PILTDOWN MAN: THE COST TO SCIENCE - ANNAMARIE MARTIN
As is the case in all of archaeology, fossil remains of early humans are truly a rare discovery, and scientists who are tasked with the reconstruction of our history as a species, are often expected to string together long chains of logic from quite distantly related fossils, and the serious lack of evidence means that the entire process rests tentatively on knifepoint, and can very easily be compromised by the introduction of false /misleading evidence which could derail one of the most branches of science * our own origins (Rincon, 2003).
This happened, with the introduction of a bogus ancestor, Piltdown ‘man’ or Eoanthropus dawsoni; by Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward in December of 1912, so named after the town in Sussex where his remains were
‘discovered’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3264321.stm). The age of Piltdown ‘man’ is estimated to be 500,000 years old, and fits almost exactly with what route science had predicted the development of mankind to take, and was hailed as the ‘missing link’ between humans and apes, and the fact that it was British made its rise to fame quite swift (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3264025.stm).
Many scientists however, remained unconvinced (rightly so) and some even suggested that the jaw and skull were from different animals (later proved to be the case as the jaw belonged to a female orang-utan and the skull was human, both stained to make it appear fossilised) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3264321.stm). Piltdown however was accepted by the general scientific world as genuine, until scientists at Oxford and the British museum used a series of chemical tests, and on 21 November 1953 made public their findings, which revealed it to be a hoax (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3264321.stm).
How you may ask, was such a hoax accepted for so long? Stephen J Gould (1979) suggests there are a number of reasons for Piltdowns’ ready acceptance among English palaeontologists, all which deal with the reduction of the presented anomaly by matching the findings to fit both cultural biases and academic expectations, a reminder to us that science is after all a human pursuit.
The true tragedy of the Piltdown hoax lies not in the fact that for 40 years the scientific fraternity was fooled into believing a hoax, the real cost to science can only be seen in the results of the unveiling of the hoax to a public, already sceptical of biological science (Hooton, 1954). Firstly, the public would not be willing to accept that Piltdown ‘man’ was a very unique and uncommon event. Secondly, the fact that the fraud was honestly revealed by anthropologists, who themselves are evolutionists was inevitably downplayed (by the media), and so hardly anything at that stage could be done to help restore the publics faith in the biological sciences (Hooton, 1954).
Gould, S J (1979) Piltdown revisited. Natural history, March. (downloaded off google scholar on 6.03.06 at 14:30)
Hooton, E A (1954) Comments on the Piltdown Affair. American Anthropologist, New series 56: 287-289
Rincon, P (2003) Fossil fools: Return to Piltdown. BBC news, downloaded from http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3264025.stm
Piltdown man: Timeline of deceit. BBC news downloaded from (http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/3264321.stm).