Bad Creationist Letter in Michigan

A small newspaper in Michigan, the Argus Leader, has had quite a series of letters to the editor over the last few weeks after printing an article about Dick DeVos and his position that ID ought to be taught. You'll get a good laugh out of this one from a youth minister named Jerod Jordan. He talks about how much research he's done to conclude that evolution is wrong while simultaneously proving his utter ignorance even of the standard creationist nonsense as he trots out the tried-and-false Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man.

In 1912, a scientist named Charles Dawson, a medical doctor and amateur paleontologist, discovered a mandible and skull in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England.

The jaw bone was ape-like, but the teeth had human characteristics.

The two pieces were combined to form "Dawn Man," who was supposed to be about 500,000 years old. After several critical advances in science, the whole thing was proven to be an elaborate hoax.

I don't know where "Dawn Man" comes from; the find was named Piltdown Man. But what on earth is his point? Yes, a hoax was perpetrated nearly 100 years ago in England. Scientists, recognizing that the find was extremely anomolous compared with all the other hominid fossils, discovered the hoax when new dating techniques allowed more detailed testing. And this is a problem....why? It's a textbook example of how science is self-correcting and how false data is discovered and corrected.

In 1922, a mysterious Mr. Cook discovered a tooth in the Pliocene deposits in Nebraska that was used to produce a photo of "Nebraska Man" and his wife, which was published in the London Daily News. All from a single tooth.

I love that first line: the mysterious Mr. Cook. I'm not sure what exactly is supposed to be so mysterious about him. Harold Cook was a rancher and amateur geologist from Nebraska, found the tooth on his property in 1917 and sent it to HF Osborn, a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History. There was no "photo" of Nebraska Man and his wife; there was a drawing of such, but it was from the Illustrated London News, not the London Daily News.

That picture was an artist's imagination and it had nothing at all to do with Osborn's report on the find. Indeed, Osborn himself said that "such a drawing or 'reconstruction' would doubtless be only a figment of the imagination of no scientific value, and undoubtedly inaccurate." Osborn himself had been very careful to note in his 1922 article that he was speculating that the tooth, which was highly weathered, might belong to a simian or hominid, but that much more research was needed:

"I have not stated that Hesperopithecus was either an Ape-man or in the direct line of human ancestry, because I consider it quite possible that we may discover anthropoid apes (Simiidae) with teeth closely imitating those of man (Hominidae), ..."

"Until we secure more of the dentition, or parts of the skull or of the skeleton, we cannot be certain whether Hesperopithecus is a member of the Simiidae or of the Hominidae."

Yet creationists still peddle this tired and ridiculous notion that "scientists" constructed a whole human being from a pig's tooth. And lies like this one:

This same tooth was used as irrefutable evidence to the existence of evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

Bzzzt. Thank you for playing. This is nonsense. There was no scientific testimony at all in the Scopes trial, the judge refused to allow any because it was not relevant to the question of whether Scopes had broken the law. This is yet another creationist tall tale that will not die.

When the remainder of the skeleton was discovered in 1927, it became readily apparent that it was nothing more than the tooth of an extinct pig.

This is almost true. No one knows if they actually found the remainder of the skeleton that the tooth came from, but they did go back and dig at the same site and found that the tooth likely belonged to a peccary, an extinct descendant of modern pigs. But again, what on earth is his point? That 80 years ago, a scientist made a very tentative identification of a fossil that turned out to be true and was retracted immediately? So what?

There are many other examples of how evolutionary thought is based on erroneous data.

Yes, of course there are. That's why you had to go back nearly a full century to find two highly distorted examples. Just more of the same nonsense from creationists.

The peccary is an extinct descendent from modern pigs? News to me...

By Michael Suttkus, II (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

Re: "Dawn Man" The genus name Dawson (or one of his collaborators) assigned to the Piltdown specimens was Eoanthropus which can be translated as Dawn Man. Otherwise the erstwhile Rev. Jordon has produced a steaming pile of organic fertilizer.

By justawriter (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

Hi Ed,

I was just wondering if, since you wrote up such a good rebuttal, you sent it in to the Argus Leader? If you do send these rebuttals, do they ever get printed, and then responded to? I am always curious about the response to well-formed criticism, although I would guess most of it would consist of denial.

Peccaries are alive and well and, from what my South Texan acquaintances tell me, are good eating but quite dangerous if you run into a group of them. Down there, they are called "javelinas".

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

Couple nitpicks. The extinct animal would be an ascendant or ancestor of the modern pig, not the other way round. Also, is the peccary extinct? I know in TX and LA they have wild pigs called peccaries that are multiplying to the point of nuisance. They are essentially feral pigs that escaped X generations of porkers ago and have become wild (my understanding is that escaped domestic pigs will within a generation revert to their wild state and appearance with coarse hair and tusks and all the attributes of a wild boar). Anyway, the peccary may be just a Cajun term for the wild pigs around there, but they are definitely live and running around in the marsh in Southern Louisiana and in Texas.

By Sinister eyebrow (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

Scientists, recognizing that the find was extremely anomolous compared with all the other hominid fossils, discovered the hoax when new dating techniques allowed more detailed testing.

