Teilhard and Piltdown Man
Time July 28, 1980
PIX T deC
Since his death in 1955, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was also an accomplished paleontologist, has become something of a cult figure. Millions of readers have been fascinated by his writings, which often put him at odds with ecclesiastical authorities. Particularly controversial were his views on evolution, which he held moves in an upward direction with increasing domination of spirit over matter. Now the saintly Teilhard stands accused of a little playful tampering with evolution. Last week he was implicated as a conspirator in one of the most famous scientific hoaxes, the notorious Piltdown caper.
In 1912, near Piltdown, England, an amatuer fossil hunter named Charles Dawson "found" the first of two skulls with a human-like cranium and an apelilke jaw. The find was hailed as the missing link between man and ape; for years Piltdown man occupied a prominent place in paleontology. Finally in 1953 he was unmasked: the remains were nothing more than a fabrication of modern human and ape bone doctored to give them the look of antiquity.
But who masterminded the hoax? Dawson was suspected, buÝ some scholars doubt that he had the skills or material to carry it out. In Natural History , Harvard Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that the young Teilhard, then a student in England and Dawson's friend, could easily have supplied some bones. One bit of evidence: a Teilhard letter written years later to the British scholar Kenneth Oakley, in which the priest commits what Gould calls a "fatal error." Teilhard says that Dawson personally brought him to the site where the second skull was found. "This cannot be," says Gould, because Dawson "discovered" the skull in 1915, after Teilhard had been mustered into the French army and shipped to the front.
Gould's theory stirred an instant uproar. Says American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, a friend of Teilhard's: "I don't think it was in his character." J. S. Weiner, who with Oakley helped expose the forgery, doubts that Teilhard would have risked his burgeoning scientific career with such a ruse. Gould remains convinced it was a youthful joke that succeeded so well it made a confession difficult. Says he, "The burden of proof must now rest with those who would hold Father Teilhard blameless."