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

This is what gives science journalism a bad name:

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.

Like Other Left-leaning Dissenters of His Time

(Another one from Joe)

Barry Commoner, scientist/activist, died a few days ago. I never met him, although I heard him speak in Sproul Plaza during his 1980 presidential campaign as nominee of the Green Party, which could almost be taken seriously back then. I may even have voted for him. That election (Carter versus Reagan, for those who came in late) was almost as dispiriting as this year’s. I also read his books, which were lucid and, in a cautious way, encouraging. Commoner was a geek, but he also seemed to be a mensch.

This is how the New York Times noted his passing: “Like some other left-leaning dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem.” Quaint, huh? There’s Commoner, preserved like a bug in the amber of the Sixties, type specimen of an extinct political species.

Pollution, war, and inequality as related issues? But we all know better now, don’t we?

The Curse of the Leopard-faced Vulture

A guest blog from Joe Eaton, in the service of a shared concern:

Ron has kindly offered me blog space for the occasional rant. This one was triggered by a book called The Price of Altruism, by Oren Harman, that has reinforced my conviction that nobody copyedits or proofreads anything anymore.

It was published two years ago by Norton, a reputable house (Steve Gould's publisher for years), to favorable reviews, and was on the New York Times' list of the hundred best books of 2010. I recently picked it up out of curiosity. Harman tells the tragic story of George Price, a brilliant and probably schizophrenic scientist. Trained as a chemist, he turned to evolutionary biology and developed an equation to explain the origins of altruism. Price also had a history of computational religious mania and fixations on unattainable women. Having decided to emulate Jesus, he quit his job at a British research institute, gave all his possessions to homeless winos, and committed suicide in a London squat in 1975. Harman interweaves Price's life with the history of attempts to explain altruism as a biological phenomenon, from Darwin and Huxley to E. O. Wilson and Bill Hamilton. The Price Equation may have played a role in Wilson's recent conversion from kin selection to group selection.

This is not a bad book. On the whole, it's reasonably well written, and the narrative structure is effective. But it's riddled with egregious mistakes, bizarrely turned phrases, and passages that approach incoherence. In his acknowledgements, Harman thanks a copyeditor named Sue Llewellyn and an editor named Kay Peddle. It's apparent that neither was doing her job.

At one point, Harman credits, if that's the word, Robert Ardrey with authorship of The Genesis Flood. That creationist tract was in fact the work of Henry Morris, who is correctly identified as author a few pages later. Ardrey wrote African Genesis, admittedly a lurid potboiler but at least not a product of the Young Earth school.

Then there's this: “George had to run to make his vacation flight to Puerto Rico—his first trip ever outside America.” However you parse it, this statement would be a real surprise to the average Puerto Rican. And this description of a Bell Telephone ad in Life:
“And what about ‘Just Married,' with a brunette in an office chair with phone and adoring hubby reclining above her?” Well, what about it? Try to visualize this scene. Is he in a bunk bed? And they're supposed to be newlyweds? Why is the office chair in the bedroom? Can this marriage be saved?

But the book's crowning glory is the following (brace yourself): “Whether animals aid their kin (ants and wolves who help their sisters breed) or nonrelatives (vampire bats who share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt); whether they abandon their eggs (sharks and skates and stingrays) or goslings (eagle owls and leopard-faced vultures) or sacrifice themselves for the next generation (male praying mantises serve their heads during coitus to their avaricious ladies): whether they come together as a group (Siberian steeds forming rings against predators) or aid themselves at the expense of their hosts (from the common cold bug to proliferating cancers)—all living things are acting in the interest of their true masters: a cabal of genes whose sole imperative is replication.”

Where to start with this train wreck of a sentence? Most sharks don't lay eggs; they give birth to live young. There is no such beast as a leopard-faced vulture, even in the ruins of Catal Huyuk. Harman is probably thinking of the lappet-faced vulture, the lappets being skin flaps on the scavenger's bare head. Neither vultures nor owls beget goslings. Geese have goslings. Owls have owlets. Vultures have—vulturelets? In any case, not goslings. Female mantids might be better described as voracious than avaricious. They don't want the male's portfolio; they want a snack. “Steed” implies a domestic horse, and the Siberian horses in question, observed by Kropotkin, were wild, or at least feral. Cold viruses are not animals, and questionably living things. Cancers? This passage is almost sublime in its multifaceted wrongness.

You might suspect a language problem here. Harman was born in Jerusalem lives and teaches in Tel Aviv, but attended an American secondary school and Oxford and has written for English-language publications. No translator is identified. Harman's background might explain the occasional off-key idiom. It can't account for the leopard-faced vulture. Nor can I, unless that bit was dictated over a bad phone connection.

In the end, I tend to blame Ms. Llewellyn and Ms. Peddle. You two were supposed to be the gatekeepers, the guardians of consistency and common sense. You have let the side down. For shame!