Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Man Evolved From Sharks!: media's hype drawn from new research

There is a new headline that is racing across the online media outlets like a Colorado forest fire: Man evolved from sharks!  Imagine the sensationalistic irony that when an unfortunate swimmer or surfer encounters a hungry shark, it is simply a case of communing with a long lost relative; some perverse form of cannibalism.

Now the facts: researchers at the University of Chicago, with funding from the National Science Foundation and published in the latest issue of Nature, have determined that one of the oldest - if not the - oldest species of fish, from which bony fish and cartilaginous fish branched off, was more similar to primitive sharks.  Vertebrates, including man, grew from that initial bony fish branch of the evolutionary tree, therefore you get today's attention-grabbing headline.

Studying what few fossil fragments exist of Acanthodes bronni, which lived over 250 million years ago, the researchers were able to determine that the brain case of this early jawed fish was more shark-like.

Professor Michael Coates, a biologist at the University of Chicago, said: "Unexpectedly, Acanthodes turns out to be the best view we have of conditions in the last common ancestor of bony fishes and sharks.  Our work is telling us the earliest bony fishes looked pretty much like sharks, and not vice versa. What we might think of as shark space is, in fact, general modern jawed vertebrate space.  For the first time, we could look inside the head of Acanthodes, and describe it within this whole new context. The more we looked at it, the more similarities we found with sharks."

For fans and diehards, like myself, of evolutionary theory, this is fascinating work in that it moves around one more puzzle piece in this enormously complex process that lead from single-cell organisms to dinosaurs, elephants, and man.  And for those who prefer a more religious-based idea of creation, I contend that the sheer complexity of the evolutionary process is evidence of a greater power.  That we have yet to have all the pieces so as to fully comprehend evolution - a process so complex with mutations, right and left turns, leaps and dead ends as to make the X-Men blush with envy - from start to finish is not grounds to dismiss it as fact.  But I digress.

And so the media is having a field day making the same kind of leap-frog assumption that was branded on Charles Darwin with the first publication of the Origin of the Species.  "Man came from monkeys" is now being modified to "Man comes from sharks," the only difference being that the former was meant to ridicule the scientific theory behind Darwin's work whereas today's headline is meant to grab the reader in an attention-deficient age, perhaps with a little chuckle under our breath.  Sigh. . .

Paleontologists study evolution - this vast, incredibly complex process of biological progress - to better understand the world of today.  It is the foundation from which grew all of the present intricate and inter-related ecosystems.  By deciphering the past, we better understand the present and can best protect the future.

And the next time I'm in the water with a great white, I'll look close to see if it resembles my Uncle Ed.

Source: The Telegraph
Source: The Daily Mail
Source: Huffington Post UK
Source: Science Daily
Source: Futurity
Source: Mother Nature Network

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