Nationalism and evolution

Way back in the 1910s, when human evolution was poorly known, some trickster, probably Charles Dawson, its discoverer, set up a hoax: Piltdown man. This was enthusiastically accepted by many British experts because it made Britain, and in particular, England, a leading locale in human evolution. This was the era of Imperial honour and competition, shortly before these powers decided to compete more concretely. Nationalism has always been a factor in evolutionary hypotheses, ranging from Raymond Dart's southern ape, Australopithecus, in South Africa to objections to the discovery by Eugene Dubois of the species we now call Homo erectus in Java.

Now Bulgaria has entered the fray, with a paleontologist claiming that a tooth discovered there is from a human ancestor aged 7 million years, proving that "the man's evolution started on the Balkans". This goes well with the Bosnian Pyramid, showing that science can easily be turned to nationalism today, as it could be in times long gone. It might be something to do with the struggle for national identity in that troubled region. Still, I look forward to further outlandish claims, and there's a chance, just, that this might in fact be an important discovery of primate distribution before Homo, like the Dmanisi skull in Georgia.

More like this

Some years back, some guy came up with yet another story of who planted Piltdown. Teilhard de Chardin was already taken, of course; the new one was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A popular science mag (Discover?) had a story about it.

Doyle was mad at scientists (dern skeptics didn't like ghosts and fairies), you see, so he wanted to show them up by selling them a fake fossil. And where is Piltdown? The Sussex Downs, where not only Holmes but Doyle hung out! And IIRC Doyle was more or less on the spot!! And lots of additional, generally spurious arguments.

But there was one point I really liked, though the author didn't notice its true significance. He had a contemporary photo of one spot where bones were found; and there by the road were some Araucaria trees: a genus that Doyle actually named in The Lost World, so that shows he was leaving clues to the hoax in his novel.

Nonsense, of course. But wait a minute: Were those the species that's called Norfolk Island Pine? Or were they

Monkey-Puzzle Trees?

This would be so clever, if deliberate, that it almost makes me think somebody did plant the fossils there for the joke value. In fact, as my daughter said in another connection, it's "something that I believe every bit as sincerely as it is possible for me to believe something that I don't, like, actually think is true."

But then, I don't know if that name was in use in England at the time.