Dummying ARDI

Dummying ARDI

Last night Discovery Channel ratings skyrocketed with a two-hr documentary on Ardi. Ardi is a big, very big paleontology story. But when newer (older) finds are discovered in the future, Ardi’s lasting story will be something quite different from paleontology.

To me the unchangeable story about Ardi is the remarkable way it was told. Enough of Ardi was found in 1994 to give it a name and place in the tree of early man. But jealous scientists held the bulk of the data secret for nearly 15 years, until – in their words – they could tell the whole story.

This should be criminal. Essentially a handful of scientists molded Ardi almost as successfully as 4 million years burial by mother Earth.

Last night’s Discovery Channel two-hour prime time show was Ardi’s coming out party. It was grand, but way overblown. The University of Minnesota biologist, P.Z. Myers, remarked during his real-time blogging while watching the show, “So far this program is taking longer to watch than it took me to read the original papers.”

The two-hour show had so many commercials, and so much repetition, that the real talking-head substance was less than 35 minutes.

Ardi is an amazing paleontological find for several reasons. First, it’s a complete-enough skeleton to render science on an entire individual. There are only three other such cases (Lucy, Turkana Boy and Small Foot).

Second, so much excavation has been completed over these 15 years at the Middle Awash site in Ethiopia where it was found that an entire environment surrounding the creature has also been reconstructed.

Third, Ardi is truly bipedal, but retains anatomical features – particularly in the foot – that are more chimp-like than man-like. Ardi may have been as comfortable living in the trees as on the ground.

But the grand conclusions that the project’s two lead scientists, Tim White and Owen Lovejoy, headlined in HD, were simply premature if not silly.

Ardi has not completely rewoven the theories of early man, as Tim White repeatedly suggested. It is a single, albeit magnificent find, but it does not alter good foundations that hominids evolved 6-7 million years ago into a multiple branching line of creatures.

White’s hidden agenda is to return to a long ago discarded notion of a single line of hominid evolution. That’s what’s silly. Clearly, White has been focusing too much time on Ardi and not enough on his fellow scientists’ discoveries.

And Lovejoy’s outrageous claim that Ardi’s reduced canines suggests a more gentle, more “moral” human social organization is absurd.

The state of Ardi’s mouth is anomalous with other time-lined hominid mouths. In other words, other early hominids around that time and after that time, had bigger canines. Chimps have bigger canines, and Lovejoy’s presumption of theory by contrasting these two situations is a real stretch, and in fact, worrisome. It’s less science than religion.

Lovejoy is right to refresh the question, why bipedalism? And he provides at least one renewed and exciting thesis: to better carry food longer distances. But from that he leaps to the notion this allowed male Ardi’s to woo female Ardi’s with gifts, and allowed Ardi’s to carry food back to their children.

Soon, Lovejoy is going to discover a florist selling corsages 4.5 million years ago.

And there is nothing to suggest that baby Ardi’s didn’t travel on their mother’s back or held to their bosom like baboons and chimps and didn’t need to have food brought to them.

But the greatest disservice to science is the way the lead scientists, and the Discovery program suggests Ardi’s bipedalism revolutionizes prior theories.

The discovery that an early, bipedal hominid probably spent a good amount of time in the trees is extremely important and wondrous, too. But it does not in its single instance suggest that bipedalism was not somehow related to the developing savannah ecology, a view at least until now widely held. This will be the science to watch in the coming months.

University of Wisconsin anthropologist, John Hawks, summed it up beautifully in his blog today,
“I don’t think the anatomy supports the film’s representation of the locomotor behavior. The film shows Ardi walking just as if she were Lucy. She didn’t walk that way.”

I’m sure there’s much more intricate science I’ll never understand that will be of major dispute, and I presume this for the simple reason that science withheld is science uncertain.

Years from now there will be new finds and even older hominid discoveries. Ardi will remain important, but its persistent story will be how guarded its discoverers were, and how successful they were from keeping Ardi from the greater community for the better part of a human generation.

And analysis will shift from bipedalism to why, a long time ago when Ardi was discovered, scientists had to guard their finest discoveries to carefully construct outrageous claims about them.