Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Friday, 6 February 2009

Media Watch: Sponges

ResearchBlogging.orgSurfing the web I came across several news articles reporting on a recent comment in Nature by Brocks & Butterfield (2009). I wondered if I could get an idea of their research (or discovery) just through reading what the average punter would read in the newspapers or online. Would the news coverage be fair or sensationalist? Here is what I found.

This, from the free daily UK paper called the Metro:
    "If you felt a bit soggy while walking through the snow this week, it's because your relatives were sponges. Well, your ancestors who lived 635 million years ago were.
    Mankind is thought to have evolved from primitive sea sponges, according to a study of fossils found in rocks in Oman.
    They are thought to date to the last ice age, according to the US research in Nature journal."
The Daily Mail decided to run with:
    Meet the ancestors: Earliest evidence of life suggests humans descended from sponges 635 million years ago
The Scotsman leads with this perplexing title: In the beginning God created the sponge. The article continues:
    "Now scientists say they have discovered the missing link in the chain of evolution. They have found evidence of the oldest animal life yet discovered on Earth – ancient sponges that lived 635 million years ago".
The Telegraph seems to have passed on the 'Sponge Ancestor', sticking with their earlier (March 5, 2008) story Comb jellies were our first ancestor instead.

Anyone reading this on the 8.20 tube from Cockfosters would understand that the research is about discovering ancestors (i.e., missing links, a poriferan Adam & Eve). I had to see what Brocks & Butterfield (2009) wrote about 'ancestors':
    "So, what exactly were the organisms that produced these biomarkers? The most obvious answer, and the one that the authors plump for, is that demosponges had evolved and become ecologically prominent by at least the late Cryogenian. But this conclusion overlooks the evolutionary nature of biological taxa and the incremental assembly of defining characteristics along (now-extinct) 'stem lineages'. It is only with a full complement of such characteristics — in the last common ancestor of the extant 'crown group' — that modern taxonomic boundaries apply (...) Combined with new biomarker data and molecular phylo genomics, the identification of such signals promises to pinpoint the first appearance of our earliest animal ancestors." (Brocks and Butterfield, 2009: 673).
The press, again, have missed the point. Mankind did not evolve from primitive sea sponges - something the study by Brocks & Butterfield (2009) did not state. Moreover, the Metro makes the mistake of stating that "...your relatives were sponges". In fact all life is related (and in the presence tense - our relatives were and still are sponges. Same is true for trilobites and nudibranchs). Surprizingly however, the BBC News online managed not to bungle it and grab a relevant sound bite: "We're not saying we captured the first animal; we're saying they're an early animal phylum and we're capturing them when their biomass was significant" - a departure from their normal misquotes and stories invariably taken out of context.

The Daily Mail Online however, do go on to publish a Reuters report by Michael Kahn that best summaries the research: "Chemical traces left in 635 million-year-old rocks in Oman provide the earliest evidence so far of animal life, researchers said Wednesday". Why the Mail didn't go with Reuter's original title Scientists find earliest evidence of animal life has more to do with sensationalism than with science journalism.

References
Jochen J. Brocks, Nicholas J. Butterfield (2009). Biogeochemistry: Early animals out in the cold Nature, 457 (7230), 672-673 DOI: 10.1038/457672a

2 comments:

Karen James said...

Argh! Yet another example of awful science coverage when it comes to evolution (though in this case well done BBC!). This has to be one of the most common misconceptions about evolution, i.e. for example humans evolved 'from' chimps rather than sharing a common ancestor 'with' chimps that was neither chimp nor human. That supposed 'science' journalists can't get this right is a source of much irritation to me.
...but perhaps there is a blog-shaped light at the end of the tunnel?

Crawford Tillinghast said...

This, in particular, is the kind of press-gibberish that creationists take as example to attack rational thinking. It is a big shame that journalists are actually doing "the devil's work" by giving potential ammo to fundamentalists' obscurantism.