A Reader's Guide

to S. J. Gould's Piltdown Argument

Winifred McCulloch

Teilhard Newsletter December 1983


[4] Stephen Jay Gould has done us a service in printing in his latest book, 1 his 1980 article, "The Piltdown Conspiracy" and a new "Reply to Critics." Together they make very clear the weaknesses of his "complex hypothesis."

My purpose here is to guide the reader through what at first might seem to be a forceful argument, filled with facts and considered judgments. It is anything but that.

First, Gould set out in "The Piltdown Conspiracy" to prove that Teilhard was guilty of being an active coconspirator with Charles Dawson in the hoax, and all his "evidence" was chosen and interpreted in that light. 2 It was a very idiosyncratic presentation, from the opening paragraph that evoked Don Basilio's aria on calumny from The Barber of Seville through the highly subjective basis of what he called his main argument (the three letters), his highly subjective second main argument (the silence) and a scenario of just how Teilhard was involved-which has been shown to be impossible.

Gould's main argument lay in the three letters that Teilhard wrote to Kenneth Oakley in 1953-54 (in which he tried to recall exactly what had happened some forty years earlier.) In these letters Gould chose not only to detect a "fatal error"-a liar's slip-but he weighted his presentation with a gratuitous reading of Teilhard's state of mind while writing the letters. Teilhard was making a "subtle attempt to direct suspicion away from himself," "temporizing," "stonewalling." I don't know how Gould knew what Teilhard was thinking since it is obvious that he has no rapport at all with Teilhard's type of mind.

Gould claimed the letters revealed that Teilhard as early as 1913 had knowledge of the fossils "found" at the Piltdown 2 site in 1915.

Mary Lukas, Teilhard's biographer, and according to Gould his "most persistent critic," has answered this main argument in several articles, most recently in the British scholarly journal Antiquity. 3 And the late S. J. Weiner, one of the scientists who uncovered the Piltdown hoax in 1953, 4 criticized Gould's accusations in a talk at Georgetown University in 1981.5 Both made the same point: Gould misread what Teilhard had said. Teilhard told of seeing the site, but Gould had Teilhard seeing "the remains of Piltdown 2."

What I am exploring is Gould's method of setting forth his case for declaring Teilhard guilty.

As Mary Lukas wrote in Antiquity: one is asked to believe that Teilhard "spent his life from the age of 12 constructing a reverse mirror image of himself in the vast store of confessional material which he has left behind (some 9,000 letters, 200 self-analyzing essays, eight notebooks, two books of personal philosophy. And even if Teilhard were not really the man who spoke out of these writings, it was difficult to imagine how he could have outwitted the rigid rules which governed daily life in a Jesuit seminary at the time the Piltdown forgery was planted."

Gould's method of presenting his main argument might be called inferred intent - projecting onto Teilhard ways of thinking and acting that have no evidential base and are completely foreign to all we know of Teilhard. With Gould it seems that the guilty verdict came first, then he created a persona to fit the crime.

At least there are three actual letters from Teilhard to Oakley that can be read in published form.6

But, having declared that Teilhard, at the end of his life, was guilty of self-serving deceit, Gould had to show how the deed had been perpetrated in the first place. To do this he put together a scenario as quirky as that of L. Harrison Matthews', which even Gould rejects in his "Reply to Critics." Matthews originally conceived his scenario as an "imaginative" reconstruction. 7 Gould's convoluted scenario was wrapped in the trappings of a scientist with special palaeontological knowledge and scientific judgment. But I submit that his persistent attempts to involve Teilhard- though under criticism he has had to consistently weaken his stance-are highly subjective.

Here I want to examine Gould's "Other Arguments"- the arguments with which he fleshed out his scenario-as an example of how he used the technique of inferred intent when there was no evidence at all to go on. Whenever Gould is challenged on these arguments he shucks off the criticisms saying he never claimed they were definitive, merely suggestive. He well might do so, for they cannot hold water. They are filled with holes. Yet they show how he built up his "complex hypothesis."

