12 February 2013

The people of The Link: Arthur Keith

Arthur Keith in 1912
Several of the characters in my historical thriller The Link are drawn from history. Here is another mini-bio: Arthur Keith.

At the time of our story in 1912, Arthur Keith was at the height of his career. At 46 he was a renowned anatomist, the curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. As The Link explains, he was the go-to guy for any new and exciting hominid fossil finds: experts from the Continent brought their discoveries to the College to have the great Arthur Keith pronounce upon them.

Arthur Keith was born in 1866 in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of a farmer. At the age of 16 he left school, after concluding that “learning was not my forte,” to work on the family farm. Fascinated by stories of university life told by a young lodger at the Keiths' home, Arthur moved in with his brother in Aberdeen and began to study the prerequisites for university admission: Greek, Logic, and English. Two years later he was admitted to the university’s medical program. After graduation, he worked for a while at an asylum before accepting a position as a mining company doctor in Siam (Thailand).

During his four years in the East, Arthur became fascinated with the local monkeys and gibbons and with primate anatomy in general. Back in London he plunged into a study of comparative anatomy, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1895. His first position was as a senior demonstrator at the London Hospital Medical School, where he worked to improve the quality of education and conducted his own research into the mechanisms of primate respiration and the heart. Keith married Celia Caroline Gray in 1899 and they moved into a rented house in north London.
In 1908, he accepted the position of conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, where he would remain for 23 years.

Arthur Keith, the ultimate comparative anatomist, was constantly at work on one paper or research project or another. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1913. One of the proposers for the honour was his old rival over the Piltdown fossils, Arthur Smith Woodward. Keith was knighted in 1921.

A former student recalled Keith as “tall and thin with sharp features, deep-set engaging eyes, and a powerful forehead. His appearance was attractive and distinguished, and his manner invariably friendly. Everyone was captivated by the softness of his voice and his modest almost diffident demeanour. There was gentleness but no lack of confidence and power in all he said and did. No one found anything but a depth of sincerity and kindliness when they knew him, and so he acquired and kept for years a wide circle of friends who became attached with affection to this great and gracious scientist." He is reported to have spoken quietly, enunciating each word separately, with a trace of a Scotch accent. His wit was sharp but never unkind. When bones were to be handed round his class, he often remarked that as with umbrellas, so with bones: no borrower ever thought it necessary to return them.

Keith first heard the rumours of the Piltdown discovery in September 1912. He admitted to being jealous: he believed that the Royal College of Surgeons, not the Natural History Museum, should be the proper home for all fossil remains of ancient man. He also resented that Woodward had garnered all the credit: Keith by then had spent more than 20 years dissecting primates, drawing and measuring ape and human skulls and teeth and pondering human evolution; Woodward, no human anatomist by any stretch, had probably never even seen a primate cadaver.

Woodward showed him the Piltdown fossils on two occasions before the public announcement and Keith immediately saw that Woodward’s reconstruction was all wrong. The Link reconstructs one of these meetings, imagining the tense dialog between the two giants of the scientific world.

Keith suffered recurring bouts of fever and illness and when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1931, he was forced to retire from the College. The Keiths had long owned a country cottage in Kent and in 1933 they moved to Downe close to Darwin’s home (Down House - which was by then a school). Keith subsequently secured Darwin’s house for the Royal College of Surgeons, to be restored as a museum. Sadly, Lady Keith died very shortly after they had moved there. They had no children.

Keith lived to hear that Piltdown was a fraud and it upset him terribly. He was particularly troubled that Dawson could have deceived him so thoroughly; he commented to the British Museum investigators who interviewed him in 1953 that it would take him some while to get used to it all. He died in January 1955 aged 89.

Keith was another prominent British scientist whose reputation would be tainted by the Piltdown affair. A few analysts have accused Keith of committing the fraud, citing as motive Keith’s public jealousy about the Piltdown fossils going to the Natural History Museum and not the College. As proof, they cite inconsistencies in Keith’s 1953 recollections about events 40 years before, statements of an octogenarian that do not match his much earlier diary entries. Few experts seem to have bought in to this complex theory which does not stand against the test of Occam’s razor.

