Issue Date: October 12, 2009
Ardi And Us
The most fascinating and, I think, important piece of science that has made its way into the popular media recently is the characterization of a new hominid species, Ardipithecus ramidus, which lived in a region of Ethiopia about 4.4 million years ago. A. ramidus fundamentally changes what we now know about human evolution and about our relationship to our closest existing relatives, the great apes.
The research, published in 11 papers in the Oct. 2 issue of Science, also, to me, speaks volumes about the current state of scientific literacy in the U.S.—or the lack thereof. That lack of scientific literacy among a large segment of the U.S. public dovetails with another science-based story currently in the news, resistance to vaccination against the H1N1 virus.
The research on A. ramidus made the front pages of many newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. An international team of more than 40 scientists has worked for 15 years on the fossils establishing the existence and characteristics of A. ramidus. They have reconstructed essentially the complete skeleton of an adult female, now nicknamed "Ardi." Their scientific papers and accompanying commentary take up nearly 60 pages of the Oct. 2 Science.
Why all the fuss? A. ramidus is a transitional species linking the last common ancestor of humans and the great apes, in particular our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee, and Australopithecus, a predecessor of Homo, which is to say, us. What's absolutely fascinating, though, is that A. ramidus in many ways looks more like us than it looks like a great ape.
It's our predisposition to think of chimps and gorillas as "primitive" versions of ourselves, and that, therefore, the last common ancestor should probably look something like them, not us. Turns out, that's not the case. Ardi walked upright and was a woodland omnivore with small canine teeth. She was as comfortable on the ground as in the trees. She didn't swing through the trees, however; it appears that she walked across the tops of the branches. She was not a knuckle-walker.
It turns out that chimps and gorillas have also been doing a lot of evolving since the last common ancestor. Many of their traits that we look upon as "primitive" are, in fact, their adaptations to their environment to maximize their fitness. What a surprise.
Reading the stories in the three newspapers and, later, some of the voluminous material in Science, I was struck by the following thought: If many, many polls of U.S. citizens are to be believed, and there's no reason not to believe them, then more than half of the population completely rejects this stunning advance in human knowledge about our origins. Because if one does not accept the truth of evolution, then everything that this team of scientists has discovered about A. ramidus is meaningless in terms of its relevance to humans. A. ramidus is just another species that drowned in the great flood.
That's incomprehensible to me. The research reported in Science on A. ramidus will spur endless debate, I'm sure; research on human origins always does. Anyone who denies the relevance of the research to the question of human origins, however, lives in a universe different from the one I live in.
Which brings me, improbably, to the H1N1 vaccine. NIH sponsored clinical trials of the H1N1 vaccine involving more than 4,600 people, according to an article in the Washington Post. There were no side effects detected other than soreness and redness where the shot was given.
According to news stories, however, a sizable number of people don't plan to take the vaccine or have it administered to their children. They don't think the H1N1 vaccine is safe. They don't think any vaccines are safe. They don't trust the government. They don't trust drug companies.
I am not equating people who reject evolution with people who are opposed to receiving the H1N1 vaccine, although I suspect there is significant overlap of the two groups. I am suggesting that both inclinations are the result of a discouraging lack of understanding of science and technology that I find baffling in today's world.
Thanks for reading.
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