In 2009, Mayor Bloomberg of New York held a special ceremony to laud the recently discovered fossil Ida (pictured above), said to be the "missing link" between humans and other primates. Bloomberg was
standing beside Ida's glass box, his arm around the shoulders of a school girl who was wearing a T-shirt with the TV tie-in logo: "The Link. This changes everything."
The Guardian's correspondent quipped, "The main thing Bloomberg was presumably hoping this would change was his prospects of winning an unprecedented third term as New York mayor." Bloomberg did win, but the Ida fossil was not so lucky; claims for it were shortly retracted.
Significantly, Bloomberg thought Ida improved his re-election chances before the fossil experts had spoken. And that she wouldn't have harmed his career if she failed their tests. Real and imagined "human evolution" is now so integral to our culture that demand outpaces authenticity. The disappointing history of Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardi, all hailed in 2001 as human ancestors, attests to the frustrating search for "missing links." Sediba, another supposed ancestor, fared no better in 2013. A science writer at Wired, not known for intelligent-design sympathies, derides the ceaseless buzz as "ancestor worship."
If he's right, we worship what we do not know. Pop culture's Ascent of Man gives no hint of the disorganization and confusion of current human evolution studies.
Late last year, it was announced that the oldest assumed human sequence then published (400 kya) baffles experts because it belongs to an unknown group, one more like Denisovans (an extinct type of human) than Neanderthals. The DNA results from the "Pit of Bones" site in Spain were described as baffling (Nature), perplexing (BBC), hard to make sense of (The Scientist ), don't quite know what to make of it (New Scientist), and creating new mysteries (New York Times) instead of neatly clarifyinghuman evolution. October of that year had already brought the news that the human remains found at Dmanisi, Georgia, showed that many "separate species of human ancestors" never really existed and "may now have to be wiped from the textbooks." "Separate species" of human ancestors (that nonetheless interbreed)? There are many definitions of "species," so the term can be flung around freely, if accompanied by suitable credentials.
One researcher in a discipline that tries to keep track of the general direction of findings (theoretical anthropogeny) recently found no consensus as to when the human race arose, after he offered colleagues a spread ranging from ~60,000 to ~500,000 years ago. In this context, it hardly seems worth mentioning that no known hominin (assumed human) is clearly an ancestor of both Neanderthals and current humans.
For all practical purposes, today's humans are orphans, seeking our roots via scraps and artifacts, many of unknown authenticity or significance. If we are convinced that any discovery we make is better than uncertainty, we are in a suitable frame of mind to explore the questions.
When interpreting accounts, we need to keep in mind several narrative biases that can become distortions. When it comes to us lay readers, the story already incorporates these distortions. Usually, we won't know what has been put in or left out in order to fit the narrative bias -- unless a new find provokes a crisis in which the facts just will not fit the mold. We saw several examples of that above, from 2013.