What do I think about Keith as a person and a suspect? I actually agree with Augustus Parker’s conclusions on the matter. You’ll have to read The Link for yourself and then reach your own conclusion.

Arthur Keith obituary, British Medical Journal 1955.
Keith, Arthur, An Autobiography, London, Watts & Co., 1950
Russell, Miles, Piltdown Man, Stroud, Gloucester, Tempus Publishing, 2003.
University College London website.

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.

28 January 2013

The people of The Link: Arthur Smith Woodward

Several of the characters in my novel The Link are drawn from history. Here is the first of the mini-bios for some of them:

Sir Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944) 
He’s Stephen McKay’s boss, sure, and a formidable intellect, but he’s also the man you love to hate. So who was the real Smith Woodward?

Arthur Smith Woodward was born 23 May 1864 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, the elder son of Edward Woodward, silk dyer, and Margaret Smith, whose maiden name Arthur added to his surname. As a child, he collected wild flowers, beetles, and seaweeds. A fossil he was given on holiday led to an interest in geology.

His first job on graduation from Manchester’s Owens College in 1882 at the age of 18 was in the geology department of the British Museum (Natural History) which had just moved to its new home on Cromwell Road in South Kensington. The remarkable building would serve as his professional home for the rest of his life.

Woodward’s first task was arranging the Museum’s collections of fossil vertebrates for exhibition. Fascinated by two newly-acquired collections of fishes, he began studying fossil fish himself, taking special classes in the subject. To encourage his new-found enthusiasm, the museum put him to work cataloguing all the fossil fishes in the department. So began Woodward’s life work: this four-volume catalog (1889 – 1901) would make him the greatest palaeoichthyologist of his time. It was the first application of evolutionary theory to the field and for a century it remained a standard reference. Compiling the famous catalog also became a roadmap for his professional life: he learned a number of European languages, travelled widely in search of new material, connected with palaeontologists around the world and generally expanded the Museum’s collections to the point where foreign researchers routinely travelled to visit his department.

In 1892 Woodward was appointed Assistant Keeper (director) of the Department of Geology and in 1901 he became its Keeper. He was only 28. He would hold the post for the next twenty-three years. By clever delegation of the day-to-day duties, he was able to continue his studies, authoring 150 papers on fossil fishes alone.

In 1894 he married Maud Seeley (1874–1963), daughter of the geologist Harry Govier Seeley. They had one son and one daughter.

Woodward was not an easy man to get to know: he was variously described as a strict disciplinarian and a humourless martinet. At the same time, he could be very kind and considerate to his junior staff. His single-minded dedication to his work was inspirational to his colleagues and staff but could no doubt also be annoying at times. He had few outside interests, yet he is known to have appreciated music and loved taking his children to the pantomime. (There are photos of his son Cyril at the Piltdown site during Woodward’s summer digs with Dawson.) Teilhard de Chardin observed that Woodward’s “apparent coldness” would crack when an item of interest was found during a dig, and he would suddenly display the “enthusiasm of a youth.”

During his working life he received numerous honours, including Fellow of the Royal Society (1901) and the Prix Cuvier of the French Académie des Sciences (1918). He served as president of a number of scientific societies including the Geological Society (1904) and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow, St Andrews, Tartu, and Athens. He was knighted in 1924.

After his forced retirement from the Museum in 1924 at the age of 60, the Woodwards moved to Haywards Heath, West Sussex, just 10 miles from Piltdown. He joined the Sussex Archaeological Society and served on its council for 18 years (two of them as President). He continued to pursue an active life, participating in archaeology organizations, travelling with his wife and excavating, including fruitless hours at the Piltdown pit.

He told his friends that he had hoped to be made Director of the Museum. It has been said that he was so angry at being passed over for the post that he never again entered the building or spoke to anyone still on the staff.

