My Claims Regarding Piltdown Man & the Scopes Trial Twisted

My Claims Regarding Piltdown Man & the Scopes Trial Twisted October 10, 2015


Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) in 1919: sadly mistaken Nebraska Man and Piltdown Man enthusiast [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

* * * * *

Dr. Gary S. Hurd received a doctorate in Social Science (emphasis in Anthropology) from the University of California, Irvine in 1976. For the next 10 years he was a medical researcher and professor of psychiatry leaving the Medical College of Georgia in 1985. He held numerous adjunct appointments and returned full-time to archaeology, his first interest. He has received honors for teaching and research and has involved dozens of undergraduate students in published research.

There are a lot of similarities here, of interests. I majored in sociology, minored in psychology, and love archaeology (especially biblical archaeology).

He came after me (or I should say, after windmills), guns blazing, in the combox of my post, Simultaneously Dumb & Smart Christians, Atheists, & Scientists, which was devoted to showing how very intelligent people can make the dumbest of mistakes. Ironically and humorously, in attacking me on thoroughly erroneous, non-factual grounds, he provides a classic, textbook example of precisely the thing I was trying to illustrate in my paper, and in a related follow-up post, which was also a reply to three wrongheaded critiques of my arguments in the post above.

The common theme in all the misguided “critiques” coming my way is atheists or agnostics mistakenly portraying a Christian (in this case, me) as basically ignorant with regard to the fundamental nature of science. If a person keeps underestimating his dialogical opponent, he will make a fool of himself every time, especially if his opponent happens to be one (like me) who has engaged in serious socratic dialogue for 34 years, and is well-versed in it. In other words, he picked the wrong person to misrepresent.

The mistakes Dr. Hurd made here are very basic ones, and there is no excuse for them. He says I maintained things that I never did. He pulled ’em out of thin air. But these things arise out of an undue emotional hostility, which I analyzed (as a general trait of human nature) in my previous post. I know from whence they come. But that doesn’t make misrepresentation right. I gave Dr. Hurd a chance to save face before I posted this. He had several hours to remove his post. I wrote in the combox:

Are you serious? I’m gonna have a field day with this one . . . As usual, my actual view has been grotesquely distorted and misrepresented. Basic reading skills and comprehension seem to be lacking here (perhaps you were drunk while writing this tripe?) . . . In charity, I’ll give you some time to take this down, so as not to be embarrassed by my reply. But something tells me you won’t do that.

His reply was: Bwaahahahaha. What a silly man.”

He was forewarned. His words will be in blue.

This essay by Mr. Armstrong is remarkable for his diverse errors.

Well, we’ll see if he can back up his ambitious claims, won’t we?

These are scientific, historical, and medical.

Oh, goodie; all three, huh?

I thought that rather than just list them, I would address them singly.

How thoughtful of you.

Of course, Mr. Armstrong’s assertion that the Piltdown hoax was promoted by Osborn in the Scopes Trial is hogwash.

That’s a very interesting claim indeed , since I never stated this. It’s pulled out of thin air. Here are the two consecutive paragraphs in which I mentioned Dr. Osborn, Piltdown Man, the Scopes trial, and Nebraska Man. None of the four are mentioned again in the paper, I do mention Piltdown Man in one comment, but add nothing essential to what I had already stated:

We’re baffled how intelligent scientists could be fooled by Piltdown Man for 41 years (!).  Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History, thought  the jaw and skull belonged together “without question”. It turned out to be an obvious hoax: the jawbone of an orangutan attached to a human skull. Atheist paleontologist  (and great critical writer on the history of science) Stephen Jay Gould observed that it was immediately apparent that it had been tampered with — if only someone had bothered to look closely at the damned thing during all those years. Finally someone did. It just took 41 years . . . 

But it had been accepted for 41 years as a compelling proof of Darwinian human evolution, and thrown in the face of the folks at the famous Scopes trial in 1925 (I happened to visit that courtroom this summer). Nebraska Man: another silly so-called “specimen” — was widely accepted from 1922 to 1927, and turned out to be a tooth of an extinct pig (one tooth was the entire evidence for it). It’s another case of intelligent scientists believing in folly.

