The Failure of Science (?)

Piltdown Man, The Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World's Greatest Archaeological Hoax by Miles Russell. Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus, 2003. $30.00 paper: 288 pp; numerous black & white photographs and drawings; appendices, notes, bibliography and index.

The most famous scientific hoax of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time in the realm of paleoanthropology, is that of Eoanthropous dawsoni. More popularly known as Piltdown Man, E. dawsoni was the fortuitous discovery of Charles Dawson FGS, FSA. Dawson announced the discovery to the world in 1912 to much acclaim. Piltdown Man conveniently brought England to the forefront at a time when the best finds of prehistoric fossil humans were to be found in France and Germany. With nationalistic pride, Dawson had presented the partial remains of a skull and jaw as the true missing link in human evolution. Not coincidentally, these events brought more welcome fame and notoriety to Dawson himself.

All was not well and perfect with E. dawsoni however. This was the perfect missing link - apparently primitive human skull with an ape-like jaw found in-situ along with remains of prehistoric animals and primitive artifacts. Leading scientists of the time were divided on the implications of this new human fossil and some even doubted its authenticity. The skull fragment looked human and was like other European fossil humans. It was missing the face entirely. The jaw on the other hand was ape-like in morphology and missing key diagnostic features that may have settled the disputes - the articulation with the skull was gone as were the canine teeth.

Charles Dawson died prematurely in 1916 while Piltdown Man was still accepted by many as a legitimate fossil human ancestor. The doubters continued to question and study the fossils until 1953 when Joseph Weiner, Kenneth Oakley and Wilfred Le Gros Clark definitively proved that the fossils were outright fakes. In the end, modern 1953 technology unmasked the famous missing link initially produced with early 1900's methods.

Over 50 years have passed since the fakery was discovered and much research has been done and many books written about the fraud. The most important issue has always been "who did it and why?" Russell takes a hard look at Charles Dawson in Piltdown Man. Dawson has not been the only suspect in this case over the years. Early and staunch supporters of the authenticity of Piltdown were important and famous scientists of the time. Arthur Smith Woodward believed so strongly that he continued to investigate the Piltdown site throughout his career despite finding no more supporting evidence even into the 1940's.

Russell looks at Piltdown not as a unique one-off trick but as the culmination of a series of hoaxes perpetrated by Charles Dawson throughout his career. When I first introduced Dawson's name in this review it was followed by the initials FGS and FSA. FGS is the honorary title of Fellow of the Geological Society while FSA is another honorary title of Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Herein, as Russell proposes, is Dawson's motivation. Dawson was an amateur antiquarian, geologist, and scientist. By profession he was a lawyer. Recognition by professional scientists with the awarding of these honorary titles was a huge motivator for Dawson. Piltdown, had it been more widely accepted, would have gained Dawson the most prestigious title of FRS, Fellow of the Royal Society. This one eluded him. In retrospect, through Russell's analysis, the earlier titles of FGS and FSA may not have been gotten by honest labors either.

The mid section of Piltdown Man presents an analysis of Dawson's scientific discoveries prior to Piltdown. Many of these are archaeological in nature and others are geological or paleontological. In each case, Russell provides the detail surrounding the discovery and Dawson's interpretation. Questions brought by contemporary and modern scholars is presented. Russell provides conclusions at the end of each section and is equitable about giving Dawson benefit of the doubt where at all possible. More often than not, many of the cases presented point to opportunity and motive (for recognition) for perpetrating a hoax. Far too many discoveries have questionable provenance. In Dawson's time it was not uncommon for gentlemen scientists to alert the common working man that they were interested in certain kinds of objects should they be found. It would not have been much of a stretch for a poor laborer to "find" a valuable artifact in a significant location and receive a handsome monetary reward for his trouble. In the case of some of Dawson's antiquities it is even suggested that some antique dealers may have benefitted from passing on items "previously unknown" from certain early ages in England. In a number of cases concerning Dawson's publications it appears that he plagiarized earlier works of others. Russell gives Dawson a pass on plagiarism stating that the works were cases of "na´ve referencing."

The final third of Piltdown Man covers the events, people and chronology of the Piltdown hoax in detail. Potential suspects are discussed and dismissed throughout. In hindsight, everything about the Piltdown fossil was suspicious beginning with the timing of the discovery. Like many of the earlier important discoveries of Dawson, the announcement was not made until years after the initial find. The skull was supposedly found by a laborer digging gravel near Piltdown. The jaw was found later in the same gravels by Dawson himself. Written accounts by Dawson of when and how various pieces of the skull were found are not consistent. Many fragments were found in gravel piles thrown out by the laborers so were not in-situ. Seeding the site with artifacts and fossils would have been all too easy. There were too many fortuitous discoveries just when they were needed to quell skepticism - the missing canine tooth and various "Piltdown" fossil fragments from other nearby sites are some examples.

Charles Dawson had a large collection of artifacts and geological specimens. Russell suggests that this collection was the probable source for not only the Piltdown remains but also some of the dubious items of Dawson's earlier "discoveries."

One of the fascinating areas of Piltdown Man is that discussing the methods used in the hoax and what made it so hard to expose in the early 20th century. The skull was unusually thick like those of fossil men being found in Europe but it now appears to be a modern skull that happens to be extra thick. Russell points out that Dawson would have had access to such skulls from an earlier excavation by others. The jaw came from a modern orangutan and the teeth had been crudely filed to mate with the upper human molars in the skull. The jaw articulation had been intentionally broken off so that the mis-match could not be detected. Russell also tells of Dawson's earlier experiments in dying bones which is what was done to make the Piltdown fossils appear old.

The evidence seems overwhelming that Dawson acted alone in the Piltdown hoax. Russell's Piltdown Man is the best account of this famous breach of science that I have read. It is thorough and goes beyond mere speculation by presenting Dawson as a habitual hoaxer with an ego for recognition.

Readability - High school and up.

On the Upside - Fascinating detective work. Another look at the way science works towards the truth one step at a time.

On the Downside - Some might find the discussions of Dawson's early discoveries not as exciting to read.

Overall Rating - Excellent. Another good history lesson along with the story of a famous scientific fraud.

Postscript: Piltdown is by far the most famous scientific fraud in the area of human evolution and as such it has been used by Creationists to point to the weakness of science: "See, science doesn't know everything, scientists can be easily fooled, therefore nothing should be believed about evolution because scientists may be wrong again". Once again, Creationists have missed the entire point (or are they intentionally misleading the scientifically uninformed?). Rather than a showcase of the failures of science, the Piltdown hoax is a triumph of science. Even at the first presentation of the Piltdown fossil, some of the scientists of the day were skeptical of the specimens. Many of these men and those following up through 1953 continued to question the validity. Modern chemical dating methods and tooth wear analysis - both advances in methods and technology since 1912 - helped expose the fraud. This is precisely the way science works. Scientific "facts" are not dogmatic. They are always subject to change with new evidence.

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