Ida, Sweet as Apple Cidah, and 47 Million times as old

Some of you might have noticed the stories circulating about the announcement of a paper about a 47 Million year old primate fossil which is causing various kinds of controversy. The first, and most important is that it is colloquially named “Ida”–which is also my 4 year old daughter’s name. Why? Well, this relates to the second controversy. One of the researchers named the fossil after his 6 year old daughter, (a common name in scandanavia thanks to Ida (pronounced ‘eeda’) from Pippi Longstocking). This was only the first of a series of self-aggrandizing moves surrounding the announcement, including heavy promotion by the History channel (A program called “The Link”) , a party at the American Museum of Natural History convened by Mayor Bloomberg, a book and probably a line plush toys, god willing. Add to that there is already a minor storm brewing about the scientific legitimacy of the research, which is published in the open access journal PLoS One, and stands to be a test of open access as a quality publication outlet. One hopes that this is a good test. It is puzzling that the paper isn’t in a paleontology journal, or a science/nature/PNAS… and it would be interesting to know the motivations for this. There is already one critique, and probably other critiques of the paper circulating.

I have next to no opinion on the scientific claims, though I do have a senstivity to just how hard it is to make convincing hypostheses from the fossil record. This is an event worth watching for how massively hyped science affects the outcome of research and discussion in a field. My suspicion is that no one will touch this for a while, it will turn out to be an exceptionally well preserved fossil, but not one that “changes everything” as the History channel would have it. Or at least if it “changes everything” it will be that students and amateurs all over the world will talk about Ida instead of Lucy, and my daughter will have to deal with it for years to come. This is the way we world our knowledge today.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cidah, and 47 Million times as old

  1. bq. THE OBJECTIVE of anthropology, I believe, is to seek a generous, comparative but nevertheless critical understanding of human being and knowing in the one world we all inhabit.

    This sentence is the first in Tim Ingold’s lecture and points, I believe, to the issues with which he is concerned.

    1. The topic is “Human being and knowing”
    2. The understanding pursued is “generous, comparative and but nevertheless critical.”
    3. It assumes “the one world we all inhabit.”

    “Human being an knowing” casts a wide net, ranging from the biology of human wetware to philosophical meditations. Given that human being is an inescapably social activity, sociology is included. Given the distinctiveness of human language and human construction and use of symbols, culture, too, is part of the package.

    What, then, of the understanding pursued. “Generous” suggests that non-judgmental openness to other possibilities that has always been at the heart of the anthropological enterprise. “Comparative” suggests something often forgotten in obsessive focus on the site or sites where fieldwork is done — Clifford Geertz’s observation in _Islam Observed_ that anthropologists look for insights in microscopic settings, but their value can only be judged in larger conversations that include information from other times and places. “Critical”? Yes, but why is “critical” preceded by “but nevertheless”? Here I detect a warning against not only sloppy scholarship but also the misleading tender-heartedness to those inclined to be generously open-minded are prone. Here I recall Larry Crisman’s remark that, “Culture shock is discovering that your best informant has sold his daughter into prostitution to buy a motorcycle” and Voltaire’s distain for Leibniz’s proposition that whatever is must be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

    Which brings us to “the one world we all inhabit.” Yes, subjectively speaking we may all inhabit different worlds. In this sense my world and that of Rush Limbaugh are very different places. At the end of the day, however, reality intrudes and, barring the radical solipsism of the late Robert Heinlein, in which everything imaginable is real in some dimension, it refuses to go away even if belief denies it. Anthropology is, in this sense, part of the reality based community.

    Is this what Ingold meant to say? I can’t say. Have to read the whole thing first and likely, as Kerim suggests, read more of what Ingold has written to ground a serious interpretation. My first take, however, is highly positive.

  2. Have we a heidegger? Rings a bell… is it some kind of construction machinery? Where would I find these heideggers, other than in the black forest? Should I try and borrow one?

  3. ersatz heideggers can be found in abundance in certain backwaters of the american academy, but they tend to need constant maintenance. I recommend sticking with german engineering, even in these uncertain times. They just world better.

  4. In which case, don’t you mean “welt”?

    To clarify, for Richard, it is helpful to provide some Heideggerian context:

    “May world in its worlding be the nearest of all nearing that nears, as it brings the truth of Being near to man’s essence, and so gives man to belong to the disclosing bringing-to-pass that is a bringing into its own. ” (from Lovitt’s translation of “The Turning”)

    Does that help? No? Then please just substitute the phrase “Do Things”.

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