Crooked Bones

Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution

by John Evangelist Walsh
Random House, 279 pp., $25.95

You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure? It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull.”

Thus the meeting of Dr. Mortimer with Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles; and thus a crucial clue for those who claim that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle faked Piltdown Man, the scientific fraud of the twentieth century. The fake, discovered in Sussex a decade after Dr. Mortimer’s 1902 adventure, was not in fact a half-million-year-old human ancestor, Eoanthropus, “dawn man,” but a crude amalgam of a medieval human brain case with an orangutan jaw of the same age. A few of the bones were painted with household brown paint and others roughly stained to resemble a fossil. They had, some said, been planted by the founder of detective fiction.

Ridiculous? Well, consider the fact that Conan Doyle (a trained anatomist) several times visited the Piltdown dig. He was at the time writing The Lost World. What better publicity for a missing universe of ape-men than to find an extinct ape-faced human? There are other clues: he had once collected fossils in Malta (the real source of ancient hippopotamus bones scattered at the Piltdown site) and was a friend of an expert on 500-year-old orangutan skulls used for ritual purposes in Borneo. What is more, as a spiritualist Conan Doyle was anxious to attack conventional science. In The Lost World he had gone so far as to write, “You can fake a bone as easily as you can fake aphotograph.”

There have been a hundred books on the Piltdown case. Fifty name the Guilty Man (or Men, more than a dozen altogether). When it comes to fraud, John Evangelist Walsh is against it: the Piltdown fake was “despicable, an ugly trick played by a warped and unscrupulous mind.” He writes as a private eye rather than a biologist. His book both gains and loses as a result.

The loser is science. There is almost nothing here on the real facts of evolution, either as seen at the turn of the century or in the radical new landscape revealed by the genes that turn each one of us into a living fossil. The gain is in the sleuthing; the rejection of the impossible until “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, it makes a rattling good read.

Whoever did the deed, Piltdown was a fraud. As such, to a scientist it loses all interest; but to the public—and to John Evangelist Walsh—it assumes a fascination of its own. Unraveling Piltdown goes through the usual suspects. Earlier claims are dismissed: evidence is “disappointingly superficial,” “built on the veriest gossamer,” or shows “a reckless use of hearsay.” This book, though, is different. According to the cover, it exposes the true culprit, and, I have to say, I am convinced. It does.

Nothing is more evocative of a period than its crime. Sherlock Holmes is the icon of Edwardian London and much of the image of that time is contained in his deerstalker hat and lantern jaw. Holmes has the inconvenience of being fictional. Jack the Ripper was an authentic emblem of his age. Scores of books on him, too, together with Ripper tours of the East End of London. The latest suspect is Queen Victoria’s nephew the Duke of Clarence (who had, it is said, the hobby of dissecting the nether parts of prostitutes on his days off). He was, as is well known, murdered by the then Prime Minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, to conceal the scandal.

Science and villainy are not supposed to overlap. Usually they do not. However, science is the easiest place for a villain to make a living. It is not at all like working in a bank: far from the meticulous process of cross-checking that is its public image, science is a profession that depends uniquely on faith. Nearly all results are accepted and the question of audit scarcely arises. Usually a fraud is safe enough. More than half of all scientific papers are never referred to again, even by their authors. No doubt there lurk in that academic undergrowth great monsters of deceit. Most, though, have done no harm apart from unmerited tenure for their begetters.

No lie succeeds like a big lie; and some swindles are enough to make the most cynical gasp and stretch their eyes. Why bother to transplant skin from a black to a white mouse when you can get the same effect with a felt-tip pen? Why not claim that intestinal worms cause cancer (a Nobel Prize was won for that) or that water retains a memory of the substances once dissolved in it even when diluted a billion billion times? Sir Peter Medawar, the greatest scientific essayist of all, once described science as “the art of the possible.” On the evidence of Piltdown and his successors, “plausible” would be a better choice.

