An article in today's Observer prompted me to write this. This article goes into some detail about how the 'discovery' came to be made and who the likely hoaxer(s) was(were).
Piltdown's acceptance was probably more to do with jingoistic patriotism than with science but it needs to be seen in the context of the then fairly recent history of evolutionary theory, the way it had been received by the Anglican Church and how it fitted into English political life.
Contrary to what one would expect, the history of Bible literalism is a fairly recent American phenomenon; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Bible was accepted by most Anglican theologians as allegorical. Just as Jesus had used stories or parables to illustrate his points, so too had the early prophets. The creation story in particular was allegorical and few Anglican theologians seriously doubted that evolution was the way God had really created humans.
Another fallacy, and fundamental misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, was the belief that there was an aim to evolution. Clearly, if God had created evolution, He had done so for a purpose. Obviously, His intention was to put European humans at the apex, with other races occupying inferior positions lower down the 'ladder or evolution'. This was self-evidently so, because this had been the result. How could it be otherwise?
This fundamental error was of course encouraged by the authorities of the time, with the enthusiastic endorsement of the Church of England, because it justified the Empire and placed Englishmen at the pinnacle. Just what the ruling classes required of science. What could be more convincing that a solid scientific theory underpinning the whole edifice?
|Guernica; Pablo Picasso.|
Painted in protest at the destruction of the Basque town by German aircraft in support of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, April 26, 1937
So, the notion that God had evolved humans here in rural southern England seemed perfectly natural and self-evident, and the vindication of everything a true Englishman held most dear. Humans were God's special creation; evolution was the way he had done it and of course, England was the place He had chosen to do it. God was in his Heaven and all was well with the world. Rule Britannia!
But gradually, as discoveries were made from other parts of the world - from Asia and Africa in particular - and these were fitted into the emerging picture of human evolution, not from a monkey, as Piltdown seemed to show, but from a common ancestor with the other great apes, so Piltdown became more and more anomalous. Far from 'proving' human evolution from monkeys in southern England, Piltdown was out of place; a nuisance to be explained away, and, as some bold palaeoanthopologists like Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Joseph Weiner and Kenneth Oakley thought, an outright forgery.
Professor Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark was a friend of mine whom I first met in about 1960. He told me that he and his team in Oxford were sure that Piltdown MUST be a forgery. It was simply too far out of place to be genuine. No amount of stretching the known facts could accommodate it. The prediction that Piltdown MUST be a forgery was thus a falsifiable prediction of evolutionary theory.
Sir Wilfrid told me that as they started to drill into the skull, using a small dental drill, they saw a wisp of smoke and smelled burning bone and knew then, within a few seconds of beginning their examination, that they had a forgery and that their prediction had been vindicated. Subsequent microscopic examination revealed the marks of the forger all over it, including the teeth with file marks.
So, the debunking of Piltdown Man, far from being an embarrassment to science, is a triumph for it and for the theory of evolution. The Theory of Evolution had made a falsifiable prediction and had been entirely vindicated. Science constantly re-examines and re-assess its theories, discovers it's mistakes and moves on to greater things. Even an elaborate hoax having the support of the church and political establishment will eventually be exposed.
And the debunking of Piltdown also dealt a blow to the church-endorsed, and religiously inspired notion of human supremacy and of European racial superiority. The obscenity of social 'Darwinism' is of course a religiously inspired forgery of which the Anglican and Catholic churches in particular and Christianity in general should be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed. No wonder they like now to pretend that Piltdown was, and continues to be, an embarrassment for science.
When will we see them reviewing their dogmas, reassessing them and correcting their mistakes? When will we see the Anglican and Catholic churches apologise for their misrepresentation of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the obscene dogma of white racial supremacy to which it led and which is still promulgated in some parts of the world?