Note that I never stated that Piltdown Man was “promoted by Osborn” at the Scopes trial. I didn’t connect Osborn to the trial at all. I noted that he was duped by Piltdown Man, and I also observed separately that Piltdown Man was “thrown in the face of the folks at the famous Scopes trial in 1925.” If Dr. Hurd can’t grasp that I didn’t do here what he claims I did, then I suggest he take a course in Logic 0101. Perhaps he missed that class in his general liberal arts undergraduate studies. I did not. 

Piltdown Man was in fact introduced as evidence at the Scopes trial (I’m not sure if Dr. Hurd would deny that or not). According to a very in-depth website devoted to the trial, it was mentioned in the affidavits of both Fay-Cooper Cole (Professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago) and Horatio Hackett Newman (Dean of the College of Science at the University of Chicago). The author of the long article states:

[I]n the third edition (1924) of his [Osborn’s] book Men of the Old Stone Age we find this positively effusive assessment:

. . . These precious geologic and archaeologic records furnish the only means we have of determining the age of Eoanthropus, the ‘dawn man’, one of the most important and significant discoveries in the whole history of anthropology.

He added: “Modern dating methods showed that none of the Piltdown fragments was more than 650 years old.” In any event, Dr. Osborn never showed up at the Scopes trial, as planned.

But this lack of historical study, or basic familiarity with science also is reflected in his false assertion about “Nebraska Man” even more closely associated with Osborn than the Piltdown hoax.

Huh? What is it that Dr. Hurd thinks I claimed about Nebraska Man? That I claimed it was part of the Scopes trial (I did not)? Who knows? But he “knows” I made a “false assertion”! What is false in what I wrote? I only gave it two sentences, and no one can dispute the facts I provided. Does he deny that it was “silly” or that scientific belief in it as a supposed hominid was “folly”? Perhaps he will inform us exactly what I supposedly stated that was in error. 

In 1922, Osborn received a fossil tooth from rancher and geologist Harold Cook who recovered it from his property in Nebraska. Osborn quickly announced Hesperopithecus haroldcookii as the first anthropoid ape from America (Osborn 1922a). Later that same year he wrote in the science magazine Nature, “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), …” (Osborn 1922b). Osborn’s rather odd ideas about human evolution (nearly all wrong) are clearly displayed in his American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, and reprinted in Science Magazine, (Osborn 1927).

The Spring of 1925 saw the start of the first scientific excavation of the original location which had produced the tooth. These were conducted by Osborn’s protégée William K. Gregory. 1925 also saw a series of published articles constituting a debate between Osborn and creationist William Jennings Bryan in the months leading up to the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” These were in the pages of most major USA news papers following their first appearance in the New York Times. Strikingly, Osborn’s mention of the “Nebraska” ape nearly disappears by July of that year. One must suspect that he had realized his error.

None of the above has the slightest relation to anything I wrote or claimed, but to play along, it might be fun for my readers to take note of how Dr. Osborn taunted William Jennings Bryan. According to the lengthy Scopes website: 

Osborn frequently used Nebraska Man as a ‘stick’ with which to beat Bryan in the popular press. In 1922 he jokingly (?) suggested that Nebraska Man might have been better named as Bryopithecus“after the most most distinguished Primate which the State of Nebraska has thus far produced.” As late as May 1925 he wrote an article for The Forum, entitled “The Earth Speaks to Bryan” (a play on Job 12:8 – “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee”), in which he asked:

What shall we do with the Nebraska tooth? … Certainly we shall not banish this bit of Truth because it does not fit in with our preconceived notions and because at present it constitutes infinitesimal but irrefutable evidence that the man-ape wandered over from Asia into North America.

Loads of fun at the expense of the “ignorant” Christian, Bryan (who believed in an old earth), huh? Hee hee ha ha ho ho! But it turns out the last laugh was at the expense of Dr. Osborn. We may surmise that he didn’t show up at the trial because of mounting evidence against his stupid tooth. I agree with Dr. Hurd in this way. So why is he bashing me? On what basis?

