Planet Earth

What A Waste of Quicktime

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerJul 24, 2006 3:54 PM


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The Washington Post has an article today called And the Evolutionary Beat Goes On . . .. It is based on some interviews with scientists who are documenting evidence of natural selection in humans. I won't be surprised if it gets emailed hither and yon, but not for the text, which is based on stuff that's been out for some months now. No, it's got a slick animation with the following caption: "A morphing demonstration of human evolution shows the transformation from a small lemur, up the evolutionary ladder into a human: seen here as legendary evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould." The article goes into all sorts of contortions to accommodate this movie. In the lead, it reads,

Stephen Jay Gould would have been pleased. No, not about his mug shot at the endpoint of evolution in the illustration above, but about the growing evidence that evolution is not just real but is actually happening to human beings right now.

But the article ends on an entirely different note...

Come to think of it, the late Stephen Jay Gould might have been upset with the above illustration. Contrary to the popular imagination, evolution is not a linear process that culminates in the triumphal ascent of humans at the top of the genetic heap. The process is analogous to a bush, where twigs and leaves push out in every direction.

So...the paper is showing something that further promotes a popular misconception about evolution--the evolutionary ladder. Nice job, folks. In fact, of course, the movie is even more misleading. Stephen Jay Gould did not evolve from a chimpanzee, let alone a lemur. Nor did you, dear reader. I am part English, so by the Washington Post's logic, I could make a movie showing Prince Charles morphing into me. So much computing power, so little enlightenment... Update: Monday 2:15. The Loom gets results (sort of): Barbara King, an anthropologist at William and Mary, first brought this movie to my attention this morning. She sent an email complaint to the newspaper, and also brought this post to their attention. She got one email from the reporter, who claimed that the last three paragraphs of the article addressed her concerns. Then she got an email from the deputy news editor, who promised to change the caption to the movie. Now the caption reads,

A lighthearted rendering of evolution imagines the transformation of a small lemur into a human in the person of legendary evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould.

A failure of a fix, if you ask me. A reader who is not familiar with the details of evolution will not understand why the movie is lighthearted. A reader who is will find the movie annoying in the way it gets evolution wrong. In a time when lots of people ask, "If monkeys evolved into people, why are there still monkeys?" this movie will just add to the misunderstanding, caption fix or not.

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