Looking at The History Channel’s The Link

by Eric on May 27, 2009

After nearly a week of hoopla in the wake of the Darwinius masillae “Ida” announcement, the History Channel began the process of reeling in cash for its investment, premiering a 2-hour (“with limited commercial interruptions”) documentary entitled The Link.

I won’t go into the tedious debate over whether the scientists acted appropriately by associating themselves with the media hype surrounding Ida, nor am I qualified to judge the science as published in PLoS One. I’m just going to be looking at the TV show.

On its face, The Link is another in a long line of splashy documentaries “revealing” some new scientific breakthrough, usually in anthropology or paleontology. I can’t help but wonder why the astronomers or molecular biologists can’t get in on this gig, too. Like its cousins, The Link hews closely to the conventions of the genre. There are closeups of revolving fossil, aerials (from a balloon no less!), scientists striding through doorways, scientists peering through microscopes, scientists pointing at computer screens, computer animations, and talking head interviews.

Curiously, what was announced as a “2-hour event,” actually turned out to be only 1:40, with the remaining 20 minutes given over to promos for upcoming History Channel programming. This would turn out to be one of several misrepresentations. At 100 minutes, the program felt stretched just to meet that run time, even with 20 minutes of slop to work with: on a couple of occasions identical clips were recycled, and a significant amount of time was occupied with recounting the discovery and significance of the Lucy fossil.

The show follows a straight chronology beginning with the Jørn Hurum’s 2007 purchase of a 95% complete fossil specimen. The details of its excavation and preservation from the Messel Pits back in 1983 is probably of dubious legality and was left shadowy; the notion of a black market of fossil specimens is only alluded to. Hurum is portrayed as a hero rescuing a fossil for science from an obscure fate in a collector’s basement. Virtually no mention is made of the fact that Ida is actually composed of two halves, the Oslo specimen acquired from an anonymous collector, the other from a Wyoming museum, albeit significantly modified.

Hurum recognizes the significance of the fossil immediately, and sets about to assemble a “dream team” of scientists to study the fossil. He gathers Philip Gingerich, Holly Smith and Jens Franzen to do a full analysis of the specimen’s physiology, especially its teeth. They will use the latest techniques in dating, imaging, and 3D modeling.

In the course of their investigation of the well-preserved fossil, they learn that it’s a 6-9 month old juvenile female, prompting Hurum to name it “Ida” after his own daughter. To my recollection, the specimen’s scientific name Darwinius masillae is never mentioned. They also learn that her hand was fractured at some point, and healed poorly. Her discovery in Germany’s Messel Pits, an old volcanic lake, leads them to believe she was overcome by toxic fumes, fell into the water-filled pit, and drowned.

The remainder of their quest is to determine what Ida was, and her classification is the source of the current furor among paleontologists. Superficially, Ida resembles a lemur, which according to the simplified taxonomy, would make her a prosimian, a wholly separate branch of primates from apes and humans. However, she is lacking in two key lemur traits: the toilet claw, a single clawed toe on each foot, and the tooth comb, a fused line of lower incisor teeth.

Venturing into the kind of speculation that generated the most hype, The Link places significant emphasis on whether Ida should instead be placed on the evolutionary tree as an early anthropoid predecessor to humans. Despite at one point alluding to monkeys that were evolving at the same time as Ida, ie. 47 million years ago, The Link depicts a process of attempting to “prove” that Ida represents the earliest ancestors to humans. Hurum freely admits on camera that he was certain that Ida is some kind of early ancestor, the eponymous “missing link,” and he’s determined to prove it. I expect most scientists would recoil, as I did, at the revelation of this clearly goal-oriented investigation.

In order to demonstrate that Ida is an early anthropoid, and thus a human ancestor, they look for analogous features in modern primates. Rather than the comparisons of 30 traits described in the paper, The Link only uses one to make its case: the talus bone in Ida’s foot. Since she has such a bone, as do anthropoids, the case is closed: we have our 47-million year old ancestor.

Alas, those same scientists writing in their paper aren’t nearly as definitive. They are only willing to place Darwinus masillae in the anapoid family, and seem to be in contradiction to the key finding of The Link (emphasis mine):

Note that Darwinius masillae, and adapoids contemporary with early tarsioids, could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids.

In order to further reinforce the tenuous connection from Ida to modern humanity, The Link then goes into a lengthy tribute to Donald Johanson and his remarkable discovery of the Australopithecus afarensis aka “Lucy.” This seems to be nothing more than a blatant attempt to elevate the status of Ida by association. At one point, Johanson is described as unaware of the existence of the specimen, thus making him an unwitting shill for Hurum’s Ida.

At times, Hurum and The Link seem obsessed with the quality of their fossil, which is admittedly quite high, often using the 95% completeness figure to bolster their argument. However, since paleontologists are used to analyzing incomplete skeletons, I’m not sure why completeness is relevant unless one were making an appraisal. And that’s what is whole exercise turns out to be: justification for the great expense of what is essentially a fossil antiquity.

I would imagine that once the crowds at the Oslo Natural History Museum die down, and scientists go back to their work, there will be any number of papers debating the significance of what is a truly beautiful specimen, one that will clearly add to our knowledge of primate history. Unfortunately for Hurum, that kind of science will ultimately determine the significance of Ida, not the price he paid for a fossil, nor the hype he generated to promote it.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

susansls May 28, 2009 at 9:41 am

I’m with you on this. This is an amazing discovery, and a valuable contribution to science, but the History Channel and Jørn Hurum can’t settle for that. It has be be the discovery of the century, with implications for all of humanity. I’m sympathetic to the need to promote scientific discoveries, but this documentary goes a bit too far.

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