The remarkable aspect of the Piltdown fraud was how long it took to be found out. The story is simple. In 1912 an amateur paleontologist, a Sussex lawyer called Charles Dawson, found some fossilized bone fragments in a pit at Piltdown in Sussex. With the assistance of—among others—Arthur Smith Woodward (the geological doyen of his day) and a priest, Teilhard de Chardin (known for a book of Olympian vagueness linking evolution to the Spirit of Christmas in a gaseous envelope called the noösphere), he made a discovery that caused uproar.

The bones were sensational: fragments of a thick human skull, with a piece of jaw closely resembling that of an ape. Although the crucial joint between jaw and skull was missing, the case for a Missing Link seemed clear. It was clinched by Teilhard himself. A year later he turned up an ape-like tooth in the pit. Any doubts whether this might just be an accidental conjunction of bones were laid to rest when two more mixtures of ape and human remains were found in sites nearby. Altogether more than forty fragments were found at Piltdown, including pieces of the skeletons of ancient hippopotami and elephants.

The bones supported the “brain-first” theory, that we began in the mind, with the body (or at least the jaw) following on—an idea attractive to anyone of clerical taste. It also suggested an ancient origin, half a million years ago. Most important, it returned the cradle of intellect to where it belonged—to England, and to the most idyllic part of that largely industrial and despondent land. Fossil nationalism is not dead. In 1995 one of the archaeologists who discovered the (quite genuine) half-million-year-old Boxgrove Man a few miles from Piltdown said, bizarrely: “Now every Englishman can stand a little taller.”

The Piltdown relics were displayed at the Geological Society in London. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself came to see them. Their Englishness was delightfully enhanced by the discovery in the pit of a bone tool resembling a cricket bat. On this evidence, Arthur Smith Woodward (who returned to the site for twenty years without finding anything else) was moved to describe Piltdown in his book The Earliest Englishman as someone who “expressed himself at least as well as any of the existing savages.” Anthropology was led into a blind alley for four decades.

In 1953 the truth emerged. Simple chemical tests showed that every one of the Piltdown fragments was a fake: either ancient animal bones moved from elsewhere, or forgeries of quite startling crudity. Jaw and skull came from different creatures. The teeth had been filed to disguise their similarity to those of their real progenitor, an orangutan. Beneath the brown paint was almost modern bone; carbon dating gave Piltdown a history a thousand times shorter than first claimed. The verdict caused a sensation. Even the keeper of the relics in the Natural History Museum was “quite taken aback.”

As in any whodunit, who did it, and why? From the point of view of paleontology, it matters not a whit: but turning a scientific lapse into a detective story has kept the tale alive for half a century. Some denied that there was a crime at all. Teilhard, an old man by the time of the fraud’s exposure but retaining all his profession’s skilled naiveté, suggested that someone had accidentally thrown ape bones into a pit where they mixed with a human burial. Stephen Jay Gould has claimed, indeed, that Teilhard was himself the culprit and had done it as a joke—one that went wrong only when it was taken seriously.

Walsh dismisses this and the various fingers pointed at Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur Keith (Conservator of the Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons), the man who made and sold skull casts at the Natural History Museum, a local jeweler, and all other suspects. Instead he makes a convincing case that the fraud was entirely the work of Charles Dawson, the lawyer who located the site. He planted the original find, and arranged that the tooth was in place just in time to be unveiled by Teilhard. The priest was dubious about his discovery (and remained oddly quiet about it for the rest of his life) but was not an accomplice. His was a sin of omission—failing to voice doubts—rather than of commission.

Dawson, it turns out, had a long history of similar deceptions. He claimed to have found the first piece of Roman cast iron in England (in reality a trinket bought in a French market), and—just as at Piltdown—a second example turned up as soon as the first was questioned. He had also unearthed an interesting boat, intermediate between ancient and modern vessels, together with an early horseshoe of transitional form. Like Piltdown Man, these were each missing links. Walsh shows that they, too, were crude frauds.

None of this counted against Dawson when it came to Piltdown Man. Suspicions should have been aroused by his account of a sea serpent in the English Channel (sixty feet long, with loops eight feet up from the sea: the photographs did not come out). They were not, and he died—but not, as he had hoped all his life, as a Fellow of the Royal Society—in 1916.

