Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Doctor Science Goes Hollywood?

As I have oftimes ranted, science needs to democratize. That means tearing down those ivy-covered walls and letting the people in, and moving the sausage factory out onto the sidewalk. The main reason, in my view, why we at least half the country views science as a conspiracy against their deeply cherished illusions is because it really is something that insular elitists do in fancy insitutions where the commoners' kids can't afford to study. The scientific priesthood speaks its own language, talks only to itself, and doesn't really care what the ignorant idiots who iron their shirts think about biology and cosmology.

So it's a good thing, right, that The History Channel, American Museum of Natural History, and ABC News are throwing a big coming out party for Darwinius masillae, a fossilized primate from the Eocene, about 47 million years ago, found near Darmstadt, Germany.

The find (actually it was found 50 years ago but due to the vicissitudes of private fossil collecting it wasn't recognized and studied until recently) is being ballyhooed as an important piece of the puzzle in human evolution. Even the name they gave to it -- Darwinius -- is a new name invented just for this fossil and obviously intended to make a point. Now there is a lot to be said for taking it to the streets and meeting the Creation Museum and Ted Hagee Hour on their own turf. If these media partners can whip up some popular interest in a 47-million-year old fossil and get kids thinking that discovery is exciting and evolution is way cool, I'm for it.

On the other hand . . .

The truth, which you can read all about in boring scientist talk in PLoS One -- mad props for doing this open access, of course -- is actually not so rip roaring. The specimen is interesting because it is so well preserved and gives us a whole lot of new information about these little critters, which over the coming years paleontologists will work to fit into the overall picture of primate evolution. The fact is, they don't actually know how close this animal is to the ape lineage and hence us. It is not some "missing link," it's just a helpful piece of a big, complicated story that we are trying to assemble from random fragments that happen to come our way.

And that's the trouble with science. I'm sorry to say that it's very rarely about sudden, dramatic breakthroughs that blast us into a new reality. Even the work of Darwin and Einstein, although it was real brilliant and all that, didn't really enter the world that way. It took time for the scientific world to digest it and fit it into the framework of knowledge and begin to see where it led. Hell, it took time before people even believed it. And in the case of Darwin, at least, it took about a century before we found the mechanism of heredity and could even begin to understand evolution from the inside out, rather than just as an organizing framework for an inscrutable process.

I enjoy a fair amount of inspiration and moments of creative insight in my own work, but it comes out of insufferable hours of boredom, managing and planning studies, carefully organizing and tracking data, coding till your eyeballs roll up in their sockets, and systematically crunching numbers over weeks to torture the story out of the data. So how do I, and the paleontologists who study human evolution, convince people that we've got the truth? I suppose a little show biz can't hurt, but the last thing we want to do is juice up those boring, stupid facts to give people a jolt.


Super Science Fair Projects said...
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Cervantes said...

Comment almost squeaked by as "good spam," but sorry, too much advertising -- some of it for genuine crap.