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).

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Hidden Agendas: The Media & Science

Over a conversation about the decline of paleontology versus the rise of fossils in the media, my mate and colleague Tony Gill pointed out several interesting points. The hype and media attention surrounding Jurassic Park, Tiktaalik roseae the 'fish-to-tetrapod' transition and most recently, Ida the lemur-like fossil, all misrepresent paleontology. Furthermore, the medias handling of fossil ‘news’ is indicative of the decline of paleontology overall. This ‘hidden agenda’ namely, promoting a cheap technology or highly applied field at the expense of a scientific scholarship and endeavor, is endemic to current science reporting.

At first glance, Jurassic Park is an adventure movie about dinosaurs. A dinosaur expert gets to do what most paleontologists only dream of – walking with living fossils. Add a little romance and adventure into the script and "Hey Presto!" you have the kids hooked. Dinosaur figurine sales go up and you need to queue to get into your local museum. All a perfect recipe for promoting paleontology and getting the message that what paleontologist do is 'cool'. Think again: "What is Jurassic Park actually about?"

The answer, quite rightly is genetics, more accurately genetic engineering. Jurassic Park may show off some stunning (albeit incorrect) CGI reconstructions of dinosaurs, but mostly it is about how modern technology can progress science to unbelievable heights. What most people remember from the script is how dinosaur DNA can be extracted from fossil blood-sucking insects trapped in amber. Jurassic Park did more for genetics than it did for paleontology. For example, the "National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and by the Ben F. Love Endowment, the ARC Federation Fellowship and the NHMRC C.J. Martin and R. Douglas Wright Research Fellowships" (Choi, 2008) supported a project to resurrect the extinct Tasmanian Tiger from DNA retrieved from a preserved fetus. Paleontology got peanuts.

Before I continue with more examples, I want to quickly explain what I mean by paleontological research. The majority of paleontologists are taxonomists and systematists. Many expand their research to include stratigraphy, paleoecology, taphonomy and functional morphology. Taxonomy however is essential in paleontology. Without it we are describing bits of shell and pieces of bones. Taxonomy gives us a name a diagnosis and most importantly a classification. Systematics helps us to establish evolutionary relationships. Equally important are the circumstances in which the fossil was preserved (taphonomy), it age (stratigraphy), the depositional environment (paleoecology) and what sort of life the organism led (functional morphology). Together they form a well rounded paleontologist and a paleontological project. For the media, paleontology as a scholarly endeavor, sells few magazines and doesn't cover the cost for airtime. Many people share a passion for paleontology, but what sells tons of plastic stegosaurus in museums could never satisfy the public's hunger for sensationalism.

In the same way that Jurassic Park appeals to our belief in modern technology, the hype around Tiktaalik roseaeand Ida ( Darwinius masillae) is our human desire to find out who we are and where we come from. The desire to know our own family genealogies is transposed onto evolutionary biology as the search for ancestors and origins – different concepts all together.

Ancestors and centers of origins are only place-holders to make statements about ancestor-descendants and dispersal. In order to propose evolutionary scenarios about individual taxa, say hominids or just humans, we need the evolutionary equivalent of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. As systematists, however, we don’t need either. Taxa are related in some way based on their 'derived' characters so too are biotic areas. Stating a new discovery, such as Harpetidae are more closely related to Harpididae than they are to Entomaspidae, require no ancestors, only homologies. Therefore, homologies are necessary evidence in discovering evolution, where ancestors may be used in explaining evolutionary scenarios – they are not essential. The aim of any field, be it paleontology or entomology, is to find homologies and natural classifications first before we can even entertain the idea of ancestors and their centers of origin. Hence systematics lies outside evolutionary biology or, in other words, evolutionary biology depends on systematics.

The media however are unaware of this process of discovery and explanation. We have no way of knowing whether Tiktaalik roseaeand Ida are our ancestors or not. All we can discover are their systematic relationships. Anything beyond that is simply speculation and lies outside the realm of empiricism. The media’s hidden agenda feeds off the latter.

If paleontology were to be promoted responsibly by the popular media, more is to be done about reporting about systematic relationships. The media’s hidden agenda however is to personify these discoveries in the context of human genealogy. For example:
    "Scientists have discovered fossils of a 375-million-year-old fish, a large scaly creature not seen before, that they say is a long-sought missing link in the evolution of some fishes from water to a life walking on four limbs on land" (Wilford, 2006: Online).
    "Meet your ancestor – the fish that crawled" (Holmes, 2006: Online).
    "In the PLoS paper itself, the scientists do not actually claim the specimen represents a direct ancestor to us. But Dr Hurum believes that is exactly what Ida is" (BBC Online 19 May, 2009).
    "Fossil Ida: extraordinary find is 'missing link' in human evolution" (Randerson 2009: Online).
The media are excited about a "missing link" (read "ancestor") rather than a new systematic discovery. For instance neither article tells us what has been discovered. Ida is a "47m-year-old primate" that is "not on the lemur line because she lacks two key characteristics shared by lemurs" (Randerson, 2009) or "She belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line" (BBC Online 19th May, 2009). Neither report states what Ida is or who she is related to. Rather we are told what she isn’t. The same is true for Tiktaalik roseae, a "375-million-year-old fish" that "… is significantly closer to the midpoint of the transition than Panderichthys," says Per Ahlberg, a palaeontologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. "Panderichthys is clearly a fish. With Tiktaalik, you're not entirely certain what to call the thing" (Holmes, 2006: Online).

What then, reading these media reports, do we know about either of these fossils from a systematic or classificatory stand-point? Not much, other than what they represent within an evolutionary scenario – a ‘missing link’, a transition from sea to land or a potential ancestor. In effect, the media has used the discoveries of fossils, and not classifications, to push evolutionary scenarios. The discoveries that were made are not reported or at best briefly covered. Tiktaalik roseae and is closely related to Acanthostega and Ichthyostega and belongs in the family Elpistostegidae. Ida, or Darwinius masillae belongs to the subfamily Cercamoniinae; however, their systematic relationship within that group is currently unknown. These two taxonomic and systematic discoveries represent scholarship within paleontology, a field that is slowly declining in importance and prominence. The evolutionary scenarios are merely speculations, guess-work based on little empirical evidence. The media, as well as the science community, need to decide which deserves greater recognition. The future of paleontology is at stake.


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Anonymous said...

Your view of taxonomy that systematics in a sense precedes evolutionary biological theory is at odds with the modern practice of Hennigian taxonomy. The very term "shared derived characters" requires an evolutionary scenario.

Regarding paleontological scholarship, a prominent geneticist at the University of Chicago during the mid 1960's said that, "Paleontologist are the custodians of a dead science." In the late 1970's, a now eminent archosaur paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley said that "The evolutionary theoretician is the true scholar and taxonomists are dullards incapable of advanced thinking."

I don't believe that the news media are the primary cause but merely a strong reenforcer of the prevalent scientific regard of paleontological scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Here is why genetic engineers got the funding and the paleontologists got zit.

As I said, this is not a struggle between Media & Science.