Friday, May 7, 2010

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man is a subject that appears with a bit of regularity in debates about evolution. It's worth sharing a bit of history about that event.

In 1912 some skull fragments were found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, England (a small village near East Sussex). They appeared to be fossilized and almost – but not completely – human. The remains were found by an attorney and part-time geologist and paleontologist named Charles Dawson. Dawson showed his find to Arthur Smith Woodward, who ran of the geological department at the British Museum and also lived in the area. Woodward was a distinguished scientist but had little expertise in Paleoanthropology (the field of science that studies ancient humans). Woodward went with Dawson to the original site and together they found some more skull fragments as well as a jaw bone.

In 1915, Dawson found a second set of remains that exactly matched the first ones recovered at Piltdown. The exact location of the second find was never identified, though Dawson said that it was about two miles away from the original site. Dawson became ill later in 1915. He never fully recovered and died the next summer. The exact location of the second find died with him.

The fossils were quite unusual. They had nearly human skulls with a large brain but the jaws had teeth arranged in a way that would have prevented speech.

For many years, the fossils were very influential. For example, they were mentioned as evidence favoring evolution at the well-known 1925 Scopes trial. Piltdown Man was often referred to as "the Missing Link" between man and apes.

It wasn't until 1953 – fully 40 years after it was first announced to the public – that the fossils were officially declared to be frauds. The fossils were actually modern human skulls along with orangutan jaws with filed-down teeth. The London Star newspaper declared, with some justification, that Piltdown Man was,: "THE BIGGEST SCIENTIFIC HOAX OF THE CENTURY".

However the validity of the fossils had been suspect all along. As early as 1915 American zoologist Gerrit Smith Miller wrote a 30-page scientific paper describing the jaw as undoubtedly that of an ape. In 1923, an anatomist named Franz Weidenreich examined the remains and correctly reported what they were and that they were fraudulent.

What took so long to have the fossils officially declared to be frauds by the general scientific community? There are a number of factors.

  1. There were two world wars during the interim. The focus of the scientific community was directed elsewhere during those years.
  2. At the time of the discovery there were very few other hominid fossils to compare to Piltdown Man. Neanderthal fossils had been found even while Darwin was alive. A fossil called "Java Man" (and later given the name "homo erectus") had been found some 20 years before Piltdown Man.
    And a hominid fossil had been found in Heidelberg Germany in 1908, just a few years before Piltdown. That was it. It wasn't very much. Such a spotty fossil record at the time made it more difficult to see the problems with the fraudulent fossils.
  3. The fakes were very professionally done. The teeth were expertly ground down and the bones were chemically altered to appear to be much older than they were. Even the way that they were scattered throughout the gravel pit was indicative that the bones were genuine fossils or that they person who planted them was an expert at how such fossils are found in nature.
  4. There were actually two sets of fossils.

That last point is often overlooked, but I believe that it was an important factor. If there had been only one skull and jaw found it could have the result of a lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) accident. The skull and jaw were not found at the same time. There could have been a human and an ape that happened to die in the same area and each had a portion of their remains fossilized. But the second find eliminated that possibility. Therefore there were only two alternatives: the fossils were genuine or they were undeniable frauds. The second set of fossils eliminated the possibility that they were just some sort of an honest mistake or accident.

Despite these factors, the length of time required for the fraud to be exposed was surely an embarrassment to scientists. But there are some important factors to be considered.

First, because outright fraud is so rare in science, that alternative was immediately dismissed by everyone. So you could argue that the length of time needed to expose the fakes is really a sign of the integrity of science. People who have never seen fraud before will not consider it when it occurs. The easiest people to fool are those that have never been fooled before.

Second, it is also important to emphasize that the fraud was exposed by mainstream scientists who believed in evolution and not by "creation-scientists". This would not be the case if Piltdown Man was all part of some gigantic conspiracy to fraudulently convince people that human evolution was a fact.

Third, one factor that contributed to the fossils being identified as fraudulent was the discovery of many other hominid fossils. Piltdown Man stood out because of its exceptional and atypical characteristics in comparison to the many other hominid fossils found. Clearly the REAL evidence for human evolution was a factor in identifying the fraud.

An interesting side issue for Piltdown Man was the question of who created and planted the fakes. No one knows with certainty the name of the person who perpetrated the fraud and there are about a half-dozen suspects. A strong consensus has formed over the years that Charles Dawson, the original discoverer of the "fossils", was that person. The view that Dawson is the perpetrator is strongly supported by the fact that he is known to have faked at least 38 other fossils including one (a reptile/mammal hybrid) that was named after him - plagiaulax dawsoni. (Those forgeries were also discovered quite later. If they had been identified while Dawson was alive, undoubtedly Piltdown would have been suspected of being a fraud much sooner. Their existence is relevant now only in trying to identify the perpetrator of the fraud.) Dawson was never given the honor of election to the Royal Academy of Sciences which we know was one of his goals in life. Finding an important hominid fossil would have supported those who endorsed his membership.

The most intriguing suspect is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - the author of the Sherlock Holmes books. Conan Doyle lived in the area and was a visitor to the fossil site at least once and possibly more often. It is often overlooked that Conan Doyle was a physician so he would have had known quite a bit about human anatomy and presumably how to use chemicals to make them look old. Conan Doyle had also just published a book, in 1912, titled The Lost World. That book was not about Sherlock Holmes but did talk about dinosaurs and humans living together and included descriptions of "ape men". So anything in the newspapers that would have talked about ancient humans could have contributed to book sales. Some people claim to have found clues in that book relating to Piltdown. Conan Doyle was also heavily involved in spirituality at the time – specifically a belief in ghosts, and other sorts of spirits. Then, as now, mainstream science dismissed such beliefs. That would have give Conan Doyle some incentive to embarrass mainstream science.

Furthermore Conan Doyle would have had access to hominid and orangutan bones because of his various contacts.

The evidence for Conan Doyle as the perpetrator of the hoax was strong enough that Science magazine published an article in 1983 titled "The Perpetrator at Piltdown" that named Conan Doyle specifically as the person who planted the bones.

Most people, however, feel that it’s unlikely that Conan Doyle was the actual perpetrator. For one thing the evidence pointing to Dawson is so strong that it’s difficult to ignore. Secondly, portions of the skull and jaw were found at different times meaning that they were probably planted at different times. Therefore the actual planting of the bones in the pit would have required a lot of work and time and secrecy. Conan Doyle, because of his fame and busy schedule, would have been unable to find that much time. Also it is probable that a few people would have recognized him during some of the many trips required for him to have planted the fossils. But he is certainly the most intriguing possibility.

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