The Piltdown Affair

Thomas Berry

Teilhard Newsletter July 1980


Dr. Stephen Jay Gould in the August issue of Natural History has entered on a sensationalist venture in his effort to involve Teilhard in the fraud associated with the Piltdown "fossils." Prepublication release of his article to the news media has stirred up an intensive emotional impact against Teilhard in anticipation of the article itself. During this period the article has not been available to the general public; an answer based on the article, therefore, cannot be written for this July Newsletter. The following observations are made on the basis of the news media reports, for which the original publishers, the American Museum of Natural History, must themselves assume a certain responsibility.

1) The article is written in such a way that its impact has been thoroughly condemnatory to Teilhard on evidence that, as presented, is not at all convincing. From the media accounts it seems that Dr. Gould has presented mainly some psychological assumptions as to Teilhard's motives that are immature, amateurish and trivial. To consider that Teilhard was moved by vanity, and by envy of secular colleagues who could earn fame, reputation and cash (he who had renounced all these by his vows) shows no understanding at all of his character. We suggest that Dr. Gould read at least some of the many accounts written by Teilhard's professional colleagues from all over the world and from all periods of his life. In doing so, Dr. Gould might discover another dimension of a human being than he seems now to comprehend.

2) The suggestion of Dr. Gould that the part of Teilhard in the Piltdown affair was something of a youthful prank cannot be taken seriously since Teilhard at the time was well into his thirties. Whatever was done or not done was the deed of a mature person to be accepted and judged as such.

3) For Dr. Gould to say, after the inconclusive nature of his evidence, that "the burden of proof must now rest with those who would hold Father Teilhard blameless" is clearly an effort to avoid his own responsibility in the matter. Is this how he presents his arguments in his own professional field of geology? He has made serious accusations. His responsibility is to explain himself in some convincing manner. It is an old rhetorical but rather reprehensible tactic to make public accusations and then to require from others the proof of innocence.

No one can object to a serious inquiry into the Piltdown fraud or to investigation of how it came about or who was involved in it. Since its discovery as a hoax, however, the Piltdown fossils have not been a matter of significant concern for scholars seriously dedicated to the task of understanding the evolutionary process or any of the more important phases of life development.

There are so many important issues which need discussion that only someone with a flair for publicity or a sense of personal intrigue would likely be concerned any longer with this subject. It would be difficult to imagine George Gaylord Simpson bothering with it, or Theodosius Dobzhansky, or Julian Huxley, Rene Dubos or Margaret Mead. But, if they had, certainly they would not have handled it in Dr. Gould's fashion.

Most likely we shall never know the complete story of Piltdown. What we do know, however, (without prejudging Teilhard) is that Dr. Gould has lost significantly his own scientific credibility by the manner in which he has presented his case.

Nor has this type of publicity brought any credit to Natural History, a publication with a distinguished record of communication of scientific research to its readers.

4) Finally, there is Time magazine which came out with an astounding heading for its article- "Holy Hoaxer?"- a title with cynical overtones hardly worthy of any decent approach to a serious subject. Other publications have presented accounts of the Gould article under headings of generally assumed guilt, bit Time outdid them all. Wonderful the power to judge the world and its people in such an irresponsible manner.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of Dr. Gould or of Time that they deal seriously with a serious subject, that they deal in a scholarly manner with a scholarly affair, that they deal carefully with human beings, not only for Teilhard's sake, but for themselves and the rest of us.

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Defending Teilhard de Chardin