The Fossils Say “What?” (A certified Joe Eaton Rant)

This is what gives science journalism a bad name:

www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/us/farish-jenkins-fossils-expert-dies-at-72.html?_r=0

I’m assuming that Douglas Martin, assigned by the New York Times to write the obituary of paleontologist Farish Jenkins, has some kind of science background. Maybe not. Maybe he’s an obit generalist—I believe the Times has such people. Maybe they pulled him off the sports desk. But you’d expect the Newspaper of Record to at least have someone knowledgeable—Carl Zimmer? Sean Carroll?– review the piece. This, clearly, was not done.

True, you can’t blame Martin for the headline: “Farish Jenkins, Expert on Evolving Fossils, Dies at 72.” Fossils as such do not evolve. They’re dead bits of shell and bone, often with the original content replaced by minerals, sometimes just impressions of the hard parts. They’re a rich source of data for students of evolution. But it was the living organisms that evolved, not the fossils. Let’s give that a pass, though, and move on.

To the first graf, in which Martin blows it completely: “Farish Jenkins, a paleontologist who discovered fossils of animals evolving into something new—most notably a 375-million-year-old fossilized fish with skull, neck, ribs and a part of the fins that resembled the earliest mammals—died on Nov. 11 in Boston.” Fish parts that resembled those of the earliest mammals? More like the earliest tetrapods, four-limbed creatures that we might as well call amphibians for the sake of convenience. Mammals are only one kind of tetrapod, along with amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

What Martin seems to have done is to conflate Jenkins’ role in the discovery of Tiktaalik
rosae, a fossil fish with many tetrapod-like anatomical characters—a neck, for one—with his unrelated work on the evolution of the mammalian inner ear from a portion of ancestral reptile jawbones. Martin, oddly, never mentions Tiktaalik by name. Its story is fascinating, and well told by Jenkins’ colleague Neil Shubin in Your Inner Fish, who does get a quote about Jenkins. The gist: there’s a long evolutionary lineage from Tiktaalik and its contemparies to their reptilian descendants to the first creatures that can be considered remotely mammalian, and their jawbones went through a lot of changes before they became our malleus, incus, and stapes.

Martin winds up with this: “In 2010, scientists found fossil footprints in a quarry in Poland 25 million years older than Dr. Jenkins’ find [Tiktaallik]. Creationists said these proved that the ancient fish Dr. Jenkins had found could not have been a missing link, since creatures into which they supposedly evolved were already long extant.” Come on, Times! “Missing link!?” Tiktaalik wasn’t missing. It was there in the rocks of Ellesmere Island all the time. As for linkage, it may have been a step between fish and tetrapods; it may have been an evolutionary dead end. But it does embody a stage through which the common ancestors of frogs, alligators, hummingbirds, and humans must have gone. Somewhere in our past, there was something a lot like Tiktaalik. Martin also misses the chance to refute one of the stupider creationist arguments, a variant of “If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” Old lineages don’t always die out when they bud off new ones. Apes aside, horseshoe crabs and lungfish are still with us.

If the Times, which presumably has an elite readership, is capable of this kind of crap, no wonder more Americans believe in angels than in evolution.

4 thoughts on “The Fossils Say “What?” (A certified Joe Eaton Rant)

  1. F

    But it was the living organisms that evolved, not the fossils.

    Be clear here: It is populations what evolve.

    But really, all my fossilized fish skulls evolve into mammals. Whoop – there goes another one right now.

    Apes aside, horseshoe crabs and lungfish are still with us.

    All modern fish with swim bladders included. They aren’t like the fish without lungs or bladders which came before.

    1. Ron Sullivan Post author

      At Coyote.es, we use only 100% post-consumer recycled wildlife-edible compostable whitespace, and we shred the leftovers and toss them out into our respective backyards.

      So that’s all right.

      And thanks for the refinement!

  2. Pingback: Links 12/30/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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