Darwinius, the “link” and the book

July 4, 2009 • 12:50 pm

Over at the Times Literary Supplement, paleontologist Ian Tattersall reviews Colin Tudge’s new book on Darwinius, The Link.

As you may remember if you read this and other evolution-related websites (see Greg Mayer’s post on this site), Darwinius masillae is an extraordinarily complete primate fossil that was revealed to scientists and the public in May, complete with a paper in PLoS,  overheated press releases, a movie deal on the History Channel, and, of course, Tudge’s book.  What was truly remarkable about this affair was the degree of hype: a publicity explosion that has never been equaled by any evolution-related discovery (indeed, even the completion of the human genome did not receive such fanfare).  Mayor Bloomberg was there, a press release touted Darwinius (known more familarly as “Ida”) as “a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything” (everything??), and one of the authors of the Darwinius paper, Jens Franzen, proclaimed that “When we publish our results it will be like an asteroid hitting the Earth.”

Well, hardly.  Ida turned out to be a really lovely fossil that didn’t add much to our knowledge of primate evolution.  It is almost certainly an adapiform primate, member of a group that went extinct without leaving descendants, and the early reports that Ida was a “missing link” between the two branches of primates were premature and based on incomplete and sketchy analysis by the scientists who described her.  Ida probably belongs firmly in the lemur/loris group.

Several of the science bloggers realized this immediately, although most reporters swallowed the “missing link” description uncritically (to be fair, they are not primate paleontologists).   The whole sorry affair resulted from the agreement between Ida’s discoverers and the publicists to prevent any scientists other than the “dream team” (that’s what Tudge calls them) from looking at the fossil or the research before publication, and blacking out journalists’ access to the paper until after the big press conference.  In the end, it was the bloggers like Brian Switek, and a few intrepid science journalists like Ann Gibbons and Carl Zimmer, who put Ida in the correct perspective.

According to Tattersall’s review, The Link looks as hyped-up and tendentious as were the original announcements.  The book was apparently written in only a couple of months so that it would appear the day after the press conference:

Colin Tudge’s book is part of the media blitz; and, at the risk of damning it with faint praise, I have to say that it is much the best part. It is more restrained and judicious than the other coverage; and while it does strictly hew to the party line, the hyperbolic statements it makes are always carefully attributed to others. To that extent, it is a thoroughly professional job, as one would expect of a distinguished interpreter of science to the public. . .

If The Link deserves a prize of any kind, it is for the speed with which it was written. Your reviewer has it on good authority that the television producers were still trawling around the Book of Ida project as late as January of this year; and Tudge evidently found he could not meet the almost impossibly short time constraints imposed by the TV schedule without co-opting the assistance of his colleague Josh Young. In combination with deadline pressure, this co-authorship presumably helps to explain a pattern of minor and generally harmless inconsistencies and inaccuracies throughout the book that might have been resolved with more time for reflection. It was hard, for example, to credit that the same author could have written on page 13 that “dinosaurs and mammals had coexisted briefly”, and (correctly), later on, that “the oldest known mammals could be older than the first dinosaurs”. And, in a note at the end of the book, we learn that he didn’t.

In this rather unseemly rush to publication, Tudge and Young were not alone. Speed, as well as obsessive secrecy, seems to have infected the entire Ida project from its inception. As reported by Nature, a member of the Dream Team complained that “there was a TV company involved and time pressure. We’ve been pushed to finish the study; it’s not how I like to do science”. I’m sure it’s not how Colin Tudge likes to write books, either.

Let’s just say that my own opinion is along the lines of Tattersall’s, but less charitable. More about that later.