I've been annoyed about Newsweek since they changed their format earlier this year. They went from trying to be a comprehensive weekly news magazine, to a shorter magazine full of page-long "opinion" essays coupled with longer-form "opinion-reporting" articles. This isn't usually the kind of thing I would complain about here on the weblog, but this morning there's a science-related angle, so I may as well explain my frustration.
The format change by itself might not have been such a bad idea. I've read Newsweek since high school, when I had to keep track of current events for public speaking. Over the years, it's gotten less and less worthwhile -- partly because the "opinions" started creeping into the news coverage, and partly because the blind spots got more and more obvious. Changing the format to a journal of opinion was at least forthright.
The problem is that Newsweek's writers just aren't that good at opinion writing. Now if I had the budget of a Washington Post property, I'd hire out most of the writing to people who actually had things to write about. In science and technology, which I care about quite a lot, there are all kinds of people who could write about new progress or the state of the art -- and with an editor and a budget, they could do it for Newsweek's audience.
Why do I want to read some staff journalist's intimate thoughts about evolutionary psychology (a piece they ran this summer, and which has returned several times in column form), when they could get Steven Pinker, or David Buller, or Leda Cosmides, or anybody else with an actual chip in the game? I don't want to automatically agree with what I read, I want a position to be competently argued and to tell me facts I didn't already know. Why do I want to read some journalist's he-said-she-said account of climate science?
So this morning, Gretchen found a useful Newsweek article -- an essay by genome scientist George Church promoting his work on personal genomics ("The Genome Generation: The Case for Having Your Genes Sequenced"). That's the kind of thing that a magazine filled opinion essays ought to be carrying -- written by an acknowledged leader of science, directed to a general audience.
I said, "But I didn't notice that in the paper magazine yesterday."
"Oh, it says it's a web exclusive."
That's right -- they hired a real scientist to write a long-form opinion essay. And they didn't print it. What's worse, when I went to Newsweek.com to read the thing, I discovered you can't even find it on the front page of the site.
I had to use Google News to find a Newsweek "web exclusive".
We decided earlier this year to let our subscription lapse. I can't say I'm going to miss it. I enjoy paper magazines -- we take several -- not least because I'd much rather read a long essay in print than on a screen. But the essay needs to be worth my time, which increasingly means worth bringing to the attention of students and readers.
UPDATE (2009-12-16): From reader A:
I just skimmed over your recent blog entry about Newsweek---someone had forwarded me the address of the Church essay (http://www.newsweek.com/id/226963) but the page doesn't open! It sticks at "loading" indefinitely. The future doesn't look good for Newsweek, as you suggest . . .
From reader B:
Instead of following your link to the Newsweek genome essay, I decided to try to replicate your experience by looking for it on the Newsweek site. Knowing its title and topic from your description, I found a link to it on the front page, near the bottom, in a section headed "News/Week", in a list headed "Life/Health". I suppose they might have added it since the time when you tried to find it. It's not prominent but you can get there from the front page.
Whoa! This is bizarre. In my compulsive way, I wondered whether my link to Newsweek might not point to the home page. So I closed the browser tab and brought up Newsweek again to look at the URL. Sure enough: http://www.newsweek.com/. But now, under News/Week Life/Health, there was a different list of articles. Nothing about genes.
On a third trial, the original list was back.
Maybe they have so much compelling content that they can't manage to share it all at once?
Last year, I complained that paleoanthropology had been exceptionally boring. One piece of evidence was the year-end retrospective in Discover about the top 100 science stories, of which only three were paleoanthropology-related.
Now, I would never have claimed that this year has been boring for paleoanthropology. But reading through the current Discover, there actually weren't all that many big stories. Sure, enough to make it an interesting year, especially considering the October onslaught. But except for Ardi, it was a year of empirical news and little fundamental movement in our knowledge about human evolution.
Here's a list of the paleoanthro stories in this year's top 100:
3. Ardipithecus. This of course raises the question about which science stories were bigger -- number 1 was vaccines, number 2 the Augustine report on NASA's future. Ardi also made a second appearance as part of number 43, the Darwin-centric entry.
35. Neandertal DNA. This was more media event than story in 2009, but worth including in any year.
51. Hohle Fels flutes.
80. We get a target-rich environment starting here: Chimpanzees plan ahead -- this is the meat-for-sex story.
81. "Human gene changes mouse talk" -- transgenic FOXP2 mice.
82. "Early humans tended the disabled" -- the Atapuerca craniosynostosis case.
There are a few more that touch on issues discussed here on the blog, but except for the Paleoindian drive lines discovered under Lake Huron (number 95), they don't really hit paleoanthropology.
However, one paleoanthropologist does make another appearance: I was unaware until I read item number 93 that Dean Falk was working on Einstein's brain.