Since most of these arguments were countered by three eminent scientists whose letters were published in Natural History magazine 8 (though their arguments were, characteristically, dismissed by Gould), and since my space is limited, I shall discuss only one.

Before going to England to study for the priesthood at the Jesuit Theologate, Teilhard, in his mid-to-late twenties (1905--1908) taught elementary physics and chemistry at a Jesuit school in Cairo. Now, the elephant tooth and the hippo bones planted at Piltdown came from Tunisia. It is known that Teilhard's trip down to Cairo did not take him through Tunisia, but his itinerary home has not been preserved. Presto! Gould contended that the bones could have been obtained by Teilhard since it cannot be proved that he had not travelled through Tunisia. As with so much [5] of his argument used to accuse Teilhard, Gould neglected to give the larger picture, cropping his snapshot to show only what he wanted to consider.

To be sure, Gould hedged his bet on Tunisia, saying that Teilhard could have obtained the tooth through barter with colleagues. But all the men-professional and amateur- whose names have been linked with Piltdown had better access to bone collections that had Teilhard. Anyway, the all important Piltdown jaw was that of an orangutan, and they live a world away, in Sumatra.

This example of the attempt to put Teilhard in the center of the conspiracy is typical of how Gould built up his scenario. Simpler and more likely hypotheses were at hand. Dawson had many potential sources for the bones, one within his own family. As Mary Lukas has noted, his stepson, P. J. M. Prostlethwaite, was an officer in the British Camel Corps in Sudan and had travelled freely all over North Africa, bringing home antelope heads, bones and other souvenirs. Teilhard admired his collection when he saw it on his first visit to Dawson's house in 1912. Why not opt for the simpler and more obvious source? In science, I believe, the simpler hypothesis is always favored to the more cumbersome one: it is nicer, more elegant.

Gould also suggested that since Teilhard had taught chemistry at the boys' school in Cairo he could have stained the Piltdown bones. But there were professional chemists within the network of amateur archeologists/paleontologists to be found throughout the English counties. One of Dawson's friends, Sam Woodhead, was a chemist. And is it likely that a black-cassocked seminarian would not have aroused suspicion in an Edwardian English village if he had purchased the needed potassium bichromate in a chemist shop? And how could he have kept it in the seminary where rooms were shared, never locked and doors could be opened at any time by superiors? I ask for more convincing plotting in a detective story.

Two famous scientists who were highly critical of Teilhard's philosophical ideas have gone on written record that they do not believe he was involved. One was George Gaylord Simpson 9 and the other was Peter Medawar who, back in the fall of 1959, loosed his wrath on The Phenomenon of Man. Medawar gives his opinion in his latest book, 10 also out this past spring: Teilhard was guilty of an innocence which makes it easy to understand why the forger of the Piltdown skull chose him to be the discoverer of its canine tooth.

And I wonder also about the great reservoir of knowledgeable amateurs-men who traced Roman roads, studied Saxon ruins, wrote local histories, dug for old bones. Dawson himself was one. Gould suggested that a motive for the hoax might be the envy of non-professionals, and in one of his more outlandish bits of characterization he proposed it as a motive of Teilhard's. I do not believe envy is more pervasive in amateur circles than among professionals, but surely it is those amateurs who might fit into Gould's category, not Teilhard. They made up a loose network such as Gould proposed Teilhard was a part, but were many of them likely to feel at ease with a French Jesuit seminarian?

To recapitulate: Gould made the accusation that Teilhard, at the end of his life, was guilty of lying about his knowledge of a hoax he had helped to perpetrate forty years earlier. Gould also laid out a scenario (with occasional rewrites to side-step certain criticisms as they arose) of how it had been done.

