A new law of nature has been revealed: the Law of Predictable Media Reactions to Missing Link Announcements.  Once again, the science news media have gone ape over the latest bone story emerging from the paleoanthropology industry.  In keeping with tradition, reporters are saying this will “rewrite the steps of our evolution.”  And once again, a contender gets his 15 minutes of fame, showered in media hype.  If the LPMR law holds, we can expect to see his claim discredited when the next contender gets his or her turn.

For now, it’s Lee Berger’s turn in the limelight, accompanied by his pet monkey, Australopithecus sediba.  Wait—isn’t this a re-run?  (See the coverage last year on 4/08/2010.)  Well, Lee garnered another round, apparently; Michael Balter at Science Magazine profiled Berger with the headline, “Paleoanthropologist Now Rides High on a New Fossil Tide.”  Ann Gibbons in Science even showed a photo of Lee at the dig with his son Matthew and dog Tau.  Other contenders know the protocol to lay low till their turn, lest too much infighting confuse the public.  They know most of the unwashed masses will have forgotten Berger when the next contender gets a turn to shine in the footlights.  (Michael Balter in Science gave a glimpse of one in the wings: Ron Clarke, who may get to show off his pet monkey “Little Foot” in a couple of months.)

Science Magazine devoted its cover to Au. sediba, with three News Focus stories inside and five scientific papers analyzing the skull, pelvis and hand of this “hominid” (ape), raising tantalizing speculations that the creature was on its way to humanhood.  Predictably, the media jumped.  There is no possible way to list the breathless headlines spawned from the announcement – a Google search on “sediba” yields 285,000 hits – but here are a few samples:

  • Closest Human Ancestor May Rewrite Steps in Our Evolution (Live Science)
  • South African Fossils Halfway Between Ape and Human (New Scientist)
  • Fossil discovery supports evolutionary link between Australopiths and Homo (PhysOrg)
  • Human Ancestor May Put Twist in Origin Story, New Studies Say (National Geographic)
  • How African fossils put new spin on human origins story (BBC News)
  • Pre-human fossils viewed as ‘game-changer’ for evolution (Associated Press viaMSNBC)….

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