Backstage w/ Holland and Zimmer on Darwinius exaggeratus

As I wrote last week, there was a lot to like about the "going broad" communication strategy of the Darwinius masillae fossil discovery published at PLoS One. Yet, as I also noted the major caveat was that this strategy of reaching a broader and more diverse audience for science might be better applied to a scientific subject or body of research. When applied to a single study, there was a far greater likelihood of engaging in unmerited hype with the risk of diminishing public trust or at least numbing the audience to claims of "startling new discoveries."So it is important to distinguish the merits of the "going broad" strategy from how it was applied in the Darwinius masillae case. As I commented in an interview with The Scientist, activating the various channels and audiences was the right strategy but the language and metaphor used strayed into the realm of hype.


Distinguishing the channels activated from the language used is important. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with using a multi-media strategy in science communication that reaches a more diverse audience, as long as accuracy is maintained. In fact, when you consider that 2 million people tuned in to watch the History Channel's two hour Memorial Day film about a fossil, there's evidence for the potential of the "going broad" strategy. [As I note in a paper under review, the History Channel reaches a much broader and more diverse audience than traditional science programming such as PBS NOVA.]Yet despite the success in gaining the attention of wider audiences, there was also another troubling aspect of the Darwinius masillae roll out and media strategy. As I referenced at The Scientist, one of the interesting things about this case was that we were able to eavesdrop in and read via blogs almost in real time how scientists from various fields were interpreting and critiquing the find, an experience very different from the pre-blog era.But we were also able to witness the backstage discussion among journalists and science information officers covering the case. With this backstage pass into the workings of science communication, we learn of some of the serious faults of the media relations strategy for Darwinius masillae. As science journalist Carl Zimmer and veteran research communications expert Earle Holland describe, there were damaging strong armed tactics used by the organizations promoting the fossil find. Most notably, journalists were not allowed advanced copies of the study so that they could include context and critiques from third party experts. Not only did this limit the quality of same day reporting of the story at news organizations across the globe, but it also fueled bitterness and distrust between journalists and the sponsoring organizations and scientists.As science communication expert Rick Borchelt writes in an excellent recent chapter, this media relations mismanagement violates a golden rule of science communication: it trades the one time hit of publicity for the more important development of trust and relationships with reporters and the public. His "managing the trust portfolio" chapter is well worth reading in light of last week's Darwinius masillae case.So in sum, the "going broad" strategy is an important and necessary innovation in science communication. We are ethically bound to think carefully about how to go beyond the very small audience that follows traditional science coverage and think systematically about how to reach a wider, more diverse audience via multiple media platforms. But in engaging with these new media platforms and audiences, we are also ethically bound to avoid hype and maintain accuracy and context. We also have to think carefully about managing trust and relationships with reporters and the public.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.