Arthur Smith Woodward died peacefully at his home in Haywards Heath on 2 September 1944. His book about Piltdown Man and its significance, The Earliest Englishman, was published posthumously in 1948. It contained not a hint that he harboured the slightest suspicion of the Piltdown pieces. That same year a 37-year-old anthropologist, Kenneth Oakley, proposed applying a newly-developed fluorine test to date the Piltdown fossils more accurately, the test that started Piltdown Man’s long slide towards infamy. So intimately was he associated with the Piltdown finds, Woodward’s reputation would be tainted forever by the resulting scandal.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.

15 January 2013

What Good is a Fake Fossil?

Piltdown Man skull reconstruction (1912)
In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist, and Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of the Department of Geology at the British Museum, published their discovery of the remains of a new form of primitive human. Pieces of a skull, part of a jaw and a single canine tooth were quickly dubbed Piltdown Man, named after the village closest to the discovery site.

It was a significant find: the first Englishman. But in 1953 three British scientists subjected the Piltdown pieces to newly-developed chemical analysis and concluded that the bones were actually relatively new. They had been filed down and artificially stained to give the appearance of age. It was all a monumental fraud.

Today the only question that remains about Piltdown Man is: Whodunnit? The fact of the fraud was quickly assimilated into science’s world view and science moved on.

So why does Piltdown Man keep popping up on the web in 2013, trying to pop out of its well-deserved obscurity?

Many of the latest articles are coming from creationists, activists who call themselves “creation scientists.” They take the Biblical origin story literally, believing that the earth was created in one six-day period about 10,000 years ago, just as the book of Genesis has it. And rather than simply stating that their faith-based belief is inconsistent with the evidence, they try to use scientific arguments to convince us that the evidence somehow lies. They do this by carefully selecting their facts and using pseudo-scientific language. Here’s an example:

Everyone has heard of the missing link; the transition creature between Man and the Apes. We’ve never really found him—in fact, we’ve never really found any link between one species and another. Scientists have found species with similarities, but the transitions are simply not there. It is inherent in Darwinism that species make a smooth, seamless transition from one form to another. The reality is that we see no such transitions in the fossil record, and evolutionists struggle to hide or explain away this embarrassing fact. 1
I won’t address this particular extract – it would take too long to spin off on that tangent -- but you get the idea of the creationist approach: an argument that sounds convincing based on a number of authoritative-sounding statements. (The author, Timothy Birdnow, is a well-known American conservative writer who lists his profession as “Real Estate”, so obviously we would need to believe him on matters of science.)

And that venerable anthropological fake, Piltdown Man, has been assimilated into the creationists’ arsenal.

The creationists tell us that the fact of the Piltdown Man fraud and the fact that it took 40 years for the truth about it to come out, prove that science is riddled with frauds and so cannot be trusted. Here’s how one creationist website puts it:

As the Piltdown Man saga demonstrates, the philosophical adherence to the theory of evolution has continued produce a legacy of hoodwinking dramas based on anti-science principles. 2
They carefully omit to mention that Piltdown was exposed by the very scientists they are ridiculing. It was the accumulated evidence of 40 years that led workers to conclude that Piltdown man was a kind of anomaly, a twig rather than a main branch of the human family tree. Piltdown just didn’t fit, so they began looking at it more closely, and the resulting analysis revealed the fakery.

Should we be suspicious of scientific discovery and scientists in general because of this famous case of fraud and a handful of others? Of course not. There are many hundreds of genuine fossils and thousands of reputable scientists who have been advancing our knowledge of the universe quite properly over the past century. Even if you take a pessimistic view of human nature, the number of fakes is vanishingly small.

Why is this? Because the scientific method is based on cooperation as well as competition. Cooperation because scientists in any particular discipline communicate their results to each other and discuss their theories to come up with a kind of consensus position on the state of their art. Papers are published in scientific journals for all other workers to see, but they are not published until they have been through a committee of review that determines that the paper describes correct research methods and theoretical logic. Not that the conclusions are necessarily correct, but that the way the authors got there is correct.

Competition figures in the process because every scientist needs to justify to his or her university or research organisation that his work is solid and significant so that funding for the work will be forthcoming. So in a world where research money is finite, scientists must compete with each other to be the best – or at least at the top – in their field and to be doing work that reliably moves the state of knowledge forward. If you’re not good enough, your better colleague gets the grant.

The scientific method, based on formal (and open) research procedures, logically-developed deductions and refereed publications, has been tested and proved in everyday use for more than 100 years. It has got us into space, it has created modern medicine and it has advanced our knowledge of the universe by light-years. In down-to-earth terms, it just works. Sure there is the occasional fraud, but not many. And sometimes one might slip through the screen, but not for long.

Do they all get caught? Certainly not. Some clever charlatans are bound to get away with it. But the proportion is so infinitesimally tiny, we really shouldn’t worry about it. If we cried foul on all of science because of these few bad apples, it would be like imposing martial law across the nation after a kid steals a candy bar in Poughkeepsie.

Another hallmark of creationist claims is that Piltdown Man “proved” the theory of evolution by providing the missing link between apes and humans. One typical example states that Piltdown was “once marketed by the evolution industry over a period of four decades as the most important discovery in support Darwin’s theory of human evolution.”3  And so, since Piltdown man is a fake, so this key proof of evolution is gone. Here’s another example:

Correcting the find took 40 years, and it remained used as a "proof" of Darwinism long enough to deceive an entire generation.4
Charles Darwin
They love to quote the New York Times headline (December 22, 1913) "Darwin Theory is Proved True."5

But Piltdown Man’s discovery in 1912 was never used as a proof of evolution. (The Times headline was created by a headline writer, not a scientist, and the body of that news item never suggests that Piltdown is propping up evolution.)

Charles Darwin believed that evolution was real many years before he published his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species in 1859. But he knew what a groundswell of opposition the idea would evoke, particularly from religious scientists, many of whom were his friends and colleagues. So before committing his theory to print, he spent years carefully and comprehensively gathering his supporting evidence. At the same time, he considered all of the objections to the theory he could imagine, and carefully and systematically addressed them, knocking them down one by one like targets in a shooting gallery In the end, Origin laid out such a mountain of evidence in favour of evolution, and dealt with any objections so powerfully, that the battle was won almost before the first shot was fired. A scant ten years after the publication of Origin, there was scarcely a peep of dissent from the scientific community.
So anthropologists didn’t need Piltdown to shore up their belief in evolution: that ship had sailed 40 years before. Saying in 1912 that Piltdown Man supported evolution would be like arguing in 2009 that humanity will eventually be able to put men on the moon.

And Piltdown Man was never “marketed” in support of evolution. As we have seen, anthropologists grew increasingly uncomfortable about Piltdown Man as new human fossils were discovered through the first half of the twentieth century. It was this discomfort that prompted the re-examination of the Piltdown fossils in the 1950s, studies that led to the exposure.

The creationists want us to believe that evolution is not a fact, but “just a theory”. They want us to believe that, even today, there are two groups of scientist: the ones who believe in evolution (“the Darwinists”) and the ones who don’t. They want us to believe that there is a vigorous debate going on at the highest scientific levels as to whether evolution happens or not.

The truth is, evolution is reality. The only people who don’t understand that are arguing a position based on a literal belief in the Genesis origin story. It’s not a scientific debate. Real scientific debate since 1870 has not been about the reality of evolution, but rather its mechanisms: how does it work?

But what about the famous letter from 850 scientists who claim to be “sceptical” that natural selection (i.e., evolution) is responsible for the diversity of life on earth. The problem with that letter is that the vast majority of its signatories are workers in fields that have nothing to do with evolution: they are mechanical engineers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, medical doctors and so on. Their opinions mean nothing in this debate because they are uninformed. The number of astronomers, biologists, anthropologists, palaeontologists, zoologists, geologists, geneticists, and so on – people whose very jobs put them face to face with the immense age of the earth -- on this list is surprisingly small. Compare this number to the number of experts in these fields who did not sign the letter, and it’s pretty clear there really is no debate.

So what about the rest of us? What should we believe about evolution? The creationist articles targeting evolution include a heap of complex and authoritative-sounding arguments and evidence. I am not a qualified expert; what should I make of it all?

For me, it comes down to who is making the claims. In matters of science, I’ll take my cues from the real professional workers in the field, not the self-taught “experts.” Would I follow the advice of my auto mechanic about the pain in my leg, or would I seek a qualified physician? Surely it makes sense that the collective opinion about evolution of 99.9% of the world’s experts in related fields must be correct.

And they have concluded – based on evidence and logic, not on faith and religion – that evolution is a fact of the universe, that one can no more question the reality of evolution than one can question the reality of gravity. One might argue about how gravity works, but the phenomenon itself was way beyond debate years ago. For workers in the field, the evidence for evolution is in the rocks, in the heavens, in the oceans, in our own bodies and in every living thing around us.

Meanwhile, the creationists continue to load creaky old Piltdown Man into their cannons and fire away at will, hoping to knock someone somewhere over to their position. On the upside, at least they’ll ensure that Piltdown Man will never be forgotten.

More close shaves from Occam's razor in future blogs.

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.

1 http://www.americanthinker.com/2005/08/the_case_against_darwin.html

2 http://www.darwinthenandnow.com/2012/07/piltdown-man-hoodwink-origins/

3 http://www.darwinthenandnow.com/2012/07/piltdown-man-hoodwink-origins/

4 http://creationwiki.org/Piltdown_Man

5 See http://www.americanthinker.com/2012/12/the_piltdown_warning.html for a typical example.

28 December 2012

On Location for The Link

In the course of writing my historical thriller, The Link, my grandiose plans soon birthed  a number of roadblocks that threatened to detour the project. One of these was the locations. As soon as I determined that my story would be centred around the events leading up to the announcement of the Piltdown Man finds in 1912, the locations pretty much decided themselves: the story would be set in London (the home of the natural History Museum) and Lewes (the Sussex home of Charles Dawson who featured prominently in the affair.)

As I dove into the the plot, it became pretty clear that the settings were also going to be core elements in the story. I couldn’t simply say “McKay ran down a street”; I would need to be clear what street. In Lewes the Castle had to loom over all the action and in London the Natural History Museum would be virtually a character in the story. I had to convey a real sense of place and atmosphere. 

I couldn’t justify the cost of a trip from Sydney, so I started collecting contemporary maps and photographs. For a couple of years I was resigned to the reality that, distance and money being what they were, I would have to live with photos, maps and my meagre imagination as the sources for the places in The Link.

Toward the end of 2008 the Baker Street Irregulars, that venerable New-York-based Sherlock Holmes society, announced that it would be launching my Australia and Sherlock Holmes at its annual Sherlockian celebrations the following January. My co-editor on that book, Bill Barnes, and I started talking about how great it would be to actually be there for the launch. Before you could say “The red-headed league is dissolved,” we had agreed to make the trip. And as long as I was going that far, why not continue around the world, stopping at the Sherlock Holmes Society of London’s annual dinner? And then . . . Well, you can see where I’m going with this.

So it was that on Friday, January 16 2009, I climbed the broad steps of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road in South Kensington and stepped inside London’s venerable house of nature. The bogus Piltdown fossils lay in a cabinet somewhere in the building and it was important for me to acquaint myself with them, but just as important was my need to soak up the atmosphere and details of the museum itself.

