Piltdown Man and the Delusions of Grafton Elliot Smith

According to the frontispiece of his The Evolution of Man, published in 1924, Grafton Elliot Smith held the titles of M.A., M.D., Litt. D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., and Professor of Anatomy at the University of London.  If titles and academic honors are any guide, he must have been a very intelligent man.  He was well aware of the limitations of human intelligence, and wary of the influence of the emotions on judgments of fact.  For example, in the book referred to above, from which all the following quotes are taken as well, he wrote,

The range of true judgment is in fact extremely limited in the vast majority of human beings.  Emotions and the unconscious influence of the environment in which an individual has grown up play an enormous part in all his decisions, even though he may give a rational explanation of the motives for many of his actions without realizing that they were inspired by causes utterly alien to those which he has given – and given without any intention of dishonesty – in explanation of them.  It is the exception rather than the rule for men to accept new theories on evidence that appeals to reason alone.  The emotional factor usually expresses itself in an egotistical form.  The ‘will to believe’ can often be induced by persuading a man that he discovered the new theory of his own initiative.

No one could have written a better post mortem for Smith’s career.  When it came to questions that really mattered about the evolution of man, he had a positive penchant for getting it wrong.  Regarding the issue of whether erect posture or a large brain came first in the transition from ape to man, he noted in passing,

The case for the erect attitude was ably put by Dr. Munro (Neil Gordon Munro, better known for his studies of the Japanese Ainu, ed.) in 1893.  He argued that the liberation of the hands and the cultivation of their skill lay at the root of Man’s mental supremacy.

Smith would have done well to listen to Munro, not to mention Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, both of whom proposed similar, “bipedalism before large brain” theories.  However, he would have none of it, writing,

It was not the adoption of the erect attitude that made Man from an Ape, but the gradual perfecting of the brain and the slow upbuilding of the mental structure, of which erectness of carriage is one of the incidental manifestations.

Noting that the above quote was included in the substance of an address to the British Association delivered in the autumn of 1912, he rejoiced in a latter chapter that his conjecture had been followed almost immediately by a “dramatic confirmation”:

Within the month after its delivery a dramatic confirmation was provided of the argument that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way.  For the late Mr. Charles Dawson (in association with Dr. – now Sir Arthur – Smith Woodward) brought to light in Sussex the remains of a hirtherto unknown type of Primate with a brain that, so far as size is concerned, came within the range of human variation, being more than 200 c.cm. larger than that of the more ancient and primitive member of the Human Family (Pithecanthropus), in association with a jaw so like that of a Chimpanzee that many of the leading palaeontologists believed it to be actually the remains of that Ape.

This, of course, was the famous Piltdown Man, probably the most damaging scientific forgery of all times, proved in 1953 to be a composite of a medieval human skull and the jaw of an orangutan.  It was probably fabricated by Dawson himself, who had a knack for making similar “sensational” finds, and whose antiquarian collection was found to include at least 38 specimens that were “clear fakes” after his death.  Ironically, its discovery induced just such a “will to believe” in Smith as he had warned his readers about earlier in the book.  He rationalized the “genuineness” of Piltdown Man with arguments that were formidably “scientific” and astoundingly intricate.  For example,

When the skull is restored in this way (according to an intricate reconstruction process described earlier, ed.) its conformation is quite distinctive, and differs profoundly from all other human skulls, recent or fossil.  The parietal bone exhibits a peculiar depression between the diverging temporal lines, and the lower margin of the bone, below the depression, is everted.  This creates a peculiarity in the form of the cranium that is found in the Gorilla and Chimpanzee.  But the simian resemblances are revealed most strikingly in a transverse section of the reconstructed Piltdown Skull, when compared with corresponding sections of those of a Chimpanzee, a Gorilla, and a modern European.  It will then be realized how much more nearly the Piltdown skull approaches the simian type.  The general form of the cranium in transverse section is greatly expanded like that of an Ape.  This applies particularly to the contour of the parietal bones.  But the construction of the temporal bone is even more strikingly Ape-like in character.

…and so on.  One can but feel a painful and vicarious sense of shame for the worthy professor, who had so thoroughly succeeded in hoodwinking himself.  Unfortunately, his weighty testimony hoodwinked many others as well, eventually including even Sir Arthur Keith, who had immediately smelled a rat and publicly cast doubt on the discovery, only to later accept the forgery as real against his better judgment with the help of Smith’s “coaching.”

Piltdown Man wasn’t the only sensational discovery of the day.  Raymond Dart had also discovered the first specimen of Australopithecus Africanus in the same year as Smith’s book was published.  Dart had immediately noticed evidence of the creature’s upright posture, but Smith would have none of it:

But there is no evidence to suggest that its posture differed from that of the Chimpanzee.  The peculiarity in the position of the foramen magnum – which Professor Dart assumed to afford further corroboration of its human affinity – is merely an infantile trait that is found equally in other young Anthropoids.

Poor old Dart.  He was always being “debunked” for being right.  He was similarly “set straight” by his peers for suggesting that early man engaged in anything so unsavory and politically incorrect as hunting live game.  Next it was the turn of Neanderthal Man.  To add insult to the injury of his recent extinction, Smith’s unflattering description spawned a myriad museum displays of a stooped, bestial creature, seemingly unattractive as a sex partner except to the most desperate:

His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs of peculiarly ungraceful form.  His thick neck sloped forward from the broad shoulders to support the massive flattened head, which protruded forward, so as to form an unbroken curve of neck and back, in place of the alternation of curves which is one of the graces of the truly erect Homo sapiens.

In a word, Professor Smith left us with a wealth of disinformation that it took decades of careful research to correct.  His example should teach us humility.  His book and a few others like it should be required reading for nascent Ph.D.’s.  Many of them will find little time for such ephemera later on in their struggles to stay up to speed with all the latest in the collection of learned journals that pertain to their specialty.  Still, they might find it amusing and even informative to occasionally step back from the information maelstrom, dust off some of the old books and journals in forgotten stacks, and recall the foibles as well as the triumphs of their compatriots gone before.  In ambling through the old source material, they’re likely to find that the history they find on the Internet isn’t always served straight up.  As is regrettably the case with Prof. Smith, it often happens that some of the more egregious warts and blemishes have been charitably removed.  They are likely to find the unexpurgated versions more helpful, especially if they happen to specialize in fields that are long on unfalsifiable theories and short on repeatable experiments.

Grafton Elliot Smith

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