Muddied waters that drug and drown
Nick Smith reviews The Link, by Colin Tudge
Little, Brown, HB, £18.99 · ISBN 978-1-4087-0214-7
Here’s the story. Very important fossil turns up at a trade fair in Germany. Scientists agree that it could provide vital information about how we evolved into humans. The same scientists cut a deal with the media, agreeing to keep the fossil secret until a coordinated media campaign of book, movie and website can be released simultaneously. In May 2009 we’re reading breaking news about the 47-million-year-old fossil in the Daily Telegraph, and before the month is out Colin Tudge’s The Link is available in airport bookstores the world over. For a science story the PR machinery is very slick, very professional and maybe just a touch cynical. But this is the 21st century and there’s no reason why modern marketing techniques can’t be applied to the once august world of palaeontology. After all, if Sir David Attenborough is to be believed, we are dealing with ‘an extraordinary fossil’.
Extraordinary fossils can’t exist with standard binomial nomenclature, the Latin or scientific name given to all species. As with serial killers, snooker players and drummers, there is a cultural imperative attached to the jaunty nickname. The last great fossil that was going to change the world was the hominid Australopithecus afarensis, found in the 1970s in Ethiopia. Groovy scientists of the day named the creature Lucy after a Beatles song about hallucinogenic drugs. Today Darwinius masillae, a small female lemur-like creature that might stem from the very root of homo sapien development, has been named Ida. Found in Germany in the 1980s, but kept in a private collection until 2006, Ida gets her name from Jørn Hurum, the man who bought her for the Natural History Museum in Oslo for one million dollars. The fossil so reminded Hurum of his little daughter he decided that they should share the same name. A curious decision, given how un-human the animal appears, and yet by naming her Hurum has cannily anthropomorphised her sufficiently to appeal to the human side of newspaper editors. The ploy, if it was one, worked because there has been a flurry of media activity surrounding Ida, with popular science writers, including Tudge, claiming that she is the ‘missing link’. As Bookdealer goes to print, we are experiencing a somewhat predictable backlash from popular science writers who didn’t get the commission to write The Link saying that Ida isn’t any such thing. At the same time the academic community has behaved as only academic communities can when feeling snubbed: crying foul at every turn. It’s bad science, they winge. It’s not the Mona Lisa of the fossil world; spending such sums on fossils creates a black market; and the newspapers are focusing on the interesting bits and not the real issues. If only their sour grapes were as coordinated as the Ida media machine, we might have a real debate on our hands.
Tudge tells us that for a fossil to reach the light of day, several highly unlikely events need to happen. For a mammal such as Ida to be preserved so perfectly requires huge coincidences, and the odds are significantly stacked against the fossil forming. Then factor in the likelihood of it being found and you’ve got what the betting man might call a long shot. This is one of the reasons why the fossil record is so patchy, and also explains why we attach disproportionate significance to finds such as Ida. We instinctively feel Ida might be important because she is rare, while in actual fact her rarity is more likely to give her financial rather than scientific value.
One of the questions The Link addresses is how we came to have such a perfectly preserved fossil of Ida in the first place. Close inspection of the specimen reveals that she had a broken arm. Scientists think that although Darwinius masillae was probably a tree dweller, Ida’s injury would have prevented her from foraging for food and water in the canopy. So she went to the edge of a lake to drink. As the lake released its pockets of carbon dioxide Ida was overpowered and, unable to climb away from the toxic gas, was effectively drugged. While unconscious, she slipped into the muddy lake and drowned. She must have sank quickly, unnoticed by scavenging predators, into the oxygen-free sediment at the bottom of the lake, where over the years she became compressed, mineralised and perfectly preserved… As for her discovery, that’s a tale of municipal banality involving the development of a landfill site on the precise spot where she met her fate.
One of the strengths of The Link is that it’s simply a great story. For all the controversy over Ida’s significance, there’s no escaping from the fact that The Link is a terrific advertisement for just how exciting a field of scientific research palaeontology can be, and Tudge has done well to present complex and sometimes arcane information in a readily digestible way. His ability to weave data and background information into a compelling detective story means that his book should become one of the most fashionable popular science titles of the year. Having said that, it should be pointed out that while billed as the author on the cover of The Link, Tudge is not the only author. Josh Young provides the journalistic introductory chapters that tell how the fossil came to the wider public’s attention, and reappears at the end to wrap up with some rhetorical questions about the significance of the find. The substantial middle section – the science bit – is Tudge’s analysis of the palaeontology of the early primates and the geological conditions that contribute to the preservation of such a fossil.
It was the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur who said that in the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind. And so with Ida. If you go looking for the missing link you’ll find it – only, just as there are many Silk Roads, so are there many missing links. The sad fact is that while Ida may be a wonderful specimen, she does little more than patch another item of inconclusive data onto a hiatus in the fossil record. Interesting though she may be, Ida doesn’t tell us anything dramatic about why we’re human.
Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal
Review of ‘the Link’ for Bookdealer, by Nick Smith, June 2009]