Humans in any era have a remarkable capacity for building structures of surpassing ugliness, monuments to misguided vision that the following generation just can’t wait to swing a wrecking ball at. The Natural History Museum is not one of these. It is, in fact, a brilliant example of a purpose-built building, a place supremely fitted for its job. Opened in 1881,  it is a temple to the natural world.
The building’s two imposing wings converge on a pair of square spired towers that flank an expansive arched public entranceway. The exterior stone is faced with terracotta and cobalt-blue tiles. Inside the doors you pass immediately into the great hall, a vast chamber 170 feet (52m) long with a high vaulted ceiling. The huge space is largely empty except for a cast of a full-sized 80-foot long (24m) dinosaur skeleton - a diplodocus. Affectionately known as Dippy, it was a gift of the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1905 and has presided over the great hall ever since. The only other bit of ornamentation is a white marble statue of Charles Darwin himself, gazing benevolently over the proceedings from his seat on the far landing.

The great hall in the Natural History Museum.
Darwin's statue resides at the far end on the landing.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this building is its ornamentation. Terracotta animals, birds, fishes and plants are scattered liberally over the interior and exterior surfaces. Ivy snakes up columns, monkeys gaze wickedly down from cornices, fleet-footed little dinosaurs sprint along the walls. Even the ceiling panels bear painted elements of nature, both extant and extinct.

My host was Robert Kruszynski, a curator in anthropology at the museum. He led me to his office in the bowels of the building where he presented me with a stack of cardboard boxes. After a quick tour of the contents, he left me alone with the sacred artifacts. “Take as much time as you need,” he said affably. And I did. I describe the various Piltdown pieces in The Link and I’ll wax poetic about my hands-on experience with them in a future blog.
One of the NHM's many
terracotta monkeys

I returned to the Museum the following day and haunted its halls and galleries, trying to picture what it would have been like in 1912: bowler-hatted men in starched collars rushing by on their Museum business; young mothers with their troops of restless children and long-suffering governesses trying to make the best of a rainy day; eager-eyed students of antiquity hovering over the display cases, notebooks and pencils in hand.

The London Docks in 1882
The Museum would be my main story location in London. For other places, such as the defunct Mark Lane underground station and the London Docks, which had been filled in for development during the 1970s, a visit was impossible. I needed to fall back on my imagination again.

On the Sunday afternoon I followed Stephen McKay’s example and caught the train from Victoria Station – not the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway this time: simply Southern – arriving an hour or so later at Lewes. And like McKay, I trudged up Station Street, turned left at the High Street and checked into the White Hart Hotel.

The White Hart, Lewes High Street (2009)
Based on photographs, Lewes hasn’t changed much since 1912. It is a quiet country town with a population today of about 16,000. Harveys still brews traditional bitter and ales and the White Hart still welcomes guests in accommodations much like what McKay experienced.  

I had already plotted the story by this time, so I knew my locations. I just had to visit them in person.

My first stop, for very good reasons, as you’ll know if you’ve read The Link, was Lewes Castle. Built shortly after the 1066 Norman conquest by one of William of Normandy’s companions, it served the local barons well over the following centuries but fell into disuse and by the end of the 16th century it was already described as a ruin. Today it crouches on the highest point of land in the town and, diminished though it be, it still dominates the area. Only two of the original three towers survive along with the walls connecting them, and those are much broken down. The rest of the walls are almost completely destroyed.

The walled structure encloses the keep, an open circular lawn dominated by a massive lime tree at its centre. I could not wait to climb the winding path up the 50-foot high castle mound and soak up the atmosphere of the keep.

Lewes Castle from the bottom, with the unclimbable path
under construction
But it was not to be. Health and safety regulations and a view to modernisation had mandated that the path be rebuilt, so I was confronted with a “Do Not Enter” sign and a bunch of workmen toiling away at the ruined path. I was informed by the nice folks in neighbouring Barbican House, home of the Sussex Archaeological Society which owns the castle, that for reasons of insurance liability no exceptions could be made, even for an author who has traveled all the way from Australia. Once again I would need to rely on old photographs, in this case a single one.

Lewes Castle keep (early 20th century).
Note the policeman.
I was able, however, to wander up the narrow lane called Castle Gate, past the red-bricked Barbican House and through the Barbican Gate where I could view the castle from the bottom.

