Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ida and the Jurassic Park Effect

I just downloaded my copy of the sensational, upcoming movie-of-the-week the “Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany.”

Though after only a cursory flip through, I find myself rather confused...? The article in hand appears to be of a scientific nature, with an abstract, introduction and discussion section – what’s the deal? Based on recent hype I was of the understanding that Ida was a scarcely clothed partygoer and heiress to the Hilton Hotel chain?

Ok, well maybe Ida isn’t all that, but I must admit, based on the photographs glanced so far, “daddy likes what he sees.” Talk about sexy…

Darwinius masillae (AKA “Ida”) may very well represent the most complete fossil primate yet discovered and boasts a full skeleton, a soft body outline and even the contents of the digestive tract - an absolutely amazing fossil!

Although the concerns expressed by Brian Switek in his post A Discovery That Will Change Everything (!!!) ... Or Not are perfectly valid, in this instance I find myself torn between two opposing views of Ida’s coverage…

On one hand, the cheapening of the discovery through exaggeration and media hype may be indicative of a peer review process that is becoming more susceptible to commercialization and influence by those not in the know – a situation in which the public’s scientific understanding is purchased at cost via movie-of-the-week deals instead of from knowledgeable and articulate sources.

On the other hand, having spent time on my hands-and-knees, under a southwestern Wyoming sun, meticulously scanning every inch of Wasatch for the most minuscule of dentary fragments, I find the fossil itself absolutely astonishing! Indeed, so astonishing that I have little doubt that there are young men and women today flipping on the TV and upon viewing Ida’s images becoming motivated – inspired even – to pursue careers in the natural sciences.

As I’m sure Paris Hilton would agree, even bad media can be good media. And like a theatrical movie that is woefully inaccurate but still has the power to thrill an audience or capture the imagination, Ida’s coverage is a two sided sword. The “Jurassic Park Effect” may initially result in misunderstanding, but ultimately it leads the masses to a world they may have never known otherwise. I just hope that the majority are bright enough to seek “truth” and not to accept popular media as fact.

As for the real science behind Ida’s fame, I don’t know; I’ve yet to read the paper. But what I can attest to is that Jens, Philip, Jorg, Jørn, Wighart and Holly have put their research to paper and have been published. Irregardless of where Ida’s phylogeny may be found on the History Channel, it is in the scientific community that her history will ultimately be judged – and that is exactly how it is supposed to work.

I'm not suggesting that there isn't some "paleostitution" here, but the current media situation could always be worse, instead of Ida we could be inundated with coverage of the other scarcely clothed partygoers and heiresses…

Also checkout
Poor, poor Ida, Or: "Overselling an Adapid" @ Laelaps

Darwinius masillae @ Pharyngula

Darwinius: It delivers a pizza, and it lengthens, and it strengthens, and it finds that slipper that’s been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks… @ The Loom

Franzen, J., Gingerich, P., Habersetzer, J., Hurum, J., von Koenigswald, W., & Smith, B. (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005723

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