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Doubting Newberry’s Doubt

John Strong Newberry, via Wikimedia Commons

In chapter five of T. T. Martin’s Hell and the High Schools (1923), which abounds in quotations that supposedly show (in the words of the chapter’s title) “Evolution Repudiated by Great Scientists and Scholars,” there appears a paragraph reading, simply, “Prof. John S. Newberry: ‘It is doubtful if at any time in the world’s history there has been a theory that has gained so great a popularity with such an unsubstantial basis as that of Evolution of man from the lower orders.’” No identification of Newberry or of the publication is provided in the text. The context is not helpful, either—the paragraph is preceded by a quotation from Eduard von Hartmann and followed by a quotation from William Hanna Thomson (whose surname, for a wonder, Martin correctly spells without a p), neither of which is particularly relevant.

I swiftly found that Alfred Fairhurst’s Theistic Evolution (1919) offers a similar passage, attributed to “Prof. John S. Newbury”: “When, therefore, all these facts and the laws that govern them are taken into account, one is justified in saying that it is doubtful if at any time in the world’s history there has been a theory that has gained so great popularity with such an unsubstantial basis as that of the evolution of man from the lower orders.” In the immediately preceding sentence, Fairhurst says that Newbury “has shown that not one ‘new species of flora has appeared on earth since the appearance of those that followed the great ice era.’” Finding it hard to believe that Newberry (or was it Newbury?) would have reached a conclusion about human evolution on the basis of a claim about post-Ice Age plant speciation, I nevertheless reserved judgment.

Part of the confusion was resolved when I reached Luther Tracy Townsend’s Adam and Eve, History Or Myth? (1904). There, in a section entitled “Biology and Evolution: Origin of Man” in a chapter entitled “Whence the First Perfectly Developed Man; Theories of Evolution, Atheist and Theistic,” Townsend is arguing that animals—at least mollusks, fish, reptiles, and mammals—appear “fully equipped and in the plentitude of their power” in the fossil record, with no sign of ancestral species and no trace of descendent species. He then turns his attention briefly to plants: “And, too, as Prof. John S. Newbury has shown, not one ‘new species of flora has appeared on earth since the appearance of those that followed the great ice era.’” Ending the quotation, he continues in his own voice, “When, therefore …”—the passage quoted by Fairhurst and partly by Martin.

So Fairhurst and Martin, or whatever sources they consulted, apparently misread Townsend as quoting Newberry/Newbury rather than as expressing his own view. That mystery solved, I was still wondering whom Townsend was quoting. His earlier Evolution or Creation (1896) offered a decisive clue. There Townsend indicates that he was discussing a talk that Newbury gave before the Torrey Botanical Club of New York. As it happens, the president of the club from 1880 to 1889 was John Strong Newberry—so Martin, for a welcome change, got the surname right! Newberry (above; 1822–1892) was a distinguished geologist and paleobotanist of his day, serving as the chair of geology and paleontology at Columbia College (now University), the director of the Ohio Geological Survey, and the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

So Newberry was certainly a reasonable authority to quote on the topic of post-Ice Age plant speciation. The problem is that Townsend may have confabulated the quotation from him. From the discussion in Evolution or Creation, it’s clear that Townsend was discussing “The Geological History of the North American Flora,” a talk that Newberry gave on May 11, 1880. The Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club printed the abstract of his talk in that year, but there is no claim there about no new species of flora emerging, much less the exact words attributed to Newberry. The closest Newberry comes is to say that today’s flora “retain[s] all the essential botanical characters of that of the Tertiary.” In the absence of any independent confirmation that Newberry uttered the words attributed to him by Townsend, I see no reason to accept Townsend’s word for it.

Moreover, it is hard to believe that Newberry would have asserted the claim attributed to him. Newberry was focusing on North America, so it would be overreaching for him to refer to no new species appearing on the whole planet since the last ice age. Plus, since he was aware of the incompleteness of the fossil record, he would certainly have hedged by saying that there is no evidence of any new species of flora emerging since the last ice age, rather than deny the existence of such species altogether. Furthermore, in discussing the differences between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary flora, Newberry explicitly wrote, “Many new genera and species were added,” so he evidently thought that it was possible for new species to arise in general: what, except for its recency and brevity, is special about the period since the last ice age?

Ironically, Newberry provided what could have been excellent fodder for the likes of Townsend, Fairhurst, and Martin somewhat earlier in his career. In 1867, in his presidential address to the AAAS on “Modern Scientific Investigation: Its Methods and Tendencies,” despite expressing his respect for Darwin’s “enthusiastic devotion to the study of truth” and condemning “the obloquy and scorn with which [Darwin’s suggestions] have been received in many quarters,” he firmly stated that “the Darwinian hypothesis is not accepted and can never be fully accepted by the student of science who is inspired with the spirit of the age.” He also cited eusociality in insects, “beauty,” and the origin of life as problems for “the Darwinian theory.” That said, he seems not to have indulged in any further criticism along those lines.

New Developments in the Development of Limbs

Humans love to group things. A place for everything, and everything in its place. The science of grouping living things has grown ever more sophisticated as technology has enabled us to characterize organisms at the cellular and even the molecular levels. While some of the fundamental groups proposed by even the earliest naturalists still persist, today they have been refined. Moreover, our understanding of the evolutionary relationships among groups has grown clearer and clearer over time.

Neil Shubin has spent decades piecing together the mechanics of one such transition—the one that links tetrapods (animals that inherited the characteristic of four bony limbs from a common ancestor) to fish, specifically ray-finned fish. Shubin’s fossil finds, including the celebrated Tiktaalik, and his eagerness for engagement through documentaries, popular writing, and presentations have made this particular evolutionary tale one of the best known and understood by the public. But, it turns out, there were still surprises to be uncovered.

Previous work by Shubin and others has firmly cemented the evolutionary link between so-called lobe-finned fishes (such as the enigmatic coelacanth) and tetrapods. Fossils such as Tiktaalik show a“one-bone, two-bones, lots-of-bones” pattern that we recognize in every tetrapod today—at least those that have retained their limbs. (Later tetrapod ancestors added on digits, but Tiktaalk lacked them.) The connection with ray-finned fish, however, has been far less clear. Sure, we know that we share a 430-million-year-old ancestor with the group, but some of the shared structural links (homologies) between tetrapods and ray-finned fish aren’t as clear-cut or understood.

Looking at the limbs, for example, ray-finned fish—forgive me for stating the obvious—have fins supported by rays. The rays are made up of a type of bone known as dermal bone, which forms directly within the ectoderm (outermost layer) of a developing organism. Lobe-finned fish and tetrapods, however, have fins and limbs supported by robust endochondral bone—bone that forms in the mesoderm (middle layer) of developing organisms and is first laid down in cartilage before being replaced with bone. It’s hard to overstate the fundamental differences between dermal and endochondral bone. A developing animal establishes its three main body layers very early—in the case of humans, about fourteen days after fertilization. As a general rule (but by no means an absolute one), differences established so early in development tend to be pretty darn major.

So how did our fishy ancestors go from dermal-bone-supported fins to fins supported by endochondral bone? Thanks to a couple of students in Shubin’s lab, we now have an idea (free summaries here and here). In 1996, French scientists established that mice limbs relied on the expression of two genes, Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13. Hox genes are to animal development what a conductor is to an orchestra—responsible for much of the timing, coordination, and patterning. They are ancient genes, which means that every animal has a set that, despite minor differences, aligns pretty well with the set of any other animal. Thus, ray-finned fish have versions of Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13. Shubin wