November 9, 2003


The rise and fall of Piltdown Man, a 20th-century hoax (Guy Gugliotta, November 9, 2003, Washington Post)

As scientific hoaxes go, few have matched it. Sometime early in the 20th century, someone -- it is still unclear who -- "salted" a gravel pit near the town of Piltdown, England, with what were purported to be the 500,000-year-old fossil remains of a human ancestor -- half human, half ape.

The timing couldn't have been better. Darwin's "Origin of Species" was barely 50 years old, the French and Germans had found Neanderthals, and the race was on to discover the storied "missing link" in the evolution from apes to humans.

"In Britain we had some early modern humans, but nothing really old," paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer said in a telephone interview from his office in Britain's Natural History Museum. "There were stone tools, though, so there was almost a national expectation that we should have something."

And suddenly, there it was. Piltdown Man made his appearance in 1912 and held a place of honor in the museum until Nov. 21, 1953, when a new generation of scientists announced that the famous fossil was a fraud. [...]

And why did it take half a century to figure out that Piltdown man was a phony? "The people who believed in it were very powerful," Stringer said, especially Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum's leading geologist at the time of the discovery. "You had to be very cautious about taking after people like this."

Darwinism has been susceptible to such hoaxes--even more damaging, though still believed by most of the general public, is the peppered moth nonsense--for the same reason that any religion is: belief requires more faith than reason to begin with, so the former will always be stronger than the latter.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 9, 2003 9:34 AM

Let's not forget the "Piltdown Woman", aka Margaret Mead. For decades people bought her version of what growing up in Samoa was like -- until it was revealed that the Samoans were deliberately fooling her to the top of her bent.

Posted by: Josh Silverman at November 9, 2003 11:36 AM

Or Kinsey.

Posted by: oj at November 9, 2003 12:06 PM

Piltdown Man didn't offer bogus proof of Darwinism as such, it offered bogus proof that Man evolved from an earlier species. The article also notes that some American scholars were skeptical right from the start -- were the Americans any less committed to evolution?

If it were shown to be true, the peppered moth example wouldn't offer proof of evolution, it would only indicate that natural selection is indeed a natural phenomenon.

Evolution is hardly the only scientific field susceptible to screw-ups; wishful thinking has always been a problem for all science. James Burke's "The Day the Universe Changed" relates the history of N-rays. In 1903 scientists in Nancy, France thought they had discovered N-rays, a new type of radiation. N-rays turned out to be completely non-existant. X-rays, alpha, beta and gamma rays had recently been discovered, so scientists thought that other types of radiation would surely be discovered. Voila, Nancy physicists discovered N-rays, and managed to fool themselves for three years before N-rays were discredited.

Posted by: Peter Caress at November 9, 2003 12:33 PM

OJ -- Yes, both Mead and Kinsey falsified their data. I suppose it's an interesting debater's point as to whether they were more knave than fool. What is important is that their so-called findings are completely worthless. Regrettably, many college campuses still treat their conclusions as if they were Holy Writ.

Posted by: Josh Silverman at November 9, 2003 7:34 PM


Ask the next 5 people you talk to about peppered moths, and 4 will still think they prove Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at November 9, 2003 7:46 PM

A lot of GenY-ers never heard of Pons and Fleichmann. They think Cold Fusion is just a nifty web server.

Almost nobody remembers polywater anymore.

Most engineering students are required to take history-of-errors course (e.g., Tacoma Bridge collapse). It is a pity that colleges do not require a course on the history of scientific blunders for science students.

Posted by: Gideon at November 9, 2003 11:09 PM

What the hell is this Dawinism we keep hearing about? Is it similar to Creationism, the belief that a giant invisable man who lives in the sky made the world in six days with magic?

Is it even MORE plausible than that? I need to hear more about it!

Posted by: Amos at November 9, 2003 11:52 PM

Perhaps just a coincidence, but wasn't 1912 (+/- 10 years)the time when 'serious' scholars (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) believed the photos of 'fairies' taken by adolescent girls?

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Posted by: F.A. Jacobsen at November 10, 2003 2:45 AM

The peppered moth experiment is still believed by most of the public because it was taught in High School biology classes, and never publicly refuted.

Faith and reason have nothing to do with it.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 10, 2003 7:28 AM


It's your own version of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes:

Darwinism in a flutter: Did a moth show evolution in action? Peter D Smith searches for answers in Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy & the Peppered Moth by Judith Hooper (Peter D Smith, May 11, 2002, The Guardian)

In the 1970s, the American lepidopterist Ted Sargent highlighted serious problems with Kettlewell's experiment. But no one wanted to know: his research was ignored by the scientific community and his career stymied. The peppered moth experiment was "sacred"; critics were "demonised", their views dismissed as "heresy". But the evidence grew and in 1998 a prominent biologist, reviewing it in Nature , said his shock at the extent of the doubts was like discovering as a child "that it was my father and not Santa who brought the presents on Christmas eve".

Like any good journalist, Hooper knows a scandal when she sees one. "The unspoken possibility of fraud hangs in the air," she says, noting that Kettlewell's field notes have conveniently disappeared. According to Sargent, one thing is certain: the famous photos of moths on tree trunks were faked, using dead moths and a log. In the wild, peppered moths don't hang around on exposed tree trunks long enough to be eaten, preferring the shady undersides of branches. And then there's the nagging question of whether birds actually eat moths on tree trunks. Several experts claim that it does not happen in the wild. By placing moths on the tree trunks, Kettle-well was effectively laying out a smorgasbord for the watching birds, who soon learned when it was feeding time. This was not natural but unnatural selection.

The question Hooper sets out to answer is why such a shoddy piece of scientific research was so readily accepted by the scientific community and allowed to attain iconic status in evolutionary biology. Her answer: because scientists wanted to believe it. Once it had been cited enough times, it became an irrefutable article of faith.

Posted by: oj at November 10, 2003 8:09 AM

Fitting that Piltdown is one of the biggest
scientific hoaxes of all time, since it is the
lack of missing links that continue to erode
the credibility of evolutionary theory.

I continue to hold that evolution may be plausible
but its proponents have done little to strengthen
its foundation.

Posted by: J.H. at November 10, 2003 9:53 AM


Perhaps I didn't make my point sufficiently clear.

As it apparently turns out, the observations had no value whatsoever.

But all those people never got untaught--the last they ever heard or thought of the subject, that's the way it was.

So it is a matter of teaching, not faith or reason.

I rather expect most people, when faced with the inadequacies of the Peppered Moth observations simply put them in the bin of failed experiments, because they failed utterly to say anything one way or the other about the theory in question.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 10, 2003 2:06 PM

But everyone knows them precisely because they are dishonestly taught as the "viola" moment when we saw Darwinism in action. Kind of like a Madonna statue weeping.

Posted by: oj at November 10, 2003 3:07 PM


If those observations are still taught, then it is dishonest.

If they aren't--which I strongly suspect is the case--then it sounds like the typical self correcting nature of rational inquiry.

Unlike some other belief systems I can think of.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 10, 2003 9:25 PM

Gee whiz, Jeff. So the early creeds, formulated in response to known theological errors, are not examples of "self-correcting rational inquiry"?

I suppose you'll claim they were only wagon-circling and kneejerk preservation of orthodoxy. AS IF the faith of rationalist materialism doesn't do the same thing. Posh.

Posted by: Judd at November 10, 2003 10:07 PM

Piltdown refutes the assertion -- made here first by Tom C. and repeated many times since -- that Darwinism is unfalsifiable.

If that were so, then the Piltdown fossils would still be an open question.

When they were produced, the supply of early human fossils was tiny and only relative, not absolute, dating was available. Such a situation allowed for many, many hypotheses, and it was not yet possible to start eliminating many of them.

(Earlier, at the time of Neandertal, the field was even more wide open and it was a matter of dispute whether human fossils were even old. By the time of Dawson, that notion was no longer tenable.)

Hrdlicka was, it turned out, right about Piltdown, but he could not demonstrate it then.

As more evidence came in, fewer and fewer coherent reconstructions remained sensible, and Piltdown was found out by evidence, not by invoking Big Spooks.