Gould then filled in all the intervening years, from 1920 onwards, of Teilhard's extraordinary life of action, scientific discovery, warm friendships, the shaping of a vision that would challenge both the scientific and religious establishments, the writing of distinguished scientific and philosophical works, and the high drama of the rejection of his thought by certain dominant influences in the Church which he faithfully served all his life-all this Gould (though paying lip-service to the man and the life) reduced to years of a "galling bitterness almost beyond belief" because of his guilt over Piltdown. Such guilt, I submit, is a charge he has failed to prove. And the "galling bitterness" is yet another example of Gould's self-serving reshaping of Teilhard's life and character to fit his scenario.

The memoirs of too many people who knew Teilhard throughout these years-scientists such as Helmut de Terra and George Barbour to name only two-and a voluminous collection of open and revealing letters to a wide variety of friends leave us a picture of a vital and creative man in whom Gould's "galling bitterness" had no part. To be sure, after 1948 when the Jesuit Order refused him permission to print his Phenomenon of Man he had cause to inwardly mourn, not only for himself but for the backward attitude within the Church that would lose her the allegiance of its most forward looking intellectuals. It is evident that Gould cannot deal with the depth of this man's life; he has somehow to trivialize it.

Again, the pervasive pattern of Gould's depiction of Teilhard from 1920 onwards, as in the scenario he concocted for the earlier years, was to ignore the complex totality and to wrench from it an arbitrary, narrow reading necessary to his chosen level of discourse. Again, the inferred intent.

It was in these years of "galling bitterness" that Gould found his second main argument for Teilhard's guilt. It was this: after Teilhard published in 1920 his only article on Piltdown, "Le Cas de l' Homme de Piltdown " and went on to his work with the team that discovered Sinanthropus in China, he did not again write about Piltdown. This is what Gould called "the silence." And he found it ominous.

Specifically, what Gould found "inexplicable to the point of perversity (unless guilt and knowledge of fraud engendered it)" was that in his opinion "Piltdown provided the best available support that fossils could provide for the most important argument of Teilhard's cosmic and mystical views about evolution." Gould asked why Teilhard had not invoked Piltdown man to support his theory. The most obvious answer is that he had written in 1920 that the Piltdown finds did not made anatomical sense. Even the value of Piltdown to Teilhard's vision of converging evolution is dubious. This is how Professor Emeritus Edward O. Dodson 11 rebutted Gould's argument:

[6] Teilhard emphasized that evolution was ordinarily divergent, with long separated lines often appearing as multiple, parallel lines. This is simply adaptive radiation. Gould says that Piltdown should have been Teilhard's strongest argument for multiple, parallel lines in human evolution, and so he believes that Teilhard's failure to use it must have been caused by his guilt in the Piltdown conspiracy. But was Piltdown Teilhard's best argument, "the only available proof," as Gould says, of multiple, parallel lineages within human evolution itself. . .?" Neandertal man had been known since 1856, Cro-Magnon since 1868, and Galley Hill since 1888; Homo erectus had been known from Java since 1891 and was discovered in China in 1927 (by a team which included Teilhard), long before Teilhard wrote his most important works; and Heidelberg had been known since 1907. Other "parallels" discovered after Piltdown but before Teilhard wrote the works upon which his fame rests include Ehringsdorf (1925), Steinheim (1933), and Swanscombe (1935). One might also mention Australopithecus (1925), which has at times been assigned to the genus Homo. In the face of this array of fossils in the human lineage, could Gould cite Piltdown as "the only available proof' for Teilhard's thesis unless he were, in his own words, "too blinded by my own attraction to the hypothesis of Teilhard's complicity?"


Such, then, was the method by which Gould built his case against Teilhard in "The Piltdown Conspiracy." It has been answered substantively by Mary Lukas, Karl Schmitz-Moorman, Edward O. Dodson and others. My purpose has been to make the reader aware of the snares that lurk in the lively and seemingly considered presentation. I do not hesitate to call it a sleight-of-hand technique, and I invite the reader to go over the original piece again, drawing a line through all the adjectives and adverbs thrown in gratuitously to paint Teilhard as guilty, and underscoring "arguments" where there is only insinuation. Would anything be left of pages 223-224? It would seem that Gould had a passionate need to proclaim Teilhard guilty at all costs.