The Wikipedia entry on Piltdown Man claims that most people initially took the find at face value because of various biases, and only a few archaeologists were suspicious. Do you think that's accurate?

Sinister eyebrow- The ones in LA are mostly just feral pigs (aka razorbacks), which as you say will revert to their "wild appearance" (and demeanor; my grandfather reportedly got chased around a barn by one about 30 years or so ago in Mississippi) relatively quickly. Peccaries are New World pigs and have never been domesticated. They mainly show up in the Southwest and Latin America. They have pretty impressive tusks and can kill a hunting dog with one good swipe.

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

I've always heard that the initial fossil was met with a great deal of skepticism due to it not seeming to fit at all with the pattern of human evolution emerging from other research. It was thought to be a mistaken association. Then a second skull was found and they concluded it must not be a mistake, so had to be real. Scientists, as James Randi likes to point out, expect nature to play honest and so miss hoaxes as an option.

By Michael Suttkus, II (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

Peccaries are the members of the pig family (Suidae) that are native to the New World. The Collared Peccary is the species found in southern Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They are also locally called javelinas. They are rather small (up to ~65lbs), shy creatures and are harmless. Feral Hogs, also referred to as Wild Boars by some, are the released and escaped descendants of the Old World pig species which is also the originator of our domestic pigs. These guys grow to be quite large and are the ones that can be dangerous. They are also incredibly destructive to native vegetation. They are far more widespread--virtually all of the southeastern US is "infested"--and are hunted year round in many places and are also controlled by professional hog hunters who use helicopters, ATVs, and dogs to pursue them. Both species, though only distantly related (different genera), are quite tasty.

By pig ID 101 (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink

What's funny to me about piltdown man isn't that it was a hoax, it's who caught that hoax... Scientists, doing what they were supposed to do. Testing, examining, questioning.

I really hate that this example of science working as science should is often used by the anti-science crowd as evidence of the opposite. No matter what this had been, an honest mistake, a well done hoax, whatever, it would have been caught out as more evidence came to light and new hypothesis (hypothesi?) were created that the piltdown man was annomolous to. Even if it wasn't questioned at the start, that doesn't give it a blanket acceptance without challenge forever... as we see from what what actually happened.

I recall from my copious Isaac Asimov reading as a larval-stage scientist that skepticism grew among paleontologists in the years after Piltdown Man was discovered, long before it was conclusively proven to be a fraud. It didn't fit well at all with the pattern of hominid fossils -- in fact, it fit less and less well as more fossils were discovered. Finally establishing that it was a hoax cleared the air.

If I can remember when I get home tonight, I'll look it up in Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, which I think is where I read this in the first place, mumble-mumble years ago.

Piltdown was best accepted in England, where it fit not only prior expectations of what a human ancestor would be like (the old "big-brain-first" notion about human origins) and nationalistic desires to have early human evidence from good old England. Even among British anthropologists, acceptance was by no means universal. My memories of what I've read about this over the years are a bit hazy, but as I recall there was quite a nasty little contretemps between two groups, each spearheaded by a prominent figure in the field. Can't racall the names any more.

There were also big issues over reconstruction from the fragments available. At least two different reconstructions were done. The "pro-Piltdown" group also rather guarded the specimens, being pretty stingy about letting skeptics get their hands on them.

There was a lot more skepticism from outside England, I think. Particularly from the US.


As several people have pointed out, I of course meant that the peccary was an ancestor, not a descendant, of modern pigs. Even that is playing a bit loose, of course. We don't know that they are specifically an ancestor of any modern species, but they're certainly in the same line of descent somewhere, either an ancestor or a sideline that died out.

As for whether Piltdown was accepted or not, it was immediately met with skepticism because it didn't fit at all with the other hominid specimens we had. Some British paleontologists were blinded by national bias (wanting England to be the place where modern humans evolved) and overlooked the obvious for some time. But by the 1920s, at least, it was clear to most everyone that the specimen was highly anomolous. Creationists have invented many myths about it, like the false claim that there were "over 500" dissertations written about Piltdown Man.

Unfortunately this is how creationist logic works. Dismiss the mountains of evidence supporting evolution and, at the same time, point to Piltdown and Nebraska and claim them as examples of "proof" that evolution is wrong.

I saw a piece, and read a bit about it. In the show they presented another professor at the London Museum(?) as the likely perpetrator of the hoax. Apparently he and the professor who worked the site had had some minor conflicts revolving around the fact that the older professor was very arrogant and overly sure of himself. The alleged story basically goes that prof #1 set up prof #2 with a, from his point of view, poorly constructed hoax and, again according to the story, actually had a broken cricket paddle nearby (apparently the "punchline" of the joke). The supposition is that the hoax got too big for him to blow the whistle without destroying the career of his collegue (who while arrogant, etc, was a friend) so he just "let it go." The program didn't claim to prove that it was this gentleman, but they did show a lot of evidence that it could be, including apparently a trunk containing chemicals and pieces of bone similar to those used to stain Piltdown.

By dogmeatIB (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink