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RE: More Piltdown, Osborn & Tyrannosaurus (was Re: Beautifully horrible)
Just in case there's someone in the English speaking world who's missed it,
"The Neandertals" by Trinkaus and Shipman (Alfred A Knopf, 1993) addresses
the question of the coloring of scientific results by attitudes (read
prejudices), politics, and personalities. It also is a fascinating
introduction to the study of pre-man.
BTW, there's no "h" in Neandertals as printed in the book and in the title.
Trinkaus and Shipman devote half a page (276) to explaining why they don't
use the "h"; namely that German and French writers don't use it, only
English speakers do, and after all, the valley of the new man (Neo - Ander
- Tal) is in Germany. I believe the pendulum has swung back since their
book was published? It's been five or six years...
T&S go into detail about the history of Piltdown man (Eoanthropus, as was).
According to T&S, (p.308), those who clung to belief in Piltdown were
espousing a theory called "pre-Sapiens," in which man certainly evolved
from (an extremely ancient) ancestor "...that long predated (and was well
removed from) either the pre-Neandertals or their descendants, the brutish
Neandertals, both of which were destined for extinction." T&S go on to
document that even the unmasking of the Piltdown fraud did not dissuade the
proponents of the pre-Sapiens theory, who simply looked around for other
evidence to support their theory.
The relevance of all this to this list is that even paleontologists are not
immune to emotional pressures. Even with the best will our emotions, which
set our goals, override our rationality.
IMO, anyone involved in science and the give-and-take of scientific debate
should read this book. Of course, present company can be excepted - can't
From: Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. [SMTP:email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, July 23, 1998 09:34 AM
To: William Gibson Parker
Subject: More Piltdown, Osborn & Tyrannosaurus (was Re: Beautifully
As Ilja Nieuwland and others have indicated, although many authors
questioned the validty of _Eoanthropus_ (either as a new taxon or a single
taxon), no one seriously questioned their fossil nature. If I gave that
impression, my mistake. However, I mainly wanted to point out that
the claims of anti-evolutionists, or anti-scientists in general), Piltdown
was not universally accepted as being a significant fossil by
However, it WAS considered significant by some significant workers. In
cases, these were people in charge of museums, or museum displays, or
textbooks, or encyclopedia articles. Because so much of the popular
literature out there only goes back to these secondary literature sources,
it sometimes gives the public the idea that the particular hypothesis
portrayed is the only one advanced in the scientific community. For a
dinosaurian case in point:
At 09:15 PM 7/22/98 -0700, William Gibson Parker wrote:
>He [Henry Fairfield Osborn of the AMNH]
>seems to have supported the fossil's authenticity, and
>few people in his time would dare to cross him. This was apparent in the
>mounting of the Brontosaurus skull fiasco.
As I tell my students, Osborn was THE Big Man in Vert Paleo for the early
decades of the century, and his legacy lasted long after he did. A few
dinosaur workers had pointed out the likely diplodocid nature of the
_Apatosaurus_/_Brontosaurus_ material, but HFO was responsible for the
public portrayal of this dinosaur at the AMNH.
As I have written before, HFO is also responsible for the idea of
tyrannosaurs as "super carnosaurs". This was ultimately supported by
Osborn's belief in aristogenesis (that evolution was not driven by natural
selection, but by an inborn force), and that _T. rex_ was the last in a
line of ever bigger theropods with ever shorter arms and every bigger
Even after aristogenesis, and other orthogenetic theories, were abandoned,
this idea held on. In fact, certain prominent paleornithologists use this
"trend" towards shorter arms in theropods to demonstrate that birds cannot
be dinosaur descendants! (By the same token, I can demonstrate that birds
are trending towards reduced forelimbs: after all, kiwis exist...).
Contemporaries of Osborn, including Friedrich von Huene (whose scientific
and international reputation was comparable to Osborn's) identified many
features of tyrannosaurids which indicated that they weren't particularly
close to allosaurs or ceratosaurs, but rather to ornithomimids,
_Ornitholestes_, and _Dromaeosaurus_. This ideas were presented in the
scientific literature. However, they didn't seem to have wound up on
displays or popular books on paleontology. It is these latter items which
seem to have greater influence on general knowledge of dinosaurs and so on.
(Today, of course, we can add TV documentaries and the Internet...).
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Vertebrate Paleontologist Webpage: http://www.geol.umd.edu
Dept. of Geology Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
University of Maryland Phone:301-405-4084
College Park, MD 20742 Fax: 301-314-9661