Monday, November 1, 2010

Evolution and the Media

I prefer to get most of my news online rather than from the TV these days, and one thing that I've noticed over the past 2 years since starting to study human evolution is that the media tends to skew evolution stories towards a sensational angle. Every fossil primate is toted as a possible human ancestor. Most recently I've found multiple stories about the same set of fossils found in Libya that indicate that primates likely originated in Asia, not Africa. Apparently this is raising a lot of controversy (although, in a class I had last year, Asia as the cradle of primate origin was taught as the accepted view of the paleoanthropology community). These fossils are almost 40 million years old, and while they're certainly human relatives, to call them important discoveries for the field of human evolution is kind of off base.

Yes, plesiadapiforms and other early primates are part of human evolution and I don't want to diminish the importance of such finds, but the media shouldn't be calling them early humans. Humans and chimpanzees didn't even split until 7 million years ago, so to call anything older than that even remotely human is misleading. The news media also tends to group all hominid fossils as humans. This may be personal bias, but I don't consider Homo erectus human, and I certainly don't consider any of the Australopithecus humans, at least not in the sense that the news media is making them out to be.

I realize that my concept of what is human is kind of limited (specifically to anatomically modern humans) but at least I have a clear definition. When the "Ida" fossil was publicized in 2009 a few news sources hailed it as a missing link in human evolution. Yeah, I guess it's part of human evolution but it's more relevant to early primate evolution and the link between lemurs and monkeys. It's very misleading to present anything that far back on the evolutionary timeline as human. That would be akin to me saying that I'm President Obama's cousin, I mean very distantly it's possible that many many many many generations ago we had a common ancestor but it's not like we're celebrating Thanksgiving together.

The purpose of the news is not to inform but rather to make money. Placing a headline that read something about human ancestors is much more likely to be read than a title about what the article is actually about. Ancient monkeys don't sell as well as ancient "humans". Humans are pretty species-centric, and at least the media is getting people to read about evolution (even though they have to trick them into it). Face it, writing about Ida as a lemur-monkey link is far less entertaining and attention grabbing than hailing it as a crucial find for human evolution.

As a whole, it seems most people just don't care about fossils (unless they're mega fauna) or most science in general. The media can help to make certain fields seem sexier, and controversial, but it can also hurt science by misrepresenting it to the public. It's even more damaging when certain theories aren't implemented into the science curriculum of K-12 schools because it may offend people. Science is impartial. Finding facts offensive doesn't negate their truth. This leads to some people only being exposed to specific ideas through these distorted media outlets. This whole system propagates misinformation.

Another saddening news media trend is that science sections are grouped in with technology. Therefore, most of the stories are about the latest Apple product and newest video games rather than actual science. Or, if they're not lumped together, the science section is hidden near the bottom of the page. Most print newspapers only have a science section once a week. Even the Discovery network is dominated by shows about people with 10+ kids, cupcakes, occupational hazards, and other not exactly scientific shows. As painful as it is to face, here in the 21st century science is getting the shaft.

Here are links to two stories about the ancient primates found in Libya. Very interesting, but not in the context of what makes us human.
NYTimes: New Anthropoid Species Uncovered in Libya
The Daily Mail: Human evolution started in Asia? Ancient ancestor walked Sahara 39m years ago.

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