Take your time

Tim White and Ardipithecus were the subject of some heated debate last week in the anthropology blogs.  Scientific American published an editorial, which John Hawks commented on, followed by Kambiz at anthropology.net

I would fully support a paleoanthropological GenBank, and some sort of way to get research-quality casts into the hands of the people who require them for research.  But, given the recent hoopla over Darwinius massillae, do we really think it’s a good idea to rush the Ardipithecus team?

Of course, there is probably a happy-medium between fifteen years and- what, like, a month?  But given the choice, I think most of us would prefer careful, analytical science over a “news-at-ten” story.

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6 responses to “Take your time

  1. John Hawks September 6, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks for the link! I don’t think it helps to cast the issue around one extreme example. Most people understand that some work really does take 15 years to finish — Ron Clarke has been pulling Little Foot out of Sterkfontein for that long.

    But the only tools we have to guarantee transparency and replicability are the review processes — both grant and journal. Access to fossil and cultural relics is not generally a State Department-level issue. So paleontologists and archaeologists face hundreds of museums with different access policies and no police power except through their influence on funding and communication. Enforced policies that promote sharing photographs, scans, measurements, and other observations are the best way to allow scientific replicability without unnecessary damage to unique specimens. In my view, the specimens come first — if it takes 15 years to prepare one, then by all means fund the preparation, and fund other people to do further recovery of specimens in the field.

    Money and specimens are limited, energetic young scientists willing to work and gain experience at field sites we have an excess of.

  2. zinjanthropus September 6, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    You’re right- the Ida example is too black and white. I had a nice long post written out but scrapped it. I think I am probably a bit naive about the whole situation because most of my research has been on extant species. But I can see no reason to disagree with the arguments that you’ve made about transparency and accessibility (both above and on your blog).

    And I am CERTAINLY in favor of sending young and energetic scientists into the field!

  3. Deb September 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I remember when everyone was so excited about the potential of the ramidus discovery. I was not long an undergrad and all excited about studying human evolution, and this find was going to change everything! :) (Don’t they all…)

    Well, finished the BSc and went to grad school and got out of grad school and now am teaching high school biology…and yep, still waiting. And human evolution has been overturned so many times in the meantime. ;)

    I think I mostly agree with John Hawks about this. At the very least, if a fossil does require considerable preparation time, there should be some requirement for periodic updates on progress. It should be noted that Clarke does in fact do this: there was a report on the Sterkfontein find a few months ago. Somehow I think that White would come under less criticism (or less severe, anyway) if he just communicated once in a while.

    Anyway thanks for the update and links to some, um, interesting discussions. I discovered your blog a few months ago and I quite enjoy it; reminds me of how much I loved paleoanthro in school. Keep up the good work!

  4. Eric September 7, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    As far as I can remember the ramidus specimen was firstly described as Australopithecus. White and his colleagues corrected this classification shortly after this. So in some point they were already too fast in publishing the fossil back then.

    In general, I would love to have some kind of global fossil database. It would be much easier for Anthropologists from outside of the U.S. to get accsess to theese specimens and therefore it could be very rewarding for the progress in paleoanthropology.

    A last word to “Ida”: I don’t think that it was “rushed”. It took nearly 30 years since both elements of the fossil were known to at least some part of the scientific communitiy. Secondly the researchers worked for two years on it before publishing data.
    The Problem with this fossil is that it was “sold” to the media long before it got published. And since the media stations who paid for Ida (BBC, History Channel and the ZDF) wanted something big (in german television it was described as “a missing link between apes and humans”) to sell their products, it had to be presented in this awful way.

  5. Pingback: Fossil and data access in palaeoanthropology « Physical Anthropology


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