Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Darwinius has left the building

So there I was earlier today, minding my own business at home (I attached a day of annual leave to the bank holiday weekend in order to take care of a few pressing things like, apparently, writing this blog post), and all the while, over at my workplace, the over-hyped but nevertheless stunningly complete and aesthetically beautiful fossil Darwinius messilae was on display for a few hours on its way from New York to Oslo.

The brief display was occasion for a press conference (or is it the other way around?), but there was also a short time during which staff were invited to view Ida* the fossil. I found out at about 3pm when I stumbled across a BBC News story which led me to an NHM press release:

Visitors to the Natural History Museum in London will be able to see Ida, the fossil of the ancient lemur-like creature, when a cast goes on display from tomorrow.


The Ida cast was donated to the Natural History Museum today by the University of Oslo Natural History Museum. Sir David Attenborough will be there to see the cast and is also narrating Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link, a one-off documentary about Ida on BBC One at 21.00 tonight.


Scientists at the Natural History Museum, London, will get a glimpse of the real specimen when it is brought to the Museum for just a few hours.

The lucky scientists will see the most complete fossil primate ever found. It is so well-preserved that the remains of its last meal are still in its stomach and you can see an outline of where the fur once was.

Upon realizing that "the lucky scientists" might in fact include me, I leapt towards the telephone to call a colleague in the NHM press office to find out how long it would be on display today. Annual leave or no, if there was a chance to see it, I was going to get onto my bicycle and get myself over there pronto!

You can imagine how I felt when my colleague told me that the staff viewing time had ended at 2pm and that the fossil was no longer in the building. Actually, you don't have to imagine how I felt because my disappointment is documented for posterity on twitter (thanks to Rowan and Mun-Keat for the consolatory tweets).

The wave of disappointment that washed over me, though, was quickly followed by introspection. Why was I so disappointed? Had I actually succumbed to the hype? I could tell you (and more importantly, myself) that I was just disappointed not to get to see a beautiful, complete 47-million-year-old primate fossil, but if I'm honest, I have to admit that I also wanted to see the the source of all the commotion
and get to feel like an insider. So I did succumb, but more in the way gawkers slow down to look at traffic accidents than in an "OMG THE MISSING LINK" way. Following this analysis, I felt a little less disappointed. Hooray for analysis!

Of course, this doesn't mean that tomorrow morning on my way up to my newish digs in Phase II of the NHM's Darwin Centre I won't stop off and have a look at the cast of Darwinius, which, though not the real thing is still one of maybe o
nly two casts in the world (the other at the AMNH in New York).

But seeing the cast won't quite make up for not seeing the real thing (Rowan Hooper tweets that the cast doesn't quite do the original justice), and I still will have missed the press conference, which would have been interesting because, judging by the BBC video coverage,
Jørn Hurum (the most hyperbolic of the scientific authors) and David Attenborough seem to be toning down the hype a little:

Attenborough even says - tellingly - that Darwin "would have been absolutely riveted by it - I have no doubt about that, and he would - I am sure - have sat and looked at it and thought about it - probably for a decade - before he said anything about it. Maybe that's quite a wise thing to do." Might this final sentence signal that David Attenborough feels a twinge of regret about the way the project was handled?

Similarly, Rowan Hooper's blog and video coverage of the event shows Hurum apparently backpedaling a bit in the face of recent criticism that the paper was weak on evolutionary analysis - I can only imagine he's referring to Brian Switek's excellent critques of the scientific paper - by claiming that this only ever meant to be a descriptive paper and that a more rigorous phylogenetic analysis was still in the pipeline.

But there's a problem: as Rowan Hooper writes, "Phylogeny [evolutionary history], he says, is not the most important part of the paper, and is only mentioned in the discussion. But, of course, it is the phylogeny of Ida - and the claims that it is an ancient human ancestor - that have made it such a big news story."

*Like pretty much everyone else, I have been using the nickname "Ida" for Darwinius massilae, but I'm stopping today for three reasons: 1) the ICZN have - at short notice - worked their proverbial tails off to guarantee the nomenclature of this specimen, and calling it "Ida" seems to me to diminish their efforts specifically and the importance of nomenclature generally, 2) I feel a little queasy about how one of the paper's authors, Jørn Hurum, has been fanning the hype, saying things like "this is the first link to all humans" (whatever that means), and he's the one who named the fossil "Ida" so using it feels like an approbation 3) "Darwinius" has a nice ring to it.


Anonymous said...

"The wave of disappointment that washed over me, though, was quickly followed by introspection. Why was I so disappointed? Had I actually succumbed to the hype?"

Somehow I doubt it.

Many years ago, I saw Piltdown Man at a British Museum exhibition about fakes. I was delighted.

(Not that I think the over-hyped 'Ida' was a fake, you understand!)

Panic Away said...

Maybe David Attenborough did feel that way. We all do when a project gets over-played, or the publicity is all wrong. People tend to believe what they want, even if it not based by facts.