The Piltdown Man hoax is the perfect story for the anti-evolutionists at Answers in Genesis to hold up as proof that evolution is false and its proponents are dishonest. The story has everything they need: faked fossils, infighting between scientists, and 40 years of overlooking a grave mistake right under everyone’s noses. Answers in Genesis claims that something like this is the all-too-obvious outcome of the baseless and backward worldview—they even like to call it a religion—of evolution. If only the men involved had had the right starting point, the Word of God, this never would have happened.
Answers in Genesis expands upon the points from that single paragraph over the course of several articles. The ones I’m looking at today are:
- A Century of Fraud by Mike Matthews on November 18th, 2003
- The Piltdown Man Fraud by Monty White on November 24th, 2003
- Piltdown Pals by Elizabeth Mitchell, 2012
The Piltdown Man was found in Sussex, England by amateur archeologist Charles Dawson in 1912 and was hailed as the missing link of human evolution until it was revealed in 1953 that it was in fact a human skull and a modified orangutan jaw.
What does Answers in Genesis think?
The first article, A Century of Fraud, gives a good explanation of what perturbs creationists about this fraud so much:
In fact, historical revisionists claim that the Piltdown hoax is evidence of the strength of evolutionary “science” because it is self-correcting—given time, scientists will weed out mistakes and errors. But the real question is: why did it take so long for scientists to discover such an obvious fraud? The obvious answer is that scientists are so blinded by their faith in human [evolution] and “missing links” that they “see” things that just aren’t there.
(Side note: Often on the Answers in Genesis website, their articles will just miss whole words, like “evolution” which was missing in the above quote. The missing words are usually central to the article and are probably SEO keywords, like “evolution,” “God,” and “Christian.” I don’t know what is causing this error, but it’s really weird.)
I don’t know what the self-correcting nature of science has to do with historical revisionism, but it is rich to see that mentioned by an organization that is against the teaching of Critical Race Theory. Just saying.
Overall, I agree with more in this AiG quote than I usually do. They at least acknowledged that scientists correct themselves and weed out mistakes. They also asked why it took scientists so long to discover the Piltdown fraud, and that’s not a bad question. But the biggest problem with all of the Piltdown articles is that they seem to think that the Piltdown fossils were single-handedly holding up the entire theory of evolution. The writers act as though the hoax was created as a way to fabricate evidence of evolution when instead, evolution was already well-established.
The scientists were not “blinded by faith in evolution”
The scientists obviously were blinded by some things, but their “faith in human evolution” was not it. They were mostly blinded in their excitement to have finally found the “missing link” in England, when so far all the amazing Neanderthal and other fossils had been found in France and Germany. (Evolutionary scientists have since accepted that there is not and never will be one single missing link, but at the time that was the way it was viewed.)
An easy way to disprove AiG’s idea that the scientists were blinded by evolution is that this hoax held back evolutionary thought and paleoanthropology for decades.
In 1924, 12 years after Dawson discovered Piltdown Man, Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child, a juvenile Australopithecus africanus skull, in South Africa. The initial reception of this find was bad. Really bad. I won’t go so far as to say that its poor reception was due to everyone comparing it to their beloved Piltdown specimen, but most of the scientists that mocked Dart and the Taung child were Piltdown’s biggest fans.
Dart was publicly humiliated by his fellow scientists so much that he became famous for his foolish assertion that the Taung child was the missing link even outside of scientific circles. Newspapers were holding contests for readers to submit poems making fun of Dart. As the Scopes Trial unfolded during this time, people were especially angry at blaspheming evolutionists, and Dart caught some of this in the form of various letters that included threats of hellfire. To my knowledge, Charles Dawson didn’t receive any creationist backlash to this extent for his discoveries at Piltdown.
It’s also worth noting that if anyone was interested plainly in “proving evolution true,” it was Dart. Dart was excited to have found a fossil in Africa, since that was where Darwin had predicted our ancestors would eventually be uncovered. Finding the scattered pieces of Darwin’s puzzle was always a source of pride for evolutionary scientists.
The Taung child, of course, is now the type specimen for Australopithecus africanus and remains one of hundreds of crucial links in the human family tree. At the time that Piltdown Man was at the height of his fame, both paleoanthropologists and creationists alike were criticizing Dart and the Taung child. If the Piltdown supporters were blinded by their love for evolution, then why would they have been blind to one of our best and earliest Australopithecus africanus skulls to date? And why would creationists have been agreeing with them?
Why did it take so long to expose the hoax?
I want to go back for a moment to answer Matthews’ other question from A Century of Fraud: “Why did it take so long for scientists to discover such an obvious fraud?” And how did they come to discover it in the first place?
The Piltdown Man was always bound to fall from its throne as the missing link, as new finds would come forward and other discoverers would challenge it, chasing the fame that Dawson had known. This is what happened in 1935 when Alvan T. Marston discovered a skull in Swanscombe, England. He was sure that the Swanscombe skull must be nearly as old as, if not older than, the Piltdown skull.
