When the fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidus were studied and published in Science in October 2009, they sent ripples around the world. Ardi was the closest we had come to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.
However, the ripples were particularly violent in the Arab world when Al-Jazeera Arabic reported the findings under the blatant headline of “Ardi proves Darwin wrong”.
This ended up in tons of discussions that I had been involved in, ranging from how science is taught in the Arab world to how evolution is perceived to the faults and mistakes of science journalism in the region. Al-Jazeera never retracted nor apologised for the misleading story. In fact, that particular example became a cornerstone of discussions of what can go wrong in science coverage in the Arab world.
Now, there is a good chance that Ardi may not have been a direct human ancestor after all. A new paper published in Nature last week suggests that Ardi may not have a direct ancestor of humans, but a direct ancestor of the African ape.
“We could actually place Ardipithecus in a lineage that’s unrelated to humans,” Terry Harrison, of the Center for the Study of Human Origins at New York University and co-author of the paper, said in a podcast with Nature.
Researchers are explaining this as a case of convergent evolution. This is when different species might evolve similar solutions to certain environmental stressors and be survive through natural selection. These species may not even be closely related, but could be mistaken to be so due to the similarities seen between them. These similarities might be in the shape and size of teeth for example, or certain skeletal changes.
Now Ardi may or may not have been a direct ancestor of humans. It is very tricky to be able to work that out because it happened millions of years ago, and because we don’t know what that common ancestor between huamsn and chimpanzees really looked like (of course we have many theories, but no concrete facts). But this is really beside the issue. In time, I’m sure we’ll have a more definite answer in the near future. It is the very nature of science to keep correcting itself and, by doing so, evolve in its own way.
What worries me now is if a news organization (Al Jazeera or else) picks up this story and puts it under a headline that reads something like “another nail in the coffin of Darwin’s theory” or something equally ridiculous. Coverage of evolution stories remains one of the poorest in the Arab world’s ever improving science reporting. This is a combination of religion bias, misinformation, and translation problem (this is in personal opinion, feel free to prove me wrong ofcourse).
I will be keeping a close eye on if this story is picked in the Arab world, how it is picked, and where exactly the journalist working on it took it. Please do let me know if you run into any Arab-based media outlets reporting on this as well.