How does Gould meet criticism?


"The Piltdown Conspiracy" opened to a bass aria on calumny. Gould sets the stage for his "A Reply to Critics" with some black and white type-casting that went out with those westerns into which Saturday matinee audiences escaped in the good old days. On Gould's side, ready to applaud him as he brings his man to ready conviction, are a group of "friendly supporters"; they seem all to be masked, for we are not told who they are not whether they have any substantive knowledge of Piltdown or are simply friends and colleagues. Opposing him are either a core of "devotees" of the guilty man with their "dogs of war" who are prepared to attack anyone who suggests that their "piece of celestial cardboard is not a saint"; or, a second group who though they admittedly are knowledgeable scholars do not understand the subtleties of Gould's "complex hypothesis." It is obvious that Gould brooks no criticism. For the discerning reader, it is another of his games: setting the stage with himself as hero and his critics caricatured as fanatics or tolerated as ineffectuals.

Gould is strong on staking out a moral stance for himself. See his first footnote to "The Piltdown Conspiracy" where he offers to correct his "goofs." Let us examine this effort.

Two footnotes do admit small errors of dates but many substantial errors are not acknowledged. I should have liked, for example, a footnote on page 202 to correct the statement that the Jesuit seminary was "providentially located right next to Piltdown." This suited Gould's scenario but it is untrue. It was 40 miles away-impossible to reach with the tight seminary schedule on the one free day a month. (Anyway, we know that Teilhard visited Piltdown only three times before he left for the war: on May 31, 1912, August 8 to 10, 1913 and on August 30, 1913.)

The footnote on page 213 is an example of Gould's unwillingness to admit that errors in his scenario make any difference. The picture he presented of Teilhard's life (1908-1912) while studying at the Jesuit Theologate at Ore Place in England was made up of carefully selected passages from letters to his parents so as to emphasize his few excursions with Dawson into the surrounding countryside. Once again, the totality of Teilhard's life there was simply left out.

In the essay, "A Reply to Critics," Gould comes to an extraordinary about face on this point (p. 234). A great part of his first scenario of Teilhard's life at Ore Place had been to show the seminarian travelling "all over southern England" and actively conniving in the finding of the artifacts and bones, possibly planting them himself- almost certainly the flint found in situ, possibly also the famous canine he found in the rain-washed gravel bed. Now, in his "Reply to Critics" Gould shifts his position: "I have never charged Teilhard with putting the actual bits in the ground. l always assumed that Dawson played this role. There were so many other things to do-getting, breaking and doctoring specimens just for starters." The old non-argument from the Tunis connection. But this does not really evade the facts given in Schmitz-Moorman's essay on life in the seminary at Ore Place. 12 Teilhard was not a free-wheeling modern student at a university. Gould doesn't seem to comprehend that he was a 30-year old man making a serious commitment of his life. He was in a Jesuit seminary. Is it likely he would be larking around? The difficulties of Gould's scenario in which Teilhard was traveling "all over southern England"-meeting Dawson in the field and in pubs-is replaced with his somehow swapping specimens, getting the special, delicate files needed, reshaping the bones to fool the experts and then staining them. Where? How? Why?

Gould introduces a new facet in his scenario: a need to prove a close bond of friendship between Dawson and Teilhard which will, in turn, prove connivance. He has to admit that in a letter written in 1912 Teilhard addressed Dawson as a pupil to his mentor. That, naturally, does not phaze Gould. Cannot a mentor and a pupil plot together, he asks.

But, though he has just argued that a close relationship is not necessary for collaboration, Gould shifts to a position in which he tries to show that the bond was indeed close. He argues that the "high density of references to Teilhard in Dawson's letters" (mostly to Smith Woodward) "points to a strong relationship between the two men...." One might well ask if the frequent mention of a young friend who shows great promise in a field in which two investigators are interested necessarily means "a strong relationship between two men." And, a postcard from the French Front to Dawson? Incriminating?

