Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I Love Science Reporting: Fossils challenge old evolution theory

I saw an article on Fark titled, Fossils challenge old evoluton [sic] theory, and thought, hmm, this might be interesting. But in the first sentence, there's a gigantic annoying misconception on display.

Surprising research based on two African fossils suggests our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, challenging what had been common thinking on how early humans evolved.

No, we already know that our evolution, and all evolution, is like a bush and not linear. We've known that for decades, and anything that purports to "show" this is just more in a large pile of evidence (which is great, but not when it's portrayed as a discovery).

And it further discredits that iconic illustration of human evolution that begins with a knuckle-dragging ape and ends with a briefcase-carrying man.

Why even mention that? I guess it's good that they say "further discredits", but I'd rather they use even stronger language to convey how absurd that "iconic image" is.

The old theory is that the first and oldest species in our family tree, Homo habilis, evolved into Homo erectus, which then became human, Homo sapiens. But Leakey's find suggests those two earlier species lived side-by-side about 1.5 million years ago in parts of Kenya for at least half a million years. [Meave Leakey] and her research colleagues report the discovery in a paper published in Thursday's journal Nature.

This is good science (or at least it could be, I can't read Nature here so I can't read the paper), but I fail to see how two species living side-by-side for a long period of time implies one didn't evolve from the other. That's the entire idea of sympatric speciation. I also thought this had been known for a while (and I'm more certain that several different Australopithecine species lived side-by-side). Maybe I'm wrong (I'm certainly no Leakey), but this just seems like a non-story to me, more of a minor refinement than anything.

But there is an excellent quote from the article:

"This is not questioning the idea at all of evolution; it is refining some of the specific points," [Susan Anton, a New York University anthropologist and co-author of the Leakey work] said. "This is a great example of what science does and religion doesn't do. It's a continous self-testing process."

Hear hear!

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