Review of “The Link,” a book about a fossil primate

July 26, 2009 • 1:28 pm

On the Barnes and Noble website you can find my review of Colin Tudge’s new book, The Link — a book about the discovery and meaning of “Ida,” the fossil primate whose scientific name is Darwinius masillae.   Ida was the subject of numerous blog commentaries after her unveiling in May, most of them taking issue with the authors’ and publicists’ claim that the fossil gave information critical in understanding human (or primate!) evolution.  (See here, here, and here, for instance.)

The book is pretty lame, and I have it on good authority that Tudge wrote it in about two months to meet the May deadline for the big NYC unveiling, after other authors had refused the offer to write it.  The rush job shows.  In my opinion, The Link is neither worth buying nor reading, though the fossil is certainly worth seeing because it is so complete, preserving outlines of the fur and even the stomach contents. (You can see it for free on “The Link” website.)

From the review:

. . .The buzz around Ida may in fact mark a watershed moment in science reporting: the merging of science journalism and tabloid journalism. On the whole, there isn’t much difference between Ida’s press releases and the National Enquirer, with Ida playing the role of Paris Hilton: an attractive specimen that adds little to our culture. To a scientist, statements like this — made by one of Ida’s discoverers — grate like fingernails on a blackboard: “When we publish our results it will be like an asteroid hitting the Earth.” But in the end, it’s not so much the hype and the absence of scientific gravitas around Ida that bothers me, it’s the irresponsibility of trying to gull the public into accepting a scientific conclusion that wasn’t properly vetted by scientists. This end run around the scientific community is the kind of thing that creationists do. Fortunately, real science has won out — for now. When Chris Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was asked to assess Ida, he remarked dryly, “This fossil has been hailed as the eighth wonder of the world. Frankly, I’ve got ten more in my basement.”


Fig. 1.  Ida (Darwinius masillae). Photo courtesy of the PLoS paper describing her.

9 thoughts on “Review of “The Link,” a book about a fossil primate

  1. Thanks for the heads up on the Ida book. The reviews from the people I trust are all uniform in stating how poorly the science and writing were. The hype and the run for money was the biggest problem. Again thanks, I will save my money.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read the book and to post these comments Jerry. I shall spend the money on something else.

  3. “…with Ida playing the role of Paris Hilton: an attractive specimen that adds little to our culture.”

    This figure is spot on. Also, hilarious.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Jerry. I am currently reading “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom” By Sean B. Carroll. I am about one-third through and I am enjoying and learning from it. What do you think about it?

    Next I will read his “The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution”.

  5. I haven’t bothered reading the paper because primatology isn’t really my thing, but I have to wonder why the authors chose to publish in PLoS ONE of all places.

    I’ve heard the paper is of substandard quality, so perhaps that was just as rushed as the book? Or maybe they already knew they were going to get so much publicity that they didn’t really care where they published?

    1. Plos ONE is somewhat varied in quality but it has a major advantage in terms of timing. Submitting a paper to many print journals can mean a wait of over a year before it is actually published due to the time it takes for the manuscript to go through the peer review process. Plos ONE has streamlined this so that authors receive much quicker reviews and thus the time from submission to publication is considerably shorter.
      This factor seems to be critical in this case due to their need for secrecy.
      Interestingly the secrecy these current authors required from their submission was very different from the secrecy most authors wish to receive. In the case of the Darwinius authors there was no worry about competitors moving in and stealing their results – it is a descriptive paper about one beautiful and incredibly rare fossil (its unlikely that a reviewer would get the manuscripts and think “wait a second, that fossil looks just like the one I have sitting on my kitchen cabinet, propping up the gas bills, perhaps I can publish it too!”

  6. “Ida” – I don’t really care for the way the authors sexed this specimen. It all boils down to the baculum; and a liberal application of the philosophy of “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”. You just shouldn’t do that with a penis.

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