[7] And now we come to the crux of the matter. What Gould wants, he says, (p. 237) is to find the Dawson-Teilhard correspondence. Not that it will include any "evidence" of plotting and machinations, Gould admits. All he wants is a chance to identify in the letters an "implicit pattern" that will incriminate Teilhard, a pattern such as he thinks he found in the three letters Teilhard wrote to Oakley in 1953-54. It seems to me that here Gould has tipped his hand. Evidence defeats him for there is none. Gould's argument is entirely subjective, reading into the letters his own projections of what Teilhard had in his mind. This method is based on Gould's own need to find Teilhard guilty, evidence or no evidence. The need, as Gould says, to find a fault so he can "forgive him." Inferred intent is his method.

One more point: Gould writes that he does not know what opinion Oakley held of his case at the time of his death. We do know what he thought three months before he died for in a letter 13 he wrote to Mary Lukas on August 4, 1981 (he died in October) he said that her solution constituted "a total refutation of Gould's interpretation of Teilhard's letters to me in 1953-54.... You have ... unearthed evidence that will seriously undermine Gould's confidence in having any evidence against Teilhard in regard to what he (Teilhard) said in his letters to me."

Gould complains that his critics do not take his arguments seriously. But many have spent a great deal of time in answering him. He is the one who refuses to meet any standard of serious discourse. It is like trying to play a game with someone who continuously changes the rules as he goes along and refuses to acknowledge a win by anyone else.

Gould's idiosyncratic attempt to brand Teilhard a coconspirator of the Piltdown hoax is very good stuff for a popular book. But Gould's charge, since it cannot hold, will not affect Teilhard's reputation in the long run.

Gould's motive? He tells us himself; he is a iconoclast. The "implicit pattern" in his writings is the need to topple those he feels are too venerated. With Teilhard, his self-confessed need is to establish a flaw in an otherwise too admirable person.

A remark of Gould's appeared in Time magazine: 14 "If I have one special ability, it is as a tangential thinker. I can make unusual connections." But such connections do not necessarily make sense. They certainly do not lead to the truth of the matter. They are just "unusual connections" and everything about them can be wrong. I would say that this "tangential thinking," together with the inferred intent, make for the errors of Gould's attack on Teilhard.

Perhaps Gould has taken too uncompromising a stand to withdraw his accusation against Teilhard. In any event, I hope readers will become aware of just what is wrong with his argument: of how, consciously or unconsciously, he manipulates his case.






1. Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, Stephen Jay Gould.(Norton) 1983.

2. Teilhard Newsletter, vol. XIV, No. l, July 1981. Winifred McCulloch, Karl Schmitz-Moorman, Mary Lukas. (NY: American Teilhard Assoc.)

3. Antiquity, Vol. LVII, No. 219, March 1983 (Cambridge Univ., England)

4. The Piltdown Forgery, J. S. Weiner, Kenneth Oakley, W. E. LeGros Clark. (Oxford Univ. Press) 1955; Dover paperback.

5. Teilhard and the Unity of Knowledge, ed. Thomas M. King, S. J. and James F. Salmon, S. J. (Paulist) 1983.

6. L'Oeuvre Scientifique, Teilhard de Chardin. p. 4561 ff.

7. Letter from J. S. Weiner to Mary Lukas, Nov. 4, 1980 (copy in author's collection. )

8. Natural History magazine, June, 1981.

9. Time magazine, July 28, 1980, p. 73.

10. Pluto's Republic, Peter Medawar (Oxford Univ. Press) 1983, p. 210.

11. Published in a scholarly journal of the Jesuits of Louvain (not in a popular journal as Gould described it.)

12. Natural History op. cit. and Teilhard Review, Vol. 16, no. 3 (London) Dr. Dodson's book The Phenomenon of Man Revisited will be published by Columbia University Press.

13. Teilhard Newsletter, op. cit.

14. Time magazine, May 30, 1983, p. 41.

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