Discovering Ardi notes

I haven’t been able to see all of the “Discovering Ardi” show tonight, but we did get most of the second hour. I just thought I’d jot down some general comments about the production.

First thing – human evolution show + Mike Rowe narration = awesome. Please, more Mike Rowe. Maybe they could get him to interview the scientists. Ewwww! The roundtable has Paula Zahn. What the heck is that? Why not “Ardipithecus: After the Catch”?

OK, I can’t watch that tonight; I’ve got Mad Men. So back to “Discovering Ardi”.

The first hour seems to have been mostly excavation and discovery – we caught the tail end of that in the second hour, and it seems to have been really well done. The film clips from the Afar are great. It’s not obvious how many of them are “dramatic recreations” – I’d have to see the first hour to get a better picture of that. But to the extent that they’ve posed the scientists with bones on the ground, it’s been well done.

For my taste, they could have included more about the fauna and the fossil plants. The trend in recent years has been to have the “Walking with Dinosaurs” type CGI reconstructions of ancient organisms. I think that producers have the idea that the moving pictures are giving some kind of life to the ancient creatures. A little bit of that isn’t a bad thing, but if the entire focus of the show is the CGI, it leaves the impression that the ancient creatures are fictional. That’s especially true when you have a “main character” like Ardipithecus. You put it into an ancient CGI environment, and have it interact with one or two other creatures, and walk through some trees, and they’re just window dressing. But if you see the actual fossils of the fauna and the plants, I think it conveys the reality that these fossils are themselves the objects of real science, that understanding the ancient paleoenvironment means studying the evolution of all those creatures. Aramis gives such great material to work with, and the film did give show some of the interesting parts of the fauna, and some of the fossil seeds in this hour. But like I said, there could have been more.

Speaking of CGI, they staged a motion-capture session with a small stunt actress, supervised by Owen Lovejoy. The staging wasn’t badly done, but we didn’t really get the payoff. By the end of the show we had only seen a few short clips of Ardi walking. This definitely fell into the area of “uncanny valley” – not realistic enough, dark background, kind of creepy-looking. To go from bright desert scenes of the paleontologists in the Middle Awash to this dark, gloomy prehistory was kind of depressing.

The CGI version of Ardi is rendered as a total obligate biped. The knees are fully extended during the stance phase of a stride, there is a toe-off when the leg gets to the most posterior point in the stride, and there is a fully human arm-swing pattern.

This was really the weird part for me. The papers describing Ardipithecus do not come to the conclusion that Ardi had anything like a human pattern of bipedality. Nor, I would add, do the data support that conclusion. Yet here, they spent most of the whole hour leading up to the conclusion that Ardi was an obligate biped – complete with many supporting sound bites from Lovejoy and Tim White. The only thing detracting from the tidy picture in the film’s depiction is that troublesome grasping toe. And even that can be waved away if the toe-off could be accomplished with the second toe.

When the Science flurry of papers came out, I was puzzled by the Matternes reconstruction. It shows a fully upright Ardi striding up a tree branch. Yet the papers emphasized again and again that the hindlimb anatomy of Ardipithecus was likely the primitive condition, present from the human-chimpanzee common ancestor.

Weirdly, the documentary doesn’t seem to have much of the “it’s not like a chimp” storyline. Only a short mention. But that was the “big story” when the Ardipithecus papers hit the street. Instead, the documentary pushes the “it was a unique biped” storyline.

I don’t know any more than these two depictions seem to contradict each other. It seems to me that there was a change of emphasis, or maybe a full-on change of mind, sometime after the documentary’s filming and before the release. Reviewers? Whatever is the case, I don’t think the anatomy supports the film’s representation of the locomotor behavior. The film shows Ardi walking just as if she were Lucy. She didn’t walk that way.

I really liked the way the film showed Matternes’ work. The process of dialogue that he conducted over the anatomy of the fossil and the reconstruction of missing pieces really showed both the scientific and artistic processes at their best. It is rare that we see this kind of detail in any program about fossil humans. Whether it’s CGI hominins or people dressed up in Neandertal get-ups, the assumptions that go into those depictions are always hidden from the viewer. Here, the attention to the artist helps to make those assumptions explicit.

Maybe I’ll get to see more later.

UPDATE (2009-10-12): A reader writes:

Discovering Ardi deals with "it's not like a chimp" in the first hour: When we found this skeleton, everyone expected it to look more like a chimp and we were all stunned to find that it does not. Timelines, compared pelves, etc. So someone who sees the program from the beginning hears "it was a unique biped" as reinforcing the notion that it was surprisingly different from apes. They also speculate on how bipedality and small canine teeth may relate to the success of critters in our branch of the evolutionary shrub, as compared to the apes.

Ah, well then. We do hear about the pelvis. I’ll try to catch a rebroadcast of that to see how they handle it.