making Important Discoveries. Thus, it has become common for new fossil finds to be announced via press conference with all the pomp and circumstance of current events—you know, those news-worthy tidbits that haven’t been sitting around underground for millions of years. In the scramble to get more people interested in these new fossils (which have neither the bulk of a T. rex nor the cuteness factor of a baby dwarf hippo), a small handful of buzz-words pops up again and again. You can play matching games with these words and come up with every major fossil find reported in the past decade. Want to meet the First Tree-Dwelling Vertebrate? How about the Earliest European Human Ancestor? You can explore the Oldest Asian Monkey, the Human “Hobbits”, and the most overused of all, The Missing Link.
Making paleontology relevant to the public may be a prerequisite to securing funding for additional explorations, but the concept of descent with modification, a central tenet to understanding evolutionary theory, is complicated enough without misleading headlines like “Early Human Relative Predates Dinosaurs.” Yes, humans share a common ancestor with all vertebrates, with all mammals, with all primates, and with all apes. But all mammals alive today are equally closely related to the synapsid “mammal-like reptile” found to be living in trees during the age of the dinosaurs. Linking the fossil uniquely to humans is both naive (causing eye-rolling amongst scientists) and scientifically speaking, utterly incorrect.
Ultimately, though, if these titles (mis)lead internet skimmers to read an article they wouldn’t have otherwise considered, I can see some benefit. I’ve had some great classroom conversations inspired by overenthusiastic headlines in the popular press that caught my students’ eyes. I worry about those who don’t have a friendly neighborhood science interpreter ready to explain the intricacies of the new find glossed over by the headline writers, but in the end, if paleontologists receive the funding needed to excavate new fossils and the public learns something about those fossils, the benefit outweighs the damage.
Photo: The skeleton of the tree-climbing synapsid Suminia getmanov via Discovery.com
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