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.

1 comment:

  1. Very well stated Doug. I am appalled to find that nearly half the people in my adopted country reject the "theory" of evolution. I live among these people.

    I loved your book and I am thrilled that you are working on more Parker novels. I don't know that I've ever seen such high scores on Amazon. Well done!