Ronald Millar’s The Piltdown Men, my source for these stories, gives a lot of details on the many small things that had to happen for the Piltdown hoax to be discovered. Other than Marston’s discovery, the biggest development was Kenneth Oakley’s decision to apply his new fluorine test to other various human fossils. The fluorine dating test didn’t show precisely how old Piltdown Man was, but he was definitely not old enough to be a human ancestor. This test led to the closer examinations which eventually revealed Piltdown Man to be a fraud.
(Interestingly, Piltdown Man was not the only specimen whose antiquity was disproven with this test, but Marston’s Swanscombe skull “passed with flying colors.”)
Still, it should not have taken this long. Admittedly, the scientists involved do not have a good excuse. Here’s what one of the men who exposed the fraud had to say:
The molar surfaces were examined under a microscope. They were scarred by criss-cross scratches suggesting the use of an abrasive. “The evidence of artificial abrasion immediately sprang to the eye,” wrote Le Gros Clark. “Indeed so obvious did they [the scratches] seem it may well be asked—how was it that they had escaped notice before?” He answered his question with beautiful simplicity. “They had never been looked for . . . nobody previously had examined the Piltdown jaw with the idea of a possible forgery in mind, a deliberate fabrication.”Ronald Millar, The Piltdown Men, pp. 216-217
More like Contradictions in Genesis
One of the fun things about AiG’s articles about Piltdown Man is that they contradict each other a few times. For example, the article The Piltdown Fraud by Monty White has a slightly different take than the article by Mike Matthews. White writes less than a week after Matthews,
The desire to find the earliest Englishman had blinded the scientists of the day, so they uncritically accepted Piltdown Man as being genuine. No scientist is a seeker after truth in some sort of idealized neutral fashion—in this case, they interpreted their finds within their (evolutionary) world view, fashioned by parochial prejudice.
He still isn’t totally getting it, but he’s closer. His article included more of the backstory of the competition between the various European countries to lay claim to the earliest human, and pinpointed the scientists’ blindness to that rather than some desire to prove evolution true.
White is absolutely right that “No scientist is a seeker after truth in some sort of idealized neutral fashion,” and I wish he had stopped there, as I’ve already demonstrated why their “evolutionary worldview” isn’t to blame for their faults. Moreover, the real reason why scientists aren’t objective knowledge seekers is because they’re human. They all have fame to chase, nemeses to defeat, money to make, and things to prove.
All that to say that they still manage to be less slanted in their worldview than creationists, who always start with their unsupported conclusion and work backwards. When scientists do that, they are rightly criticized both by creationists and by other scientists. Yet that is all that creationists do, but they say it’s okay as long as they start from a Christian worldview.
Would a Christian fall for this hoax?
Was the mistake solely a worldview issue? Matthews had said it was:
The debate over human evolution is really not about science, but about starting points. Good science, if it begins with the correct starting point (God’s infallible, eyewitness account of history in Scripture), would never fall for a Piltdown man.
White tries (and fails) to show a little more humility and grace, saying,
The Piltdown story is a great tool for the [Christian] in witnessing; not to try to denigrate evolutionists as foolish (Christians get taken in by all manner of hoaxes, too), but to use as a great illustration of what AiG has long taught, namely that facts have to be interpreted.
Elizabeth Mitchell’s article, Piltdown Pals, says essentially the same thing:
What we see here is a marvelous opportunity not to gloat—for all of us are fallible and fool-able—but to point out to others that the interpretation placed on scientific findings always depends on the ‘lens’ through which those facts are viewed.
It’s just so obnoxious. In all of these sentences, they have more or less left the actual lessons of the Piltdown hoax behind, just to say, “Better play it safe and just be a creationist. We say we’re not perfect, but we’re just being nice—we are far less stupid than those evolutionists.”
The Piltdown hoax was a terrible blow for science in the twentieth century, and evidently, creationists will not let us forget it. But what AiG neglects to mention is that all areas of science have petty drama at best and crimes against humanity at worst. However, this is not the fault of science itself but the imperfect people involved. Evolution, astronomy, and physics have done nothing wrong. Scientists and creationists are both the ones screwing up. In his article, White writes,
Exposing the myth that evolutionary scientists are any more objective than others can help to break down the evolutionary/long-age barriers when seeking to introduce people to the [truth] of the [Bible].
I’d like to rewrite that if you don’t mind.
Exposing the myth that scientists are any more objective than others can help to break down the idea that scientific authority figures are infallible and unquestionable. In fact, nothing is, not even the bible. The only advantage that scientists have over the rest of us is a dedication to the scientific method, to test ideas and reject those that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
While many scientists have failed to have the dignity and integrity to always hold up the scientific method, there’s good news. You don’t need to be a scientist or have a PhD to do so—to question everything and think critically. Skepticism was the answer that solved the Piltdown mystery and it’s the way that we know that evolution is true. When evolutionary discoveries are made, we now know to be skeptical about each and every one of them so that we don’t fall for another Piltdown hoax. To the dismay of Answers in Genesis, skepticism is what has allowed millions of Christians to accept the truth of evolution despite growing up being taught that it is false.
Critical thinking, not blindly believing what you are told is true, is how we debunk lies told by scientists and creationists alike.