Castle Lodge (2009) with Lewes
Castle above.
Up the path a bit, if you peer over the stone wall faced with local flints and topped with rounded bricks, you can spot Castle Lodge, the home in 1912 of the famous Charles Dawson, discoverer of Piltdown Man. In my novel I have described the house in some detail based on historical photos and documents, but I was reluctant to poke my camera – or indeed myself – through the gate out of respect for the owners, for it is still a private home.

In the three pleasant days I spent in Lewes, I managed to check out a number of iconic spots in town and get a sense of the place, including some of its historic public houses.

There was one more disappointment. On a cold, drizzly January afternoon I spent a soggy hour wandering through the quiet churchyard of St John Sub Castro (“under the castle”) Church, peering at ancient gravestones but I failed to find Dawson’s grave. Since I returned home, I managed to locate its photo, taken by more perceptive observers.

St John's churchyard. Charles Dawson is in there somewhere.
St Nicholas Lane, where Parker & McKay encountered some small difficulties
Lewes High Street (2009)
Countryside at the edge of town (2009), where in 1912
a company of vandals launched a furtive night-time raid.
Castle Gate looking toward the Barbican Gate (2009). Castle Lodge just visible to the left.
Barbican House on the right, impenetrable construction barrier on the left.
The lesson of my expedition was clear: there is no substitute for going on location if you’re writing about a place. It gives me new respect for those science fiction writers who make life on Mars or in the 23rd century Earth come alive. 

The Link is published by Loquat Valley Books, 2012. You can pick up a copy here.

17 December 2012

Five Lessons from Piltdown Man

Today is the 100th anniversary of the day that Piltdown Man was announced to the world. It remains a mystery that has not yet been solved a century later.

There were actually two important announcements in the Piltdown affair: one in 1912 trumpeting the great fossil discovery, and one forty-one years later in 1953 when the wheels came off completely.

On December 18 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur geologist, and Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of the Department of Geology at the British Museum, announced the discovery in England of the remains of a new form of primitive human. Nine pieces of a skull and part of a jaw had been unearthed in a gravel pit near Piltdown in Sussex. The skull fragments were decidedly human, though unusually thick; the piece of jaw was in many aspects ape-like but in others quite human. Woodward claimed that this unique combination justified creating a new genus and species and he named it, "in honour of its discoverer, Eoanthropus dawsoni," Dawson’s Dawn Man.

The Piltdown find was particularly exciting to British scientists. It fulfilled the prediction of many Darwinians that primitive man developed an advanced brain first, retaining an ape-like jaw that carried large fighting canines. The first discovery of ancient human remains in Britain, it also provided a major boost to the national ego: the birthplace of Shakespeare and Newton could hardly be without earlier evidence of human cultural advances.

Only the left side of the jaw had been found, with two molar teeth still in place. But was it an ape jaw or a human jaw? The fragment was ape-like in shape and size but the two molars showed significant flat wear, a pattern occurring in humans but never in apes. Key parts of the jaw that would have tagged it as human or simian had been broken off, leaving a great deal of room for interpretation.

Several commentators thought that the pieces came from two individuals: the skull from a human, the jaw from an ape. Others, including Woodward, believed it would be highly unlikely to find the remains of two individuals so close together.

Strong support for Woodward’s position was provided by later finds in the Piltdown area: in 1913 a canine tooth that matched his predictions in size and wear pattern; in 1914, a piece of carved bone; and finally, in 1915, fragments of a second Piltdown Man.

