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Re: Beautifully horrible



Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. wrote:

> At 10:00 AM 7/22/98 -0700, Randy King wrote:
> >This may not be quite what was intended, but my vote for the
> >most horrible skull would be Piltdown man.  There is nothing
> >like this kind of fraud to give science a black eye.  
> 
> What was so horrible about it?  Certain claims to the contrary
> notwithstanding, it was not universally accepted as a valid taxon: the skull
> was suspected as being a chimera by some workers from the start.  More
> importantly, the discovery of the Recent age of the specimen was a triumph
> for modern (for 1950s) techniques of geochemical dating, and thus science at
> is best (as a method of testing hypotheses of the physical world)


It is true that many scientists had their doubts with Piltdown and considered 
it an 
amalgamate of a human skull and an ape's jaw (Marcellin Boule, Alesh Hrdlicka, 
Gerrit Miller). No-one, however, initially mentioned it as a fake in 
publication 
(William Gregory raised the possibility only to reject it out of hand as 
slanderous 
gossip). Furthermore, to present the case as a triumph for the self-correcting 
process of science is a bit too complacent for my taste. The hoax could have 
been 
exposed much earlier had some obvious tests been performed (a test for organic 
matter -readily available to scientists of the day - would have revealed the 
recent 
age of the mandible, whereas microscopic research might have revealed the crude 
filing of the molars). No-one criticised the arbitrary methods of testing for a 
long 
time. Finally, serious reports that something was amiss with the dating and 
composition of the Piltdown specimens (appearing as early as 1925) were usually 
simply ignored, because they fitted in with accepted theories of human origins 
(although progressively less so).
All in all, I think Piltdown is also an example of the less enviable dangers 
connected 
with scientific research: the willingness to bow to authority and accepted 
theory, and 
the (English) eagerness to posess an ancient ancestor, deceived a large portion 
of 
the anthropological community for over fourty years.

Ilja Nieuwland