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
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
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