Fifteen years ago one of the most important early man fossils was found in Ethiopia. Is this really the discovery of the century?
Yesterday what is arguably the most important discovery of an early hominid since Lucy in 1974 was officially reported in the journal, Science, by a team of 7 researchers that have jealously guarded their findings for almost a generation.
Personally, I look forward to a wonderful weekend of dissecting the voluminous information about Ardipithecus ramidus. But over the last 15 years a lot has leaked out, and what struck me in the great fanfare yesterday, was that where was some really weak science as the rekindling of personal fights between scientist celebrities gets into high gear.
If there is a team chairman, it’s Tim White of the University of California – Berkeley. Throughout his imminent career White has almost always been Number Two. He’s now Number One. And this despite the fact that it was actually Yohannes Haile-Selassie, the curator of the Cleveland Natural History Museum who actually made the find.
White moved north to Ethiopia from Kenya in the mid 1990s when he was shunned by his former Number One, Richard Leakey, who was admittedly turning the rich fossil grounds of East Africa into a personal dynasty. Time and again White was passed over in conferences and by scientific journals for the much less academic and probably less scientifically acute, Leakey.
Haile-Selassie is a gentle man, one of those scientists really consumed by his work. His interest in the media is minimal. He really is the lead scientist in this discovery, but he makes a poor front man, and White saw his chance.
Much of Ardi’s skull was found in 1994, but scientists knew at the time that the area in which it was found was rich with more of crushed Ardi, plus all of Ardi’s real time surroundings. That’s a bit unusual. Often fossil finds are separated from their “homes” either by geological or current weather forces. The fifteen years of excavations produced not only 110 Ardi pieces, but ten times as many other animals that lived at the same time.
This led to a reconstruction of an Ardi skeleton, and Ardi’s “home.” That’s really the biggest news. There are only three other skeleton finds of early man. And it’s very rare to be able to create an entire environment for the fossil found. There are some exciting finds: that this early man, for instance, lived mostly in the trees.
For the last 15 years, White was a bit obsessed for fear he would lose control. It’s not really congenial or useful science to keep your finds reserved to your own team for so long, but he managed to do so. We’ll let him try to explain why.
Here’s the first indications of poor popular science. These are the sound bites, newspaper articles and television spots that will win these scientists fame and grants. It’s always a dumming down of science, but I find two of these really flabbergasting.
FIRST, no one is mentioning Toumai. Toumai doesn’t really have a scientific name, yet, because there is such quibbling between its discoverer, Michel Brunet, and especially, Tim White. Brunet insists he is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, distinctly hominid. If so, at 6 million years old, it absolutely makes Toumai the oldest hominid found.
White has continually rebuffed Brunet using a pretty weak argument: so little of Toumai was found – his fossil is limited to his skull. But that’s the case with thousands of early hominids. But alas, guess what, White has a nearly whole skeleton!
SECOND, a lowly member of the scientific team, Owen Lovejoy, an imminent scientist in his own right, is purporting some pretty unusual conclusions that I think would make Jay Gould and Charles Darwin turn over in their graves.
Lovejoy embraces a very controversial notion that behavior preceded biological evolution. Ardi’s physiognomy was much more modern than earliest man. The size of the male and female were not as divergent, and neither had monkey-like teeth. Lovejoy – presumably endorsed by the other team members – claims that these physical aspects were the result of a developing social family relationship between the male and female.
He even claims that it is likely that male Ardi’s wooed female Ardi’s with presents to get them to mate. (The presents being food.) He believes that the social behavior “allowed” for the later evolutionary trends that made men and women similar, and that ultimately “allowed” the human brain to grow considerably after birth, so that the baby could make it through the mother’s birth canal.
This is really stuff for a Simpson’s Show, and I would find it laughable if it weren’t vaguely representative of cultural zealots too often taking charge today in America.
Already, less celebrated scientists like William Jungers of Stoney Brook are taking aim at this popular unveiling of what might not be quite as big as the media would like.
“This is a fascinating skeleton, but based on what they present, the evidence for bipedalism is limited at best,” said William Jungers, an anatomist at Stony Brook University in New York State.
Without a real demonstration of bipedalism, Ardi could not be considered a hominid at all. If she isn’t a hominid, she wouldn’t rank the first 14 minutes on World News Tonight with Charles Gibson.