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No. 496:
Piltdown & Teilhard

Today, an unsettling quest for culpability. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'll never forget my childhood trips to the natural science museum. I gazed at the evolutionary progression on the wall. Ape, Piltdown, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, and finally a too-perfect Apollo! I used to feel like the missing link between the apes and that last God-like creature -- handsome, blond, and upright.

Actually, I was deceived. I don't refer to that Apollo, but to an earlier humanoid, further down on the wall. Piltdown Man, it seems, was a fake that turned up in England just before WW-I.

The new tools of carbon dating and modern chemical analysis exposed the scam. A lawyer and amateur naturalist named Charles Dawson made the Piltdown skull from fragments of a human skull and an ape's jaw. He stained the bones and filed the teeth. He had us all fooled until 1953.

The disturbing part of this is the identity of Dawson's coworker. Dawson had met a French student from a Jesuit seminary in England. He helped Dawson on the dig. He was Teilhard de Chardin, later to become a great priest, mystic, and writer on archaeology.

Both Dawson and Teilhard went off to war afterward. Dawson was killed in France, but Teilhard lived until 1955 -- two years after the fraud was exposed. And we're left wondering if the great theologian was complicit.

Stephen Jay Gould struggles with the question in two articles. The first, in 1980, reads like a detective story. He concludes that Teilhard probably knew what Dawson was up to -- that he was a high-spirited lad who bought into a joke -- then repented in silence all his life.

Dawson was clearly a real friend and teacher to Teilhard. Teilhard was in Dawson's debt. Gould guesses that Teilhard simply couldn't finger his old friend for the crime.

Gould's article brought down the wrath of everybody. He'd soiled the memory of a near saint. Letters poured in. In 1983 Gould published his second thoughts. He corrected some errors of fact. But he came down in the same place. Teilhard had to have known! Maybe he even took part in the hoax.

"I hoped some old man would come off a mountain with Teilhard's yellowed confession," Gould laments. "Anything for a resolution!" But the issue is not resolved. Not by Gould; not by Teilhard's defenders. Science is the work of people. The best of us harbor some larceny. The worst of us harbor good.

And science, like any other engine of our ingenuity, reflects our own being. It, too, is half glorious Apollo and half ill-wrought Piltdown Man.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gould, S.J., Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1980, Chapters 16 and 17. My Gould quotes are shortened paraphrases.