by Robert Bazell, chief science correspondent
With great fanfare, New York's Mayor Bloomberg and others today unveiled a model of a 47-million-year-old fossil of a baby monkey-like creature at the American Museum of Natural History. The unveiling was part of a promotion effort by the History Channel and Little, Brown Book Group, which are producing a documentary and a book about the discovery.
There is no question that this is an important scientific finding. The fossil purchased by scientists at a market in Europe is exceptionally well preserved. But the documentary is titled "The Link: This Changes Everything," and the press kit for the event declares that reporters are about to "witness the most important find in 47 million years."
So I phoned Dr. Tim White at the University of California, Berkeley. White is a renowned paleontologist who played a key role in the discovery of "Lucy," the first ape-like creature to stand erect and many other important findings about the evolution leading to humans.
"Three words," he said. "Over the top."
The people who promoted this event make a big deal out of the possible place this newly discovered fossil plays in the evolution leading to humans. But if you read their actual scientific paper in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal (http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0005723) the scientists make no such claim.
The big question about this finding, White said, "is whether it is the 'Mother of All Monkeys?' and that is not even resolved. With years of study the scientists will learn whether this is the creature that stands at the intersection of one group of primates that went on to be best represented by lemurs today or another group that went on to be chimps and humans. But they don't know yet."
The event organizers do seem to know, however, the potential value of hype.