Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meet Ardi, Our Crappily-Hailed New-to-Us Ancestor

A fossil of a 4.4 million year old primate, first unearthed in 1994, has been formally described in Science, and badly described in this piece in the Telegraph:

Rather than humans evolving from chimps, the new find provides evidence that chimps and humans evolved together from another common more ancient ancestor.

Each has evolved and changed separately along the way, it is believed.
Sweet Jeebus in blue jeans!! Is the Telegraph getting its biology from Kirk Cameron, Ben Stein, or some other god-drunk crackpot we might remember from unwatchable television programs and direct-to-DVD propaganda films?

I barely know enough about evolution or biology or primate history to be dangerous, and even I know that no reputable scientist thinks that humans evolved from chimps, or that it somehow constitutes a new insight that chimps and humans evolved from a common ancestor that was neither chimp nor human.

That humans and chimps came from a common ancestor has been well-known, unless, say, this and this and this was hastily rewritten in the last 48 hours -- and if so, I ask that someone please explain how the copy of the latter on my bookshelf, which has been there for two years, managed to receive the "news," since it reports on page 100 that the commmon ancestor to chimps and humans is our great, great, great, great, great, great (repeat great another 249,994 times) grandparent.

I hope the Telegraph was more careful in taking down the following about this new finding:
Formally known as Ardipithecus ramidus — which means root of the ground ape — the find is detailed in 11 research papers published in the journal Science.

“This is not that common ancestor, but it’s the closest we have ever been able to come,” said Dr Tim White, an anthropologist and one of the researchers at the University of California.

The lines that evolved into modern humans and living apes probably shared an ancestor six million to seven million years ago, the research suggests.

... A study of Ardi, under way since the first bones were discovered in 1994 in the Afar region of Ethiopia, indicates her species lived in the woodlands and could climb on all fours along tree branches.

But the development of arms and legs indicates she did not spend much time in the trees, the study claims.

Her pelvis suggests she walked upright and her teeth are closer to humans than primates. While she would have had a muzzle, it did not project out as much as modern apes.
It's an amazing scientific finding; Jerry Coyne's blog has lots more on it. Here's hoping the Telegraph won't mangle such news in the future.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, National Geographic appears to have posted the Telegraph's article with the notion that the old school "we came from chimps" thought was the prevailing one. I think I also saw similar mis-simplifications in a Science article on the same subject.

I should copyright mis-simplification.

Dale said...

Anon, really?!?!? Now that is truly disappointing. You'd think someone at Nat'l Geo would know that. Guh.