The results of the professional excavations begun in 1925 retracting the identification of “Hesperopithecus haroldcookii” were published in the science literature in late 1927, and in the popular press soon afterwards (Gregory 1927) (New York Times, London Times, and Scientific American all ran articles, and editorials). This is in direct contradiction to Mr. Armstrong’s false assertion that “Of course we don’t hear much about it, but these follies and imbecilities assuredly happened, …”

This is all one big non sequitur. I never denied that scientific magazines, etc., produced retractions. The point of my paper is that in popular polemics (including on atheist sites at Patheos) and in public schools, these facts are only rarely presented. Now its true that in the paper I didn’t make this totally clear. But in the same combox that Dr. Hurd commented int, two hours before his comment, I had written: “It’s not taught in schools; it’s never brought up in the context of blathering exaggerated criticism of Christians and the Galileo fiasco, etc. I’ve explained this over and over.”

This clearly shows my intent. And nothing I wrote (or have ever written anywhere in 19 years online, or before) can demonstrate that I ever denied that science openly publishes retractions of its mistaken or debunked theories. To the contrary, I cited Stephen Jay Gould, the atheist paleontologist and historian of science, who wrote about all kinds of “follies” in science, including Piltdown Man.”

I’d venture to guess that if I ran down his article on that, he would have been more harsh on scientists than I am here. I assumed that any educated person would know that science is about an ongoing pursuit of truth, which necessarily includes retraction of errors. That was not my beef in the first place. But Dr. Hurd assumed that I was an ignoramus.

Mr. Armstrong also presented Osborn as a Scientist Who Was Wrong! representing those nasty Atheist baby killers.

Triple “huh?!” with big head scratch. I said not a word about his character, other than that he made a dumb mistake (the theme of my paper), let alone about any association of Osborn with abortion.

Ronald Rainger, a professional historian has noted that Osborn was “a devout Christian — born into a Presbyterian family he attended Princeton College in the 1870s, which was still strongly Presbyterian. In later years he began to attend services at St. John the Divine, a major Episcopal Church in New York City, primarily because of social connections. Politically he was quite reactionary, and highly opposed to materialism in any form.” (For more see: Rainger’s intellectual biography of Osborn, 1991 “An Agenda for Antiquity” University of Alabama Press).

Wonderful! This has nothing whatsoever to do with anything I claimed. Osborn’s religious status had nothing to do with anything. Virtually all of the scientists I mentioned in my notorious, dreaded, horrific Catalogue of Scientific Folly were Christians, too (excepting Newton, an Arian, which is still theist). Ho hum. Most of the greatest scientists and originators of virtually every scientific field were Christians.

There are a few important events in Osborn’s career that give an insight as to why he would have been so quick to see a North American ape, and also related to his overt racism and promotion of a perverted American version of Eugenics;

Birth in 1857 to a very wealthy family. 1891, appointment to Columbia University as professor of zoology, and the American Museum of Natural History, Curator for Vertebrate Paleontology. November 23, 1897 he was elected member of the Boone and Crockett Club, Elected president of American Museum of Natural History Board of Trustees, 1908-1933 President of the New York Zoological Society from 1909 to 1925.

Why these are significant should be the focus of a later comment on Mr. Armstrong’s incompetent remarks on the Nazi Holocaust and Eugenics. (Shapiro 2008 should be advanced reading).

Once again, Dr. Hurd is welcome to make an argument that the Nazis were not involved in eugenics (contrary to my claim). Till he does, I won’t waste my time guessing what he might mean. I’ve already wasted enough with this (what was his term?) hogwash.

Gregory, William K.  1927. “Hesperopithecus apparently not an ape nor a man,” Science, n.s. 66, pp. 579-581

Osborn H.F.  1922a “Hesperopithecus, the first anthropoid primate found in America” Science, 55:463-5.

Osborn H.F.  1922b “Hesperopithecus, the anthropoid primate of western Nebraska” Nature, 110:281-3.


Shapiro, Jonathan Peter 2008 “Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant” Univ. of Vermont Press

Thanks for the sources (all perfectly irrelevant to my argument).

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