Why Wasn’t This on the NYT’s Front Page?

There’s a fascinating article by Nicholas Wade in today’s New York Times about a new understanding of human evolution — i.e., that “the split between the human and chimpanzee lineages … may have occurred millions of years later than fossil bones suggest.” Furthermore, “A new comparison of the human and chimp genomes suggests that after the two lineages separated, they may have begun interbreeding.” Wade’s article, which appears on p. A23 of the Times‘s print edition (at least the edition delivered to my home in New York) is based on a report in today’s edition of Nature, summarizing research conducted by David Reich, Nick Patterson and others at the M.I.T./Harvard collaborative known as the Broad Institute.

When I read the article, my first thought was: Wow. As in: a) Wow, that’s fascinating; and b) Wow, why wasn’t that on p. A1 instead of p. A23?

I used to work at the Times, as an editor and writer at the Sunday Magazine. When you are first hired, you get to sit in on a Page One meeting, where the paper’s various desk heads pitch their top stories to the paper’s most senior editors, who collectively decide what will make the front page of the next day’s papers. The meeting I saw was so fascinating that I said so to Joe Lelyveld, who was then the paper’s top editor. He said, “Well, you can come back if you’d like.” And I did, again and again, until it was finally made clear (however politely) that I should just go upstairs and do my job instead of hanging around the Page One meeting like a starstruck kid (which I was).

Anyway: I would have loved to have sat in on yesterday’s Page One meeting to see if a) the chimp story was pitched at all and b) why on earth it wasn’t put on A1. I’m all for putting interesting soft stuff on the front page, and standard political stuff, but this article strikes me as a must-read. I got to wondering if perhaps the Times, having been attacked so regularly on so many ideological fronts over these past few years, has gotten a bit gun-shy — not wanting to be seen as inflaming the Intelligent Design debate all over again.

If nothing else, it’s interesting to see how far the chimp news has spread in such a short time: here’s what you get if you type in “nature reich chimp” in Google News.


Ben Golub

Yesterday afternoon, it was briefly on the front page of the online edition. I don't know anything about this, but maybe that's a way to do a small test of a potential A1 article, to see how popular it is.

I also think it's remarkable that the chimp article isn't currently among the NYT top-10 most-emailed articles. (Whereas Nevaeh is #2.)

sdstull

maybe's don't make the front page, otherwise we'd have new theories everyday.

phashemi

FYI, the Washington Post ran it on the front page, below the fold. But on the web site it's kind of soft-pedaled, not garnering the big-print headlines of the various scandals, the sniper trial, and border security.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/17/AR2006051702158.html

rsaunders

Because it would involve discussing evolution, and the NYT is too sensitive about appearing all secular in the days of "Intelligent Design"?

kramsauer

The oddest thing I've seen/heard concerning this story was on Morning Edition (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5414318). They say something like "just like the Model T gave rise to the Mustang and the Pinto, the common ancestor gave rise to the chimp and man." As if there weren't a big enough problem concerning "intelligent design" now we have NPR equating natural selection to engineering cars.

gOdzi11a

I am still not sure why this is such a surprise. I mean, it is not as if we all thought that one day a chimp/human ancestor gave birth to a modern human. That ancestor would have given birth to a human ancestor that would have been pretty much identical to its nonhuman-ancestor brothers and sisters.

As Richard Dawkins points out in The Ancestor's Tale, a species split can only be declared retroactively, once interbreeding has stopped. This moment will not be apparent when it actually occurs.

For example, right now there are several similar-looking species that could produce viable offspring if they interbred. They simply refuse to do so because of sexual selection; i.e.: they don't find the other species sexually attractive. At some point, the differences between the species will have built up to the point where viable offspring becomes impossible, and they may then be permanently declared separate species. Or alternatively, these species may decide tomorrow to start interbreeding again, and they will no longer be called separate species.

This above situation must surely have existed in the short time following the split between the human and chimp lineages. The two creatures would have looked pretty similar. A time-traveller observing the action would not have noticed anything weird going on. It certainly would not have made the front page of the Times.

Read more...

TheGoodReverend

It was the top story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

jglickman

Hmmm, I guess they didn't want to be seen as taking sides in the evolution vs. creation debate. Or maybe they're trying to sell more papers by not offending their rightist readers lol.

zbicyclist

It's an interesting speculation based on some facts, but hardly definitive. Maybe the NYT recently got burned by one of those "2006 science now shows 1995 science probably wrong" stories.

There was one of those on NPR today, about the limited usefulness of multivitamins (I'd seen this earlier given prominent play in the WSJ).

Taed

It was fairly prominent in the _San Jose Mercury News_, the top of perhaps page 6 or 8. They do a pretty good job with science and business stories. On other things, it's not the paper it was 10 or 15 years ago -- when it was my favorite newspaper I'd ever subscribed to.

Citizen Deux

Science gets short shrift in the media. Most reporters fail to appreciate the nuances or understand its complexity.

Same for economics, by the way.

In fact, it's the same treatment for almost any story!

smili

There's a new hypothesis that comes out every 6 months. Something that contradicts this story will be out soon, or something that picks apart a key assumption or method in the analysis. It'll sort itself slowly I guess.

StCheryl

I guess this explains Johnny Damon's appearance and behavior.

jglickman -- the Times *must* have some right-wing readers. How else to explain David Brooks' pablum?

SteveSailer

Nicholas Wade of the New York Times is great. He may be the single most important figure in the human sciences today because he is so much more honest about what Darwinism really implies about modern humans. (As "Glaivester" said, most NYT readers just want Darwinism to provide a reason not to believe in God. They don't want it to actually mean anything about living people.) See Wade's new book, "Before the Dawn," for a full exposition of his politically incorrect courage.

Still, although I'm certainly not qualified to comment on this "chominid" paper that Wade wrote about, it's worth pointing out that the brilliant young genetic anthropologist John Hawks thinks the paper is "a mess."

http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/genomics/divergence/dawn_chumans_patterson_2006.html

Hawks comments:

"I've read the paper, and I have to say it doesn't deliver on its promises. It fails to cite previous work on the topic, it discards without explanation the hypothesis supported by most previous studies, and it promotes a "provocative" hypothesis for which there is no good evidence. It doesn't even show that the speciation of humans and chimpanzees was "complex".

"It's just a mess...

"There's no evidence here that the human-chimp speciation was unusual in any way. It is not unusual for two species to have a long period of genetic divergence before they cease reproductive contact with each other. It is the normal mechanism of speciation in mammals."

As I said, don't look to me for ajudication, but I just wanted to point out that the jury is still out on this theory.

Read more...

Don

It's far from a surprise. In fact many people seem to believe that the split between species hasn't occured even now - and cite the current President of the US as evidence.....

Stephen J. Dubner

FWIW, I was told by someone who knows that the Science Desk did indeed offer the Wade article to p. A1.

wkwillis

smili
The data will not be contradicted because it's not on the edge of science instrumentation capability.
It's just using dependable tools to look someplace no one has looked before.

Ben Golub

Yesterday afternoon, it was briefly on the front page of the online edition. I don't know anything about this, but maybe that's a way to do a small test of a potential A1 article, to see how popular it is.

I also think it's remarkable that the chimp article isn't currently among the NYT top-10 most-emailed articles. (Whereas Nevaeh is #2.)

sdstull

maybe's don't make the front page, otherwise we'd have new theories everyday.

phashemi

FYI, the Washington Post ran it on the front page, below the fold. But on the web site it's kind of soft-pedaled, not garnering the big-print headlines of the various scandals, the sniper trial, and border security.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/17/AR2006051702158.html