Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Reaction to Rejection in Science

Let me first dispense with the obvious: scientists are sometimes wrong. Let me be more specific: scientists are sometimes wrong because they hold prior commitments to the dominant explanation and too casually dismiss evidence that does not fit with the current orthodoxy. Let me give you a good example of this: the Taung baby.

The Taung baby is a fossil skull discovered by limestone miners in South Africa and given to Professor Raymond Dart. Dart was an Australian, schooled under the great Grafton Elliot Smith in England and then the Chair of Anatomy at a university in South Africa. In 1925, Dart announced this find as a likely human ancestor, a claim which flew in the face of the dominant opinion in anthropology at the time that the human species had arisen in Asia, not Africa.

Dart had a pretty good case to make that the Taung baby represented, if not an actual ancestor of Homo sapiens, something fairly close to what our evolutionary ancestors must have looked like. It had an ape-like face, but the foramen magnum – the place where the skull meets the spine at the base of the brain – strongly suggested that this species walked nearly upright. The teeth were also somewhat in between the great apes and human beings (in particular, the canine teeth were smaller than in chimps or apes and much like human canine teeth).

But there were two primary reasons why this find was rejected by most scientists at the time: the brain was too small and it was in the wrong place. As Elaine Morgan puts it in The Scars of Evolution, “He was denounced and derided for not recognizing the skull of a young chimpanzee when he saw one, for not realizing the brain was far too small for any ancestor of humans, for imagining the missing link could possibly turn up in South Africa.”

After the discovery of what came to be known as Java Man, Homo erectus specimens found by Eugene Dubois, anthropologists had come to believe that human life had first developed in Asia. After all, were not the oldest human civilizations we knew of in Asia? By the 1920s, this was considered a settled argument; very few scientists bothered to investigate Africa at the time.

Sir Arthur Keith, the world’s most prominent anthropologist at the time, declared Dart’s claims about the Taung baby to be “preposterous.” Dart could not even get a paper published by the Royal Society on the subject in 1931, so strong was the reaction against his find by the mainstream scientists in the field.

11 years later, Robert Broom, a Scottish doctor doing anthropological research in South Africa, found another Australopithecine, an adult specimen. Then after another 11 years, in 1947, Broom found two more fossils, all apparently from the same species. They included a pelvic girdle that showed that this species was predominately bipedal.

At that point, opinion began to turn. W. le Gros Clark expressed support for the idea, followed by Sir Arthur Keith who simply admitted, “Professor Dart was right and I was wrong.” Dart had been vindicated and his ideas had gone from ridicule to acceptance. Dart lived until 1988 and on his 92nd birthday, reminiscing about the earlier controversy, he remarked, “I knew people wouldn’t believe me. I wasn’t in a hurry.”

As Elaine Morgan put it, “Anyone putting forward an idea which strikes the scientific establishment as ‘preposterous’ cannot expect to make converts overnight, and 22 years struck Dart as being about par for the course.” But there are a couple of key facts here. First, notice that Dart did not whine and complain. He didn’t hire a PR firm to bypass peer review and take his findings to the people. He didn’t start writing popular books wailing about how the scientific establishment was persecuting him by refusing to amend their hidebound orthodoxy. He just kept working.

Notice also that the rejection of his ideas initially did not prevent the scientific community from coming around fairly rapidly when more evidence turned up to confirm the initial finds. This is a pattern that has played itself out many times, from Wegener’s continental drift idea to big bang cosmology to quantum mechanics. In every one of those cases, the initially rejected upstart idea became the dominant view within a few decades and always because those who advocated the ideas simply kept working on gathering data and using it to refine and test their explanations.

And that is exactly why ID will never gain acceptance the way those previous paradigm shifts did, because its advocates are engaged in the business of a PR campaign, not in the business of actually doing science. Science is the ultimate “show me” institution – show other scientists the data and a coherent, parsimonious, well thought out explanation for that data, and you will overcome the doubters in short order. Failure to do so is an admission that you just don’t have the goods.