I’m going to tell you two stories.
The first is a story about a group of researchers from Cambridge, UK; China and Germany. The team discovered very ancient fossils in the rocks of Shaanxi province in China that, they report, are the oldest deuterostome fossils ever described. They date to 540 million years ago which is right at the beginning of the Cambrian period. This is significant because it marks the point at which complex, multicellular life arrives on the scene.
Prior to this time most lifeforms on the planet were simple, single celled organisms. How and why the so called Cambrian Explosion occurred when it did is still a matter of scientific debate but occur it did. Evolutionary diversification suddenly increased by an order of magnitude and within a few tens of millions of years we had a plethora of crustacean-like organisms scurrying about the place, such as trilobites, where before there had been little more than blobs of bacterial-like colonies.
Deuterostomes are pretty much everything you might think of as a ‘proper’ animal. The word comes from the Greek for ‘second mouth’ which is probably the politest way that taxonomists of yore could think of to refer to the anus. Deuterostomes include every animal with bones; so that’s all your mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and bony fish; plus animals like sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and worms. Everything except insects.
What the researchers have found, then, is a potential ancestor to all the animals listed above – that’s awesome and can tell us a lot about how and when animals came to be. It also gives us a window into the earliest part of the Cambrian, a period that had been under-represented compared to middle and late Cambrian times.
These new little critters were tiny, only about 1 mm in length, and likely lived in the sand at the bottom of bodies of water. The most prominent feature of the creature, named Saccorhytus coronarius, is its relatively huge mouth. Further back, though, can be found a series of conical vents that the authors speculate could have been a precursor to gills.
Saccorhytus is a very interesting new fossil that deserves the attention it is getting both for it and the researchers, who had to painstakingly search through three tons of limestone to find their fossils. This concludes the first story.
The second story is one of sensationalist and, I think, lazy journalism.
Many news outlets, including the BBC, had headlines along the lines of, “Scientists Find ‘Oldest Human Ancestor’.” Remember, of course, that any headline that has had to put something into quotation marks automatically makes it effectively useless. On the one hand, if we want to be pedantic, it’s true: Saccorhytus could be the oldest fossil of a human ancestor ever found, the same way it is the oldest tiger ancestor ever found. I’m inclined to say that this particular link is so far removed from usefulness to the lay person that it is actually deceptive and was created specifically with a view to generate clicks. Unfortunately, this is the way many journalists are now judged, not by the quality of their work, and so I do sympathise.
So with so many news outlets running with the ‘human ancestor’ angle I started to wonder where it came from. First, I looked at the original paper. Published in Nature, it is short, only about 2 pages of text, and doesn’t mention humans once. Which makes sense as it has nothing to do with humans. So they didn’t get it from there.
Having only read the BBC article in full, written by senior science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, I saw that the scientists had apparently given an interview to the BBC but the quotes used only mention a common ancestor in passing. Perhaps Ghosh, a physics graduate not a biologist, latched onto that detail and bigged it up. But with every other outlet taking a similar tack I decided to check the press release.
The Science Daily website is basically an aggregator of scientific press releases and can be a useful place to find new science stories, I use it myself regularly. I had a look and, sure enough, there it was, the very first story on the homepage. As I said, Science Daily doesn’t produce content it just compiles press releases with links at the bottom of each page to the published article and the source of the press release.
I clicked through and finally got to the bottom of the sensationalist reporting: it was the press release. Here you can find the original press release on the website of St John’s College, Cambridge. I noted that all the quotes Ghosh used in his article where, apparently, the scientist had, “…told BBC News,” were actually taken verbatim from the press release. So, either the scientist read out the wretched thing word for word, or, Ghosh wasn’t quite upfront about having interviewed the academic involved, Simon Conway Morris. There’s no way we can know for sure.
What we do know is that a university press officer hyped up a story to the point of distorting it and then this was lazily passed on by the world’s media. The headlines used imply something more like a new hominid discovery, a cousin to Lucy, perhaps, rather than an early deuterostome. I know which is likely to get more clicks even if the end result is to leave people feeling misled and frustrated.
I’ll finish by reiterating that I am sympathetic to the reporters and even the press officers of the world; they’re just doing their jobs and I know Ghosh is a good journalist, especially on physics. I don’t accept, though, that we have to compromise. We can have interesting, informative and exciting science stories without having to embellish and mislead. Science would not be able to function without exactingly high standards, it deserves to be reported to similarly high standards.