Piltdown Man was not, however, granted a comfortable home in science's world view of our past. For the next thirty years opinion was strongly divided. There were those who defended him as the definitive proto-Englishman. And there were those who maintained that, however unlikely, the skull was human while the jaw came from an ape. As more fossil humans were unearthed around the world and the jigsaw puzzle picture of our pre-history took a more definite shape, the odd collection of bone bits from the Sussex gravels became increasingly hard to fit into our collective understanding. Edwin Ray Lankester, at one time Director of the British Museum (Natural History), brushed the contradictions under the rug: he saw this ape-like, human-like creature as an evolutionary link between apes and men, and hence “the most startling and significant fossil bone that has ever been brought to light.” The American palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, a more skeptical observer, stated flat-out that the skull was very much a modern human one except for being very thick, and the jaw was identical to an ape’s. But he failed to make the obvious deduction that the two did not belong together. He could only conclude that Piltdown race was “a side-branch of the human family.”

In 1953, three British scientists began to ask some new questions about Britain's most famous fossil, applying newly-developed chemical aging tests. Their paper, published by the British Museum, was a bombshell, and not only to a few specialists. "Piltdown Man Forgery", The Times headline of November 21, was typical of the reaction from the world press.

The fossils, the analysis showed, had been artificially stained by a chemical bath to give the appearance of age; some had also been dipped in iron sulphate to impart the rusty colour of long oxidation in an iron-rich environment. The jaw's molars had been filed down to simulate human wear patterns and the separate canine had also been stained and filed. The jaw itself came from an orangutan. The skull, though human, was only a few hundred years old.

The discovery of the forgery touched off the hunt for the forger. Charles Dawson was the first and most popular suspect, yet the next 60 years have seen a steady trickle of papers and books offering new theories. Today the long list of the accused includes prominent scientists, amateur geologists and anthropologists and members of the British Museum staff, though Woodward himself has always been considered above suspicion. The debate is still active, largely because all of the evidence is either circumstantial or hearsay and none of the original principals is alive to tell his story.

I always through that it was weird that the best minds in the world took 40 years to twig to the possibility of fraud. There were a few veiled suggestions along the way that there was something not quite right about Piltdown man, but nobody came right out and shouted “J’accuse!” Forty years.

In my novel The Link, I explore what might have happened if someone had spotted the hoax back in 1912. In my fictional story, the one who identifies the fake is not a professional scientist. There’s a good reason for this. In a more innocent age, scientists were simply not used to their fellow seekers cooking the books. They were used to dealing with mysteries laid out by nature and, as Augustus Parker says in The Link, “Nature does not cheat.” Instead, someone outside of academic circles, someone with a fresh viewpoint, spots the fake.

Apart from the tendency of specialist researchers to miss the more devious possibilities presented by the Piltdown fragments, two World Wars seriously distracted the world of paleontology in the period between 1912 and 1953. Any number of workers in the field – senior as well as junior – were redirected from their studies into wartime activities, and practical branches of science such as cryptology and electronics tended to hog the scientific stage.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that the Piltdown perpetrator got away with it for so long. But why should we care today, in 2012? Surely the exposure was 60 years ago. Science has moved on, bruised but much the wiser.

Well, there are lessons to be taken from the Piltdown episode, lessons that apply not just to academic activities, but to everyday life as well.

1. While closely examining the trees, take a minute to check out the forest.
Scientists were focused on the actual fragments, rather than looking at the bigger picture: the process by which they were produced.

2. Assume the best of humanity and, at the same time, the worst.
The investigators forgot that there was a human factor involved in the Piltdown Man affair: specifically the man who discovered it.

3. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
It’s hard to beat the classics. This Sherlock Holmes truism should be taped to the wall of every scientist’s office. And everyone else’s for that matter.

4. The simple answer is usually the correct one.
This is a simple-English bastardization of Occam’s razor, the principle first stated by the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. What he actually said was "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate," which of course translates to "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily," but I prefer the modern restatement. Osborn’s failure to draw the obvious conclusion about Piltdown from the bare facts is a primary failing to observe the razor. 

5. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Whether it's money from Nairobi or fossils that precisely fit your theory, little alarm bells should be ringing.

Science has generally taken these lessons to heart although, like any endeavour where humans are involved, there are occasional failings.

More close shaves from Occam's razor in future blogs. 

Doug Elliott’s historical thriller The Link is available as a Kindle book from Amazon here.