The “Missing Link” in Evolution

darwiniusA 47 million year old lemur-like fossil was unveiled this week, and the media especially hailed the find as the “missing link” which connects humans to monkeys and apes back in history – an early branch in the fabled Darwinian tree of life.  The BBC proclaimed “Scientists Hail Stunning Fossil“, while elsewhere on the Internet a more subdued report headlined, “Early Skeleton Sheds Light on Evolution.”

Was this fossil find the earth shattering “missing link” that would prove evolution once for all or was this some kind of media show?

The unveiling, at New York’s Museum of Natural History, was promoted by a press release for the cable TV show History, which called it a “revolutionary scientific find that will change everything.”

There was a huge media blitz about the fossil find which also promoted among other things an upcoming television, soon to be published book and the Museum of Natural History in New York.   So the sensationalism was not purely (mostly?) the fossil find itself but all of the media promotion going on with other media products related to the fossil.

The scientific article in which the fossil find was reported did not herald all the claims that the media blitz was promoting.  In fact the title of the article is scientifically intimidating and completely lacks the glitz of a media blitz:  Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocen of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology .    Hard for the entertainment addicted world to get excited over that title.

In Jerry Coyne’s Blog, Why Evolution is True, Gary Mayer addressed the recent fossil find adding his voice to those of other scientists who think the media presentation of the new fossil is potentially harmful to science – Darwinius:what’s at issue?

It does appear that what this fossil represents – a nearly intact 47 million year old specimen – is exciting for scientists indeed.  It is not bad science which is being promoted, but in a consumer and entertainment driven culture such as ours, it shows how even science can be co-opted for other purposes.

The fossil find will be one more piece in the evolutionary puzzle; it may push back a little the God-of-the-gaps promoters who say the evidence for evolution isn’t there.    It is an important scientific discovery and evolutionary evidence, but it doesn’t seem to “change everything” as some were proclaiming in the media.

Science in pursuit of truth continues to seek pieces of the puzzle and to put them into their place in the grand scheme of things.   The media thrives on news that is spectacular, bizarre or which can feed controversy or confrontation.  I just found it interesting that a number of scientists found the media play bizarre as they were distancing themselves from the media blitz and the comments of a few spokespersons.   

God, or some say the devil, is in the details.   It is important that we pay attention to the truth in the small details rather than to get lost in the hyped up claims of the media.  It is also important for those interested in the relationship between theology and science to take note again the role the media can play in presenting “information” to the public.  The media’s need to sensationalize news means those interested in serious dialogue have to see through the news media in order to understand the significance of what is happening in the world of science.  Culture wars are very attractive to the media as they make the media more self-important (and the media believes indispensible as the supposed sole source of information).    It is the very reason the media loves popular political pundits – they generate controversy and thus create “news” even if it is only about themselves (just think about how often they appear on each other’s shows – they have become the news).    In a democracy, certainly the opinion of the public is always important.  Scientists and theologians would do well to learn how to communicate what is important to them, not what is important to the needs of the media.  Also scientists and theologians need to know how to present their ideas without getting caught up in the media frenzy and circus and not acquiesce and allow the media to interpret the importance of what they are writing about in science or theology.

The real missing link for scientists in evolution is how to convey their findings to the public without having to rely on the media circus to make their ideas known.   The media has its own agenda and is trying to sell itself – it is thus not always the best way to bring scientific knowledge to the public.