If Creationism were a science, then Piltdown would still be an open question, because in Creationism no evidence counts for anything.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 11, 2003 2:42 AM

The point being that the Piltdown and peppered moth hoaxes , etc., cause no one to question their Darwinian faith. Thus is Darwinism unfalsifiable even though the evidence is false.

Posted by: oj at November 11, 2003 8:07 AM


You seem to have utterly no appreciation for experimental evidence.

That the peppered moth thing was sloppily done, or a hoax, or whatever, has absolutely nothing to do with whether Evolutionary theory is falsifiable.

Evolutionary Theory never rested on Peppered Moths.

The Peppered Moth observations had no evidentiary consequence, either for or against evolutionary theory. The evidence wasn't false, it was worthless. Therefore, those observations could give no basis for anyone to question the credence of anything, Creationism or Evolution.

So your assertion is rididulous on its face, and could only be true if the PM observations contradicted Evolutionary Theory. Which, sadly for you, they didn't.

Until you take these concepts on board, discussing evolution here has all the benefit discussing astronomy with an astrologist.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 11, 2003 12:22 PM


I know--I was proceeding from Harry's false presentation of what falsifiability means. Darwinism is unfalsifiable in the sense that anyt change whatsoever in any species that exists or has ever existed must be understood to be driven by survival. Changes that seem to majke sense or changes that fail must be seen not to be aids to survival. Meanwhile, it is posited that even though kazillions of such changes must have occurred in order to bring us from the ameoba to the Man, there is no likelihood of our ever observing such a change because they happen over such immensely long periods of time. Since passive observation will never produce evidence, we are left with experimentation, in which humans force change in order to demonstrate that such change occurs naturally not as the result of experimentation by sentient beings or Being. In its entirety then the theory explains both A and the opposite of A, suggests that A will never be seen and avers that the production of A would prove that A need not be produced. Such a theory is obviously incapable of being disproven because it is entirely self-contained, like any good religion.

Posted by: OJ at November 11, 2003 1:21 PM


Congratulations. You have in one fell swoop denied the ability to test competing theories simply because the phenomena they attempt to explain is unobservable over time spans as short as history.

In so doing you completely disregard all the natural laboratories out there. Continental drift was discovered well after Darwin proposed evolution. The fossil evidence is precisely what evolutionary theory would predict, in every place plate margins allow access to fossil evidence.

Had some locations responded differently, or not at all, then Evolutionary Theory would take a beating--meaning evolution is in fact falsifiable.

But the naturally occurring experiments every time verify the theory.

Funny, that sort of evidence doesn't show up here.

Why not?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 11, 2003 7:37 PM

Ah, but the question isn't evolution--it's Darwinism and natural selection producing speciation.

Posted by: oj at November 11, 2003 7:51 PM

Ah, but the question is evolution.

Darwinism, in the sense you keep using it as a pejorative about the Theory of Evolution, started on its way out when Watson and Crick discovered DNA.

So your continued prattling on about "Darwinism" is nothing more than flogging a long dead horse.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 12, 2003 7:40 AM


Posted by: OJ at November 12, 2003 7:43 AM

As usual, the critics are false. The peppered moth observations were never presented to "prove" evolution. Only to show how natural selection affects survival.

If you cannot present the statement accurately, there is no point is analyzing your exceptions to it.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 12, 2003 4:28 PM


That critics of Evolutionary Theory put so much emphasis on Peppered Moths, despite its evidentiary worthlessness, says a lot.

And what it says isn't good.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 12, 2003 5:01 PM


Ask the next ten people you see what evidence they learned proved Darwinism in their HS biology class.

Posted by: oj at November 12, 2003 6:15 PM


I remember clearly what I learned in HS, and it completely substantiates Harry's point--natural selection affects the characteristics of a population.

I can't understand your quibbling. Taken as stipulated the Peppered Moth observations are worthless, making them irrelevant.

Finch beaks in the Galapagos demonstrate precisely the same point, the validity of which you have previously acknowledged.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 13, 2003 7:55 AM