10 August 2007

Is this the most irresponsible reporting by a science journalist this year?

Surprising fossils dug up in Africa are creating messy kinks in the iconic straight line of human evolution with its knuckle-dragging ape and briefcase-carrying man.

The new research by famed paleontologist Meave Leakey in Kenya shows our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, calling into question the evolution of our ancestors.Seth Borenstein AP

Sadly, probably not, but it’s pretty dang awful. Predictably, the creationists are breaking out the champagne flutes. A quick glance at the abstract of the new Nature paper by Spoor et al. shows that the researchers are hardly calling evolution into question.

What Seth means, of course, is that the new research is calling into question widely held misconceptions about human evolution as an evenly-graded straight-line trajectory from Lucy to you.

While scientists had largely given up this simplistic model years ago there has remained vibrant debate about the specific temporal, geographic and evolutionary relationships between three early hominins, H. erectus, H. habilis and H. ergaster.

Unfortunately, it’s hard (but not impossible!) to draw a picture of this, and Rudy Zallinger’s infamous ‘March of Progress’ painting is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that given the task of pictorializing human evolution, most people would no doubt ape some version of it.

Image borrowed from here

Fortunately, those looking for nuanced, well-contextualized analysis of the new study have Afarensis and John Hawks to look to. Both of whom realize that chimpanzees are, in fact, apes and so this sentence makes no sense at all…

Like chimps and apes, “they’d just avoid each other, they don’t feel comfortable in each other’s company,” he said.

Um, maybe Mr. Borenstein should stick to writing about climate.  Um, we don’t exchange in ad hominins around here, anymore, for now.

Okay, two cranky posts in a row, something more fun next, I promise!

POSTSCRIPT:  Seth Borenstein sent me a link to an updated, and substantially improved version of the story:  I’m still bummed that the original version went to press.   I also probably won’t be landing any science writing jobs at the AP anytime soon.

6 Responses to “Groan…”

  1. fitnr Says:

    Really, the sentence should have ‘assumptions about the trajectory of” inserted after “question.” IT NEEDS A CLAUSE.
    I thought the NYT story about this yesterday was fairly clear and without obvious clunkers. It even had a non-confusing chart that wasn’t contradicted by the text!

  2. Neil Says:

    Thanks Neil. I’m glad that you agree with me. I thought John Noble Wilford’s write up was okay, but not too exciting. Not that I could do any better…

  3. […] original post, that creationist bloggers had picked up the AP story about the Ileret skulls, in my post about the same. I also mentioned my exchange with the AP reporter in a comment which apparently inspired the […]

  4. […] may be loathed by AP science reporters but I’m a favorite with Times.  Or, rather, this photo of my Marrella splendens tattoo has […]

  5. […] weeks ago we were “questioning” and now we’re “shattering” human evolution??? By finding ancient fossils […]

  6. […] I’m going on record in defense of our favorite AP word-smith, science writer Seth […]

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