UPDATE (2009-12-11): Several readers wrote to request the reference to Falk's Einstein brain work. A copy is free online from PubMed.
I've just returned from a week in Leiden, the old university city of the Netherlands. I was a guest of the archaeology faculty, in particular Wil Roebroeks and his stable of students and postdocs, and they were fantastic hosts. I can't say enough about the new friends I have in Leiden.
Except maybe that they set an awfully high bar for the next place I get to visit!
There was excitement in the whole country as the Naturalis museum opened the first exhibition outside Georgia of the D2700 skull from Dmanisi. The TV news covered David Lordkipanidze arriving with the skull, and followed his entourage from the airport. The daily newspapers carried huge broadsheet stories about the fossils and the exhibition. It was pretty cool.
I only wish Lucy had gotten anything like that kind of reception in the States.
I played a small part opening the exhibit by participating in the public lectures at Naturalis on Saturday. There was a very energetic crowd of ticketholders, eager to hear about the science of early humans and to attend the exhibit.
The skull and its mandible D3735 are displayed in the "Treasure Room" of the museum:
The museum houses the original Dubois fossil collections from Trinil, Java, including the Pithecanthropus skull and femur. If you visit, you can see the originals on display:
I sat down alone with them for a while during the gala reception and did what comes naturally:
Unfortunately, spending a week in the Netherlands meant that I had to miss our Thanksgiving at home. Gretchen thinks we should have turkey in the next week or two to make up for it, and I'm not complaining. On the date, however, I got a real authentic Pilgrim experience, as I stayed just above the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden:
Such a unique place, with incredibly nice proprietors!
So, blogging has been slow as I was soaking in the surroundings, and giving my hosts a preview of some of the research that will be coming out in the next year or two. They've told me that they'll feel paid amply if I keep doing what I do here. So let's get back to it!Synopsis:I'm given the royal treatment during a visit to one of the oldest universities in Europe.
Have department colloquia lost their relevance to academic life?
this is something like the Pavarotti Effect of greater global connectedness: local opera singers are going to go out of business because consumers would rather listen to a CD of Pavarotti. It's only after it becomes cheap to find the Pavarottis and distribute their work on a global scale that this type of "creative destruction" will happen. Similarly, if in order to get whatever colloquia gave them, academics migrated to email discussion groups or -- god help you -- even a blog, a far smaller number of speakers will be in demand. Why spend an hour of your time reading and commenting on the ideas of someone you see as a mediocre thinker when you could read and comment on someone you see as a superstar?
Here's a problem: if that's true of faculty members' attitudes toward visiting lectures, it is doubly true of undergraduates' attitudes toward classes. Why spend your time sitting through a boring lecture, when you can download MIT OpenCourseware?
Maybe just as important: giving local colloquia and other talks is a really important way to get ready for giving talks at professional meetings. Now maybe meetings are just going to go online. Would it be better to arrange a 3-day program of online panels and slide-enabled podcasts? Would you rather have a recorded talk with online supplements, and a designated time for online chat?
UPDATE (2009-10-26): A reader writes:
A useful part of colloquia you and the Gene Expression author didn’t address: they provide networking opportunities! ... Colloquia in our department always end with a reception for the speaker, which gives students the chance to introduce themselves to the speaker. Not the same thing as stalking them online through their blog, or just reading their paper and emailing them thoughts. In anthropology especially, personal networking is key for job-searching, integrating ideas, etc. For this reason – the opportunity for personal interaction – colloquia and conferences aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I think this is an interesting conversation. Because there's a dark side to "networking": it disadvantages people who are outside the existing power structure. How do you network your way up if your institution can't afford to invite prestigious speakers? Or if you can't afford to attend the conference?
It is a fact that networking is necessary for job-searching. But that may exclude people more often than include them.
There is a formal distinction worth considering: A YouTube is not a two-way conversation or a turn-taking opportunity. It is a broadcast. A colloquium (and a conference presentation) is also a broadcast, with some opportunity for comment. True two-way conversations are necessary to integrate and test ideas -- if you don't listen to people outside your research group, chances are you will make mistakes. My best ideas come from these kinds of interactions, and so scheduling lots of one-on-one time with interesting people is very important to me. But is traditional networking the best (or only) way to make such two-way connections possible? I don't have an answer, but it's a question worth some thought.
I want to point to an interview between conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt and Richard Dawkins, on the subject of Dawkins' new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Hewitt is a practicing Catholic and lawyer, as well as a Stephen Jay Gould undergraduate student, and by no means hostile to the idea of evolution. He has clearly spent more thought preparing for the Dawkins interview than Dawkins had done.
Hewitt, like many interviewers, spends a lot of time trying to pin down Dawkins on issues related to his previous book, The God Delusion. But what I thought worth discussion was this section of the interview:
HH: So after Lucy, what’s the next most forward one closest to us?
