Piltdown Proves a Point

In 1908, a workman digging in a gravel pit in the Sussex hamlet of Piltdown discovered a fragment of a human cranium's parietal bone. He delivered it to Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist and antiquarian, thus setting off one of the most controversial and bizarre episodes in the study of human paleontology. For the next 40 years Eoanthropus clawsoni was a respected member of modern man's family tree, and a representation of this distinguished ancestor stood proudly in the American Museum of Na

By | February 9, 1987

In 1908, a workman digging in a gravel pit in the Sussex hamlet of Piltdown discovered a fragment of a human cranium's parietal bone. He delivered it to Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist and antiquarian, thus setting off one of the most controversial and bizarre episodes in the study of human paleontology. For the next 40 years Eoanthropus clawsoni was a respected member of modern man's family tree, and a representation of this distinguished ancestor stood proudly in the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of Man. Then, in 1950, the so-called Putdown Man was shown to have been an elaborate hoax perpetrated by pranksters unknown to this day. Careers were both made and unmade by the affair and the exposure of the fraud helped fuel the antievolution movement that thrives even today. In his book The Piltdown Inquest (Prometheus Books, 1986), Charles Blinderman tells the story of Putdown Man and lines up the suspects. Was it Dawson himself? Or the priest-paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin? Or even the writer and scientist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes? In this excerpt from the book, Blinderman describes how the Piltdown case can be seen as a vindication of the scientific method.

An inquest into Piltdown Man doesn't seem to offer much cheer to those of us who think that science is a legitimate enterprise that has drawn a credible chart of human evolution. Anyone conversant with the Piltdown history will readily, if not eagerly, agree that many of the researchers shaped reality to their heart's desire, protecting their theories, their careers, their reputations, all of which they lugged into the pit with them. All of the suspects were long dead before the assessments of their culpability began. Their relatives, friends and admirers may have been embarrassed into shame or stroked into resentment, but that seems a small price to pay for all the fun. Less fun is the more important part: what the Piltdown case signifies.

The resolution of the question of whether science does map the truth of reality or whether it is just another myth has consequences for us in our daily lives. In the 1920s, fundamentalists wanted to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools; today, they want to give creationism equal time with evolution.

For close to 40 years, Eoanthropus dawsoni, a.k.a. Piltdown Man, was taught as fact. His australopithecine and pithecanthropine relatives are still taught as fact. If they are really as mythical as he was, then it seems the just thing to do would be to give equal time to competing facts or myths. If science is nothing more than myth, then biblical stories are agreeable alternatives and render, serendipitously, more wholesome ethics.

The paleontologist Earnest Hooton pushed the Piltdown case aside as unique; but the creationists pulled it back as typical of what evolutionists always do: deceiving themselves and others by turning apes into people.

A Defense of Piltdown Man

But, to the contrary, the Piltdown inquest can be seen as validating science in general and evolutionary science in particular.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, wrote that Piltdown Man was a disaster for evolutionary theory because so many scientists either welcomed it or rationalized it into harmony with their prejudices. "However earnestly scientists may now dissociate themselves and their theory from Piltdown man, they cannot entirely wipe out the memory of forty years of labour expended on a deliberate and not particularly subtle fraud." Now that he has been kicked out of the family, she wrote, evolutionary theory is left without "the much desired link, and even without such antiquity as Piltdown offered."

Actually, the present inventory of links includes thousands of prehistoric hominid species, from frontal bones down to footprints. Her conviction that whatever is there lacks antiquity is incorrect: australopithecines lived long before Lewis Abbott's Pliocene Man.

Much of what went on before the expose, and all of what went on during and after it, reminds us of the legitimacy of the scientific method even when applied to the study of the past. Edwardian culture did in fact anticipate the likes of Putdown Man and, within the narrower confines of the scientific community, many defenders did seize the opportunity to hammer the fossils into malleable fit with their theories.

But the figure of the scientist emerging on the scene with no view at all, commencing to gather facts and press them into theory, is a parody of the scientific method. Charles Darwin, in a letter, penned his opinion about this important issue of curving evidence to the template of theory. The passage providentially foreshadows Putdown: "About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view it if is to be of any service!"

Evidence convinced. Conviction and even conversion were based at least as much upon that awful four-letter word "fact" as upon cultural bias, paradigms, deep inner longings, and rhetoric. After the exposé, Hooton managed to say, while eating crow, that the great lesson of the Piltdown case is this: it's wrong to fix on scientific discoveries as irrevocable. Certitude is out of place in the empirical statement.

The total Putdown history, from initial exploration of the pit through the exposé, legitimizes the study of evolution as a science. The Piltdown case also suggests that fraud is not epidemic in science. Lewis Thomas, in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, quotes the physicist John Ziman, who asserted "Deliberate, conscious fraud is extremely rare in the world of academic science. The only well-known case is Piltdown Man." Culling the history of the study of human evolution will produce many mistakes like Nebraska Man. The only other hoax of even minimal consequence is that of the flint tools and jawbone found in the gravel pit at Moulin Quignon, France, in 1863.

A last point. Himmelfarb concluded that 40 years of labor had been wasted time. The London Times drew a different conclusion .in 1953: "That the deception —whoever carried it out—has, though cunning and long successful, at last been revealed is a triumph to the persistence and skill of modern palaeontological research."

Others have been similarly heartened by the case. Earnest Hooton was proud of the detectives, who did "honor to science by their fearlessness and their candor; they reflect credit upon anthropology by their skill and thoroughness." H.V. Vallois, a paleontologist who had been skeptical about Eoanthropus, was glad that the hoax had stimulated the development of new techniques.

The tenacity of Piltdown Man for 40 years shows that the science of human evolution was imperfect. It is still imperfect, but getting better all the time, which is more than we can say about a lot of things. The entire case is something to cheer us up after all the swiping today at evolution, at science, at rationality.

Blinderman is professor of English and adjunct professor
of biology at Clark University, Worcester, MA 01610.
Copyright © 1986 Charles Blinderman. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Prometheus Books.

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