Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Piltdown: Giving the Scientists What They Wanted

When I was a boy I had an old encyclopaedia with an illustration of the reconstructed Piltdown Man skull in it, presented as the key 'missing link' in the transition from ape to man. On the centenary of this famous hoax, it's worth recalling that such a version of human evolution was the received scientific wisdom for four decades (though, to be fair, there were always doubters). It's a classic case of scientists persuading themselves, for scant reason, that X is the case, then seeking out proof that they are right. Many palaeontologists had convinced themselves that the brain led the way in human evolution, so they were looking for a big brain in an otherwise ape-like skull; and the British ones were determined that there must be major finds waiting to be discovered in Britain as they had been on the Continent. Indeed it would be only right and fitting, wouldn't it, if humanity had made its crucial evolutionary breakthrough in England's green and pleasant land, that the first humans were free-born Englishmen. In such a climate of belief, it was no wonder an ingenious hoaxer came along and gave the scientists what they wanted.
Who was the hoaxer? I like the idea that it might have been that man of many parts Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - philosopher, Jesuit priest, palaeontologist, hoaxer? However, Teilhard came to believe that there probably were no 'missing links' to be found, owing to what he charmingly called the 'suppression of the peduncles'. The big breakthroughs in evolution happened, he concluded, rather suddenly, thus appearing in the fossil record fully formed. Piltdown Man, then, was a redundant peduncle.


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