RD: After Lucy, that would be, I would think, Australopithecus Africanus, or Homo Habilus.
HH: And about how many years separate those two?
RD: About, well, actually, Homo Habilus would be only a few hundred thousand years from Lucy.
HH: And after Homo Habilus, what’s next?
RD: I would think Homo Erectus, which would be maybe about another million years, and then Homo Sapiens.
HH: And so do you expect, Richard Dawkins, that as the continued search for fossils goes on, that those gaps in the record will be filled in?
RD: Well, I don’t call them gaps. I mean…
HH: I know that, but…
RD: They’re pretty close.
HH: But do you expect any intermediate fossils to be discovered for those periods?
RD: Yes, I do, but I don’t think we even need them, because they’re already so close, that the terminology, I mean, for example, Homo Habilus is sometimes called Australopithecus Habilus, they’re so close, that the terminology becomes disputed.
HH: And do you expect they will all be in Africa?
HH: And none of them in Asia, none of them…
RD: Well, humans first moved out into Asia about one and a half million years ago as Homo Erectus, so there are specimens in Asia which were independently there, and they came from Africa.
HH: And so a hundred years from now, when this conversation is underway, what do you expect most of the argument to be about, if indeed there is an argument left?
RD: Well, there already isn’t an argument left, because if you actually look at the evidence, it is completely conclusive.
I think this is a really bad job of laying out the case for human evolution. He's got the basic facts, at a superficial level, but there's no flavor here, no joy of discovery.
As a result, Dawkins leaves the impression that there are a handful of fossils and large gaps between them. Thousands of listeners, many receptive to science, are hearing that the evidence for human evolution consists of three species put together by a lot of hand-waving. And one of them, that "Homo that could be Australopithecus", we don't even know well enough to give it a name!
Now Dawkins is not a paleoanthropologist. So, one might think we should cut him some slack. But human evolution is the stumbling block for a lot of people, and you have to get this right. There are hundreds and hundreds of specimens that underlie our knowledge of Plio-Pleistocene human evolution. Those specimens are contextualized both by date and by their paleoecology. We know a damned lot about them. Some aspects of the science are subject to debate, sure, but most is rock solid. That's what you need to be ready to get out of your mouth in a hundred words or less.
How should you do it? Have a short story -- I mean, literally, a 100-word story -- that conveys the flavor and reality of fossil humans. I'd say nowadays, you start with Dmanisi. Here's a site, found under the foundation of a medieval monastery, with five fossil humans who are the earliest known people out of Africa. In size and looks they're clearly in between those of earlier ape-like australopithecines and today's humans. There was an old woman who was the first-known person to outlive her teeth -- but unlike your grandma, her brain was half the size, and "old" might have meant forty. Two teen-agers, a boy and a big, big man whose teeth were twice as big as mine. Since they lived, one point eight million years ago, the earth's poles have reversed not once, but six times.
OK, that was 110 words -- it's not easy. But you have to be ready. Why is Homo erectus not just a human, in the biblical sense? What's the next story up in time (I'd go with Atapuerca)? What about backward (Ardipithecus is a good one, but you'll want to do better than Dawkins' name-dropping mention)?
Lay listeners don't care about species names -- that's fancy obfuscatory science-lingo. Yes, we use species names for special purposes. But evolutionary biology is not typology. Species are not or unit of study -- individuals and populations are. We have more than a hundred specimens from Sterkfontein or Koobi Fora; more than thirty-five bodies in the caves of Atapuerca. Calling them Australopithecus africanus, or Homo erectus, or Homo heidelbergensis -- those names trivialize the evidence.
People wonder why I'm passionate about open access -- this is one of the reasons. What a great opportunity we're missing, by not being able to direct folks to the rich record of basic evidence for our origins. TalkOrigins is awesome, but we need visuals, more links to research, a directory of paleoanthropologists, the reality of human genetic evolution.
I've cited a small part of a very long interview, with many interesting parts. I don't fault Dawkins or Hewitt at all for the focus on atheism versus religion -- the fact is, that is why many interviewers are willing to have Dawkins come on, they know the ratings potential of that issue. I just think it's a poor piece of communication, to be unprepared with evocative examples that will give people a vivid picture of the reality of evolution. Because that's the point of the new book, right?
It's one thing to come off well during a brief appearance on The Colbert Report. But an hour-long radio show -- there's no format better to bring out the real evidence. But you've got to be snappy.
Today, Science Saturday on bloggingheads.tv is a conversation between Razib Khan and me. We had a fun conversation about Ardipithecus and the recent study of the population genetics of India.
Here's a non-embedded link to the bloggingheads site
Obviously, we've taken the pills that make us smarter:
I think we did pretty well staying on topic in this one, and getting into some paleoanthropology deeper than your average radio interview.
