From The Washington Post:Many scientists disdain the hype that some of their colleagues seem to crave. It is unseemly, they say, and vaguely déclassé for serious researchers to seek accolades from the mob. So how to evaluate Colin Tudge's "The Link"? This is the last hiccup of a media binge that began in May with the public debut of a nearly intact, 47-million-year-old primate fossil skeleton which may -- or may not -- be an early human ancestor. We've had the news conference at the American Museum of Natural History, the History Channel documentary, the TV appearances, the Web site and the peer-reviewed journal paper. And now, the book.
There is nothing odd about touting paleontological finds, particularly in the age of cable TV. National Geographic and the Discovery Channel do it frequently. And while this fossil's publicity campaign might seem a bit de trop, it is also vaguely refreshing that no one is apologizing for it. The story of "The Link" is straightforward.
In 2006, paleontologist Jorn Hurum, of the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum, was shown the remains of a small (22 inches) juvenile female primate from the oil shales of the Messel Pit, near Frankfurt, Germany, one of Europe's most famous fossil beds. The fossil had been discovered in 1983 by a private collector who wanted to sell it. His asking price was $1 million. Hurum was immediately smitten, for the find "represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any paleontologist." The museum bought it.
Hurum assembled a team of experts to analyze and describe the fossil, a process that has thus far taken three years. The team concluded that "Ida," so named in honor of Hurum's daughter, shared characteristics with evolutionary lineages that led both to modern lemurs and to the anthropoids -- including humans. "In other words," Tudge writes, "Ida appears to be an in-between species, or one of the long-sought missing links in evolution."
There is way too much of this self-congratulation in "The Link." It is tacky and unpleasant, and Tudge and every member of the research team are guilty of it. The fossil is what it is, and if it is a great discovery, others will say so. It will take years of further study to find out. The braggadocio looks even worse because Hurum and colleagues are much more circumspect in their peer-reviewed paper. Ida, they say in the online scientific journal PLoS One, "could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here." Instead, they do it in "The Link."
The task for the reader is to get past the noise, for there is an unusual and often enchanting book lurking behind it. "The Link" isn't just about a monkey fossil. It's about paleontology and paleontologists, warts and all. As noted, Hurum bought his fossil from a collector at an annual fair in Hamburg and paid big bucks for it. Many scientists regard such transactions as mortal sin, for they can encourage looting and the destruction of fossil sites, damaging ancient contexts that can never be reconstructed. In Tudge's telling, Hurum carefully selects his research team, knowing that it must be not only expert but also beyond professional reproach, because colleagues will relentlessly scrutinize its work. He needs a primate specialist. He needs a tooth expert. He needs somebody who knows the Messel Pit. Tudge reviews the history of human paleontology's great discoveries and the great controversies they have spawned. He describes Ida's world, a tropical forest with a volcanic lake that one day belched a gigantic bubble of toxic gas that asphyxiated this small creature and plunged it into the mud for all eternity.
Tudge writes with a colloquial off-handedness that jars at first, because it lacks the authoritativeness that mass market science books routinely rely on for heft. Also odd is his frequent repetition of facts and context, but they help -- especially later in the book. The reminders save trips to the index. In short, "The Link" is so accessible as to seem simplistic -- but it works as a compelling introduction to the study of human evolution. It is about what paleontologists do and how they do it. So forget the hype; it stands on its own merit.
I've not read it yet but I'd love it if you would and let me know how it is! Any science geeks out there (my hand is raised), let me know you want to read it. I have 2 up for grabs.
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