January 18, 2005


The Boldest Hoax (Nova, January 11, 2005, PBS)

RICHARD MILNER: Piltdown Man was a really big deal in 1912, because it was a time when very little was known of human fossil remains that were very early, and it was perceived to be the missing link, the fossil that connected humans with apes. It established our place in nature. It was the proof of Darwin's theory.

SIR ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD (Geologist, Dramatization): Another interesting find is this ancient jawbone.

MILES RUSSELL: In 1912, Charles Dawson gives British paleontologists, British anthropologists exactly what they want: that the earliest human, the missing link between apes and modern humans is, is not African, he's not German, he's not French, he's British, and he comes from the home counties.

NARRATOR: Of all the places in the world where mankind could be born, he had chosen England.

MILES RUSSELL: It was made world news. In America, in Africa, in Australia, all the way across Europe, this small village of Piltdown became the most famous place on earth.

NARRATOR: Journalists fed the public's appetite for images of this amazing creature. Soon Piltdown Man was etched in their minds as the missing link.

SIR ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD (Dramatization): In recognition of the man responsible for this extraordinary find, I'm delighted to announce that we are to name this creature Eoanthropus dawsoni.

NARRATOR: Piltdown Man was the jewel in the Natural History Museum's crown, but some scientists wondered if this oddly matched jawbone and skull were really from the same creature.

CHRIS STRINGER (Natural History Museum, London): Even at the time, there was a lot of doubt amongst the experts about how human-like or ape-like this skull was. And, of course, what was frustrating was on the jaw itself this place of articulation was broken off. So there was no way that you could show whether this jawbone really fitted in this part of the skull.

NARRATOR: Woodward believed the jaw did belong with the skull and that it showed exactly the mix of features to be expected in a missing link. But a crucial piece was absent, the canine tooth.

Back at the dig, Dawson and Woodward invited another amateur archaeologist, a French philosopher and priest named Teilhard de Chardin. He would later become famous for his attempts to marry the science of human evolution with the creation doctrine of the Church.

Hopeless as it might seem to find a single tooth amongst tons of gravel, luck appeared to be on their side.

CHRIS STRINGER: Remarkably, a year later, a canine tooth was found at Piltdown and it more or less matched exactly Smith, Woodward and Dawson's predictions about the size of the canine.

NARRATOR: It was an incredible find. The canine helped silence doubters who had questioned Woodward's reconstruction of the skull. But their luck didn't end there. To the amazement of the scientific world, in 1917 Woodward announced the discovery of a second Piltdown Man.

SIR ARTHUR SMITH WOODWARD (Dramatization): ...a skull and a tooth.

NARRATOR: Just a few miles from the original dig, Dawson had unearthed another skull and tooth. This was Piltdown Man Two.

CHRIS STRINGER: Certainly, for some people this was the clincher, that here, two miles away, at another site, the same antiquity, the same fossilization. Nature couldn't play a trick like that twice. This had to make Piltdown genuine.

NARRATOR: With two family members and the backing of the Natural History Museum, Piltdown Man became the undisputed earliest human ancestor. Newspapers lapped up the story, and soon films appeared with dramatic interpretations of the lives of these early ape men. Winston Churchill even described these earliest Englishmen as the lords of creation.

For more than 40 years, Dawson's "Dawn Man" reigned supreme. But then, in 1953, came a sensational announcement: Piltdown Man was a fake. The world had been deceived.

RICHARD MILNER: The scientific world was in an uproar; the public was scandalized. Were monkeys being made out of the scientists? It even came up in parliament.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: Britain's august Natural History Museum is all adither over a scandal concerning the Piltdown Man. One of the most famous fossil skulls in the world is declared to be, in part, a hoax. Forty years ago...

CHRIS STRINGER: Feelings were partly embarrassment on behalf of British science that, in particular, British scientists had been fooled by this find for so long, you know, whilst people in other countries had gradually become doubtful about Piltdown, and some of them had seriously questioned his, his authenticity. British scientists had tended to be, and remained, rather uncritical of Piltdown.

AMERICAN NEWSREEL: It was presumed to date back half a million years. Today comes the shocking news that this is skullduggery.

MILES RUSSELL: When Piltdown was first revealed as a hoax, it was horrifically embarrassing. It was probably more embarrassing by people who'd built aspects of their career looking at it, analyzing it and accepting it as being genuine.

It's hilarious to read a history of Darwinism and see how completely it depended for its acceptance on a series of scientific frauds--Piltdown Man, Haeckel's embryos, the peppered moth, etc.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 18, 2005 10:30 AM

Actually, it didn't, and Haeckel's proposition was rejected within a few years.

So was Piltdown, except by one paleoanthropologist and the newspaper reporters.

The peppered moth work turned out to be true.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 18, 2005 3:34 PM

It's hilarious to read a history of Darwinism and see how completely it depended for its acceptance on a series of scientific frauds ...

That statement requires willful ignorance of Evolutionary theory.

Is it time to start discussing the bumper crop of religious frauds?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at January 19, 2005 8:05 AM


Absolutely. The comparison is exact, except that frauds are all Darwinism has to offer.

Posted by: oj at January 19, 2005 9:00 AM

Isn't it interesting how science finds it easier to deal with frauds than CBS?

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at January 19, 2005 1:05 PM