If you're finding my blog from the bloggingheads site, please look around! My Ardipithecus topic link. That goes way back, long before the current discoveries, and there are some interesting posts in there, from today's perspective.
Oh, and I almost forgot this 2006 post linking to Tim White's kvetching over the Orrorin femur: "Orrorin opera." If you want a background picture of the competitiveness of research in early hominin field paleontology, that's a case worth examining -- or for a broader view, Ann Gibbons' book, "The First Human," has many stories as well.
UPDATE (2009-10-22): I wrote this post before the film premiered, but it's gotten a lot of Google traffic. My notes on watching the film might be more interesting. I haven't yet gotten to see the whole thing, but together with some correspondents, I think I've put together some useful notes.
ORIGINAL POST (2009-10-01):
OK, so if you thought Ardipithecus was going to be different from the Darwinius media fiasco... this one is for you:
A DISCOVERY CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE, WORLD PREMIERE SPECIAL
BRINGS YOU THE STORY OF THE LATEST NEWS ABOUT HUMAN EVOLUTION
DISCOVERING ARDI airs Sunday, October 11 at 9 PM (ET/PT)
Following publication in the journal Science on the discovery and study of a 4.4 million-year-old female partial skeleton nicknamed "Ardi," Discovery Channel will present a world premiere special, DISCOVERING ARDI, Sunday October 11 at 9 PM (ET/PT) documenting the sustained, intensive investigation leading up to this landmark publication of the Ardipithecus ramidus fossils.
"The novel anatomy that we describe in these papers fundamentally alters our understanding of human origins and early evolution," said project anatomist and evolutionary biologist, Professor C. Owen Lovejoy, Kent State University.
Project co-director and paleontologist Professor Tim White of the Human Evolution Research Center at the University of California Berkeley adds, "Ardipithecus is not a chimp. It's not a human. It's what we used to be."
Oh, my. Well it stands to reason that something this coordinated wasn't just science. I wonder whether anyone will ask the questions about the timing of Science's publication and the documentary release only a week later.
I have to tell you, I've been wondering about all the bogus-looking Darwin paraphrases these guys have been throwing out -- you know, the ones about how Darwin taught us about how chimpanzees changed from their common ancestors, and how fossil humans would tell us about the apes. I can't find anything like that in any of Darwin's publications -- please e-mail if it's there and I'm missing it.
But now I see where they're coming from. It's the tagline from the Discovery show!
DARWIN COULD ONLY DREAM OF FINDING THIS
Really? I'm soooooo tempted to make that the blog's tagline right now.... OOOH OOOH, better yet --
DARWIN COULD ONLY DREAM OF BEING THIS HANDSOME
Why is Ken Weiss invading my Newsweek?
On a blog, anthropologist Kenneth M. Weiss complained recently that as Human Genome Project director, Collins "directly or indirectly intimidated other NIH agencies to get into the genome game … That did, and still does, co-opt funds that could be used for other things instead."
GASP! Why is Ken Weiss invading blogs!?!
Here's a link: "Francis Collins and the NIH". Newsweek should know it's the height of dishonesty to cite from a blog without providing proper sourcing, so that readers can check for themselves that it has been cited accurately.
The blog, "The Mermaid's Tale", is written by Weiss and Anne Buchanan. I've added it to my feed!
Primate paleontologist Elwyn Simons and (many) colleagues cosigned a letter in the current Nature protesting the high price paid for the "Ida" fossil, Darwinius masillae ("Outrage at high price paid for a fossil"). Reportedly, the "A" side of the fossil was sold for around $750,000, which Simons and colleagues suggest "amplified" the "publicity barrage surrounding this fossil." The letter is worth reading in its entirety, but many of my readers do not have access to the journal so I will reproduce the final paragraph:
In our view, such objectionable pricing and publicity can only increase the difficulty of scientific collecting by encouraging the commercial exploitation of sites and the disappearance of fossils into private collections. We believe that payments on this scale are detrimental to scientific investigation, and respectable institutions should not be responsible for making or publicizing them. We strongly believe that fossils should not have any commercial value.
I hope the letter can spur some constructive discussion. Not every fossil is rare -- but even common ones have scientific value, as we can understand the dynamics of ancient populations only by examining large samples of individuals with known provenience. Nowadays, it has become more and more possible to study ancient communities of organisms, not merely single species. Even at a site like Messel, with large numbers of specimens, there will be rare taxa represented by only one or two specimens. Rare things are inevitable, and the question is how to fairly allocate access to them by both researchers and the public.
Simons EL, Ankel-Simons F, Chatrath PS, Kay RS, Williams B, Fleagle JG, Gebo DL, Beard CK, Dawson M, Tattersall I, Rose KD. 2009. Outrage at high price paid for a fossil. Nature 460:456 doi:10.1038/460456a