Piltdowin debate: not so elementary

Science 83

[21] Letter by Don Richard Cox:

I found that your article "The Perpetrator at Piltdown" [September] carefully accumulated a great deal of circumstantial evidence but ignored several important facts.

Students of Holmes and Watson know that although Doyle attributed expertise in chemistry and pharmacology to Holmes, the stories contain many errors on technical matters, reflecting Doyle's own lack of expertise. Neither he nor Holmes was a "forensic genius." An "abiding interest in human jaws"? Really. The fictional Sherlock Holmes might have been capable of creating a plausible fake–if we suspend our disbelief. The real-life Doyle could not have fooled experts.

Secondly., creating such a fraud would have been totally out of character for Conan Doyle. Authors Winslow and Meyer call Doyle a "Jokester," a "man who loved hoaxes." Who is creating a hoax here? Where do they. find evidence for such statements? The man was singularly. humorless in his life and fiction; "jokester" is probably the last label one could apply to the man who at the age of 40 enlisted for the Boer War, primarily. to serve as an example to British youth.

It was Doyle's faith in truth and justice that made him appear so gullible on the question of Spiritualism. He simply refused to believe that a proper gentleman would consciously. deceive another gentleman about such an important issue. Why did he believe in fairies? Because he could not believe that the girls who claimed to have seen them could possibly be lying.

Lastly, your authors have rather conveniently blurred some of the chronology themselves. Doyle, as they point out, made some statements supporting his belief in Spiritualism as early as 1887. But, like many people, he did not become deeply interested in it until after World War 1. Doyle became a crusader for Spiritualism, and was savagely ridiculed for it, long after Pilt[22]down Man was resting in a museum case. To suggest he did it for revenge–a contemptible motive to Doyle as the Holmes cycle repeatedly demonstrates–as early as 1912 severely distorts the facts.


Letter by Stephen Jay Gould:

May I object to the careless and inaccurate attempt by Winslow and Meyer to refute my hypothesis that Teilhard de Chardin participated in the Piltdown fraud. I had said that Teilhard claimed knowledge of bones at the Piltdown II site but that, according to the "official" chronology, he could not have seen these since he had been mustered into the French army before their "discovery." He could not, that is, unless he was involved in the hoax at Piltdown I. Winslow and Meyer claim that Teilhard simply mixed up Piltdown II with another discovery that he could have seen–the Barcombe Mills site, since, according to them, "Barcombe Mills closely resembled Piltdown II." But this makes no sense precisely because Barcombe Mills does not resemble Piltdown II and Teilhard would not have made such an obvious error. The Barcombe Mills bones were then compared with the distinctive, thick-skulled Piltdown remains, and neither Dawson nor Smith Woodward ever paid them much attention or published anything about them since they, so clearly represented modern man.

Against my second major claim–Teilhard's silence about Piltdown in his voluminous publications on human fossils–Winslow and Meyer claim the discovery, of a Piltdown reference in a 1952 Teilhard paper and thus refute my argument. But if they had read my. article carefully, they would see that I formulated my argument differently from their false presentation of it. Of course Teilhard occasionally mentioned Piltdown in his publications. He could scarcely avoid it since he wrote so many general review articles summarizing all known human fossil remains. I claimed only, that he restricted his [23] comments to a barest minimum, a curious stance for a man who had participated so fully in the joy of discovery and supposedly accepted the skull's validity as a human fossil (though he attributed the jaw to an ape). I wrote in my article that "references to Piltdown are fleeting and exceedingly sparse throughout Teilhard's writing." 1 documented some half dozen of these references in my article, including the 1952 citation that Winslow and Meyer claim as a refutation.

As to their case for Conan Doyle, what can one say of an evidence-free argument based on speculations about motive? At least the cases against Teilhard and Dawson are backed with specific times, dates, access, and abundant opportunity. Dawson remains very much a suspect on the basis of the carefully reasoned evidence in J. S. Weiner's 1955 book The Piltdown Forgery.


Winslow, Meyer reply:

While Cox is correct that Doyle's expertise was limited, Doyle knew enough about the right subjects to have qualified as the Perpetrator of a rather inexpert forgery. The lesson of Piltdown is that experts can be fooled by not-too-talented amateurs if they are provided what they want to find. As for Doyle's being humorless, a reading of The Lost World would quickly dispel such a notion. What's more, "Jokester" seems an apt label for a man who during the Piltdown period put on disguises and posed as complete strangers to friends and relatives Finally, Doyle was deeply involved with Spiritualism before the end of World War I. He publicly declared himself a Spiritualist in 1887, and wrote in 1910 that Spiritualistic phenomena held great promise for the human race.

Regarding Gould's comments, we did not argue that Teilhard confused the site of Barcombe Mills with that of Piltdown II but that he mixed up the two sets of finds from those places. While Teilhard was visiting with Dawson in 1913 at what would become Piltdown II, Dawson told him of fossils that we now know were discovered at the other site, [24] Barcombe Mills. It makes perfect sense that later he might have confused the two sets of fossils since he was only told about the fossils in 1913. He saw them, as Gould claimed in his 1980 Natural History article.

In his recent book, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, Gould states his bafflement as to the origin of a frontal bone that Dawson described in a 1913 letter only recently brought to light by Teilhard's biographer, Mary Lukas. In fact, the frontal bone that Dawson found at Barcombe Mills corresponds particular by particular with this "mysterious" bone. We feel certain it is part of the find Dawson described to Teilhard in 1913. Since the publication of our article we have learned that Kenneth Oakley, one of the three scientists who uncovered the hoax, changed his mind about the support he had formerly given Gould's theory implicating Teilhard. In an August 1981 letter to Lukas he wrote: " . . . the discovery by Dawson of another human frontal bone . . . in 1913 . . . is a total refutation of Gould's interpretation. . . .

We have never disputed that Teilhard's references to Piltdown Man after 1920 are sparse. We do dispute Gould's assertion in both his 1980 and 1981 Natural History articles that Teilhard never invoked Piltdown Man to support his scientific philosophy. He did just that in his 1952 paper to the International Symposium on Anthropology.

We are puzzled by Gould's efforts to create an aura of infallibility around the conclusions of J.S. Weiner, who not only believed that Teilhard was innocent but also wrote in his book that his verdict against Dawson must rest on suspicion and not proof' Similarly, in 1981 Gould wrote that his own case against Teilhard "is to be sure, circumstantial. . . ."

Could it be that history is repeating itself? That the deep-sealed animosity held by leading evolutionist Ray Lankester toward the Spiritualists finds a parallel in the case of Gould, the no-nonsense evolutionist, vs. Teilhard, the evolutionary mystic?

I have just read, with no light interest, the case made against Sir Arthur C. Doyle in your September issue. Although Winslow and Meyer did a fine job of research, they are totally incorrect. Once more, I have succeeded!


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