Musings: Ida

This page consolidates related posts. In this case, it makes sense to post the original item first.


May 31, 2009

There is a follow up item about Ida, June 21, below. Ida follow-up.

Ida is a cute German girl. 47 million years old.

This is another big news story, much hyped in the media. But underneath that hype is a good science story.

Ida is a 47 million year old fossil. A remarkably well preserved fossil. If nothing else, look at her pictures. Ida is a primate. What are primates? Primates are not easily defined, but complex hands is one good characteristic. The best known group of primates is the anthropoids: monkeys, apes, humans. Other primates include the lemurs and tarsiers. Ida is a primate, but so old that she does not fit clearly into any modern primate group. Ida is older than the oldest known anthropoids (monkeys). So she offers the possibility of some insight into very early primates; her age and the high quality of the fossil are key parts of this.

A picture: Ida [link opens in new window]. (This is a smaller version of part of Figure 1 from the paper. Note scale bar at the bottom. Looks like she would about fit in your hand -- except for the tail. Estimated weight is about 0.5 to 1 kilogram.)

So, the main interest in Ida is to analyze in detail this single high quality specimen of a very early primate. That is the heart of the new paper, which was announced last week. Ida is an example of one kind of animal that existed in Germany 47 million years ago. Interestingly, Ida has a mix of features, including some that we now see in modern humans.

Beyond that, we wonder how Ida fits into the grand scheme of things. And this is where the hype takes over. With only one specimen, from an era where we have little information, all we can do is to lay out some possibilities, almost speculations. As a couple of examples of the range of possibilities...
* It is possible that Ida (the type of animal that Ida represents) is on a direct line to humans.
* It is possible that Ida's species had no descendants at all that continued to modern times. In this case, the interest in Ida is not that she is a direct ancestor, but that she shows us what was "possible" at that point in history. For example, we see certain human-like traits showing up. That is of interest, whether Ida is a direct ancestor or not. We take information as we get it; that is the heart of science.

The paper itself deals with these possibilities, and the uncertainties, rather reasonably. Unfortunately, the news media do not. In fact, there seems to have been an orchestrated news event -- including a TV show -- around this announcement. Whatever the merits of that may be for stimulating popular interest, it does not do much for the quality of the scientific discussion. (Has anyone seen the TV show?)

Here is one good news story on this work. This story tries to summarize the exciting science, and to deal with the significance. 47-million-year-old fossil could shed light on primate family tree. (Washington University, May 21, 2009)

Here is the paper itself, freely available online. Caution, it is long and technical. (The title shown below is probably a clue to that!) You may find it worth browsing simply for the pictures. If you read the introductory parts, the discussion and the conclusions, you will get some sense of the work. PLoS One: Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. (J L Franzen et al, PLoS One 5:e5723, May 19, 2009.)

Ida: follow-up

June 21, 2009

The original Ida item is dated May 31, above. Ida is that 47 million year old fossil of an early primate.

As I noted before, this is an interesting science story -- and hyped by the media. One reason for the hype was the role of paleontologist Jorn Hurum, an author of the paper, who actively promoted the work in the media. Hurum is media-savvy; he does a TV show on science for children.

Here is a news story from Science a couple weeks after the initial report. It discusses a range of opinions about the science, and about Hurum's media role. Paleontology -- Celebrity Fossil Primate: Missing Link or Weak Link. (Science 324:1124, May 29, 2009.)

Is there something wrong here? As to the science, the situation seems fairly normal. Someone publishes a paper on something exciting; it gets attention and critique. Over time, we will come to understand the significance of the original paper. It is a normal, and public process. As to the media and to Hurum's media role... I, like many scientists, am not comfortable with media. However, they play an important role. I have not seen much of the media coverage, so cannot comment on the specifics. Surely it is good when a science story captures the public imagination. Surely it is good when a scientist is able to convey the science to the public. Did Hurum over-do it? In stimulating interest, did he mislead? If he simplified the story for public presentation, did he do so within reasonable bounds, considering the general state of science understanding? I suspect we all broadly agree that science education is poor; the general public does not understand how scientific ideas develop over time, based on evidence. Is Hurum doing good by presenting some exciting new information, even without all the nuances? Should we be happy that many may be stimulated by his presentation to learn more, or unhappy that he did not present it all? Those questions are easier to ask than to answer. Perhaps it is just good that there is public debate on the media coverage, so that other scientists think about the matter. Perhaps we should be envious of his media talents -- even if we suggest that some of what he did could have been better. (That picture of him in the Science story does not help his case!)

The debate, as in this Science story, is healthy. Beyond that, I feel no great need to "judge" what he did. If there are things to criticize, let's suggest what could be better for next time. Then, let's move on. If others have comments, especially if you saw the TV show or other details, please share.

The debate over whether to call Pluto a planet is a recent example of a science story that captured the public's interest. It was based partly on facts (the nature of Pluto and other bodies), but also largely on the definition of "planet". It was clear that much of the public, while excited, did not understand the story. Regardless, surely it was good that the story was out there, even if incomplete. Maybe some people did learn from it; it is hard to imagine that the story did harm.

Anyway, Ida is cute.

Return to main page entries for these items:
Ida (May 31, 2009).
Ida: follow-up (June 21, 2009).

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