Many questions are unanswered about the Piltdown hoax. Why was it so readily accepted? Fraud and fossils tend to go together. Fossils, by their nature, come singly rather than in multitudes and are hard to authenticate. In addition, they bring a message about ourselves which goes beyond science and can suspend belief.

Those amused by all the evidence of British gullibility so carefully amassed in this book should remember the Cardiff Giant. In 1868, in upstate New York, what seemed to be the remnants of a gigantic human being were unearthed. Thousands came to see it at a dollar a view. The director of the New York State Museum (supported by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson) called it “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in this country.” The first human had been found and was American. The Giant was in fact a badly made gypsum statue, aged with ink, sand, and acid. The fraud became obvious when Phineas T. Barnum was sued for exhibiting a copy, and got off on the grounds that it was not against the law to fake a fake.

What to accept about the past is, too often, a matter of the spirit of the time. The first human fossil, Neanderthal Man, was, in 1856, dismissed as the remains of a soldier who had crept into a cave and died during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. A society later entranced by evolution was not yet ready to believe even genuine evidence. As soon as it was, though, the bones brought a political message. The delighted Germans upon whose territory Neanderthal Man was found ascribed his prominent brow ridges to a habit of frowning while deep in Teutonic thought.

Why, even in 1912, fall for a crook as banal as Dawson? Part of his success was confidence, a willingness to pronounce with authority (much of it plagiarized) on subjects from Roman bricks to the gas supply. In England, at least, scientific merit still depends on social position; and Dawson moved in elevated circles. Most of all, he was a member of a species almost extinct, the scientific amateur taken seriously by his peers. Once accepted—and it did not take much, no Ph.D. required—his word had, almost by definition, the weight of that of the most eminent academic in the land. He did not in fact belong to the community of shared faith which is science but, with a lawyer’s skill, saw how fatally open it was to abuse.

Charles Dawson saw both the strength and the weakness of science: that, without collective trust, it simply could not work. Instead there would be the dismal apparatus of mutual suspicion familiar to any accountant. Checking the scientific books in this way would be a task as joyless as accountancy; and no decent investigator would want to do it. That is why fraud causes such dismay.

Nowadays, though, the clerks have taken over. There is a new demand for double-entry bookkeeping. Some years ago the US Congress set up the Office of Research Integrity to check a supposed crisis of scientific cheating. Its credentials were dubious, but the inquisitors entangled many scientists in a web of innuendo. More than a hundred fell into its clutches. Nearly all were found innocent but many had their careers damaged. The Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore was eased from his post as president of Rockefeller University just because of his association with what was trumpeted as a modern Piltdown. His collaborator, the immunologist Thereza Imanishi Kari, had been accused by an assistant of faking data. The case against her was dismissed as not proven after five years of scrutiny. The ORI used evidence later described as “irrelevant, of limited probative value, internally inconsistent and based on unwarranted assumptions.” Charles Dawson, with his lawyer’s instincts, would, no doubt, have been cleared at once.

All this highlights the central truth about scientific fraud. It is quite extraordinarily rare. The reason is simple. Science is a card game against Nature, the ultimate opponent. The hope is to deduce the hand she holds from the few clues she is willing to disclose. It is possible to win every time by faking one’s own cards, but that removes the whole point of playing the game.

The commonest form of delusion in science is not fraud but self-delusion, persuading oneself that a result is there when it is not. (It has happened to me, but I do not propose to say how.) There is, certainly, some dishonesty. Perhaps there is more than there was. It is not gratuitous, as was Piltdown. Instead it can be blamed on the intrusion into the laboratory of the morals of the marketplace.

Britain has just completed a Research Assessment Exercise in which ten thousand scientists were graded by their supposed peers. A low score means no more money, a high one an extra slice of cake. Its results were predictable. Those who have (Oxford looms large) get more; those who have not get nothing. Expect a wave of fraud inquiries next time the government inspectors come round. The deceits will be less fun to unravel than was Piltdown since, unlike Charles Dawson, those who commit them are making pathetic efforts to save a career rather than grandiose attempts at fame.

However exceptional the event that it describes, John Evangelist Walsh’s book is a thrilling account of a classic of scientific deception. Surely, though, there must be room for doubt: could not the Duke of Clarence have had something to do with it?