Not a Missing Link

Carl Zimmer points out the error in our science journalism ways when we try to coax scientists to say their latest apish find is a “missing link”:

Now, if you learned about human origins 50 years ago, you might well have read things by scientists referring to a missing link in our evolution. The great paleoanthropologist Robert Broom even published a book in 1951 called Finding the Missing Link. But this was a time when so few fossils were known from human evolution that many researchers thought that our ancestry was pretty much linear until you got back to our common ancestor with other living apes. But fifty years later, it’s abundantly clear now that human evolution has produced many branches, all but one of which have ended in extinction. Some are close to our own ancestry, others are further away. Paleoanthropologists don’t get excited about a fossil because they think they’ve found the missing link (whatever that is), but because a fossil can show how early a trait such as a big brain evolved, and sometimes can even reveal traits that have evolved independently several times in evolution. That’s what gets them fired up about Pierolapithecus catalaunicus. So why shouldn’t journalists get fired up as well, rather than trotting out old cliches?

(That’s the award-winning Carl Zimmer, whose writing is so gentle and effortless that when you read him you feel like you’re sitting down for a cup of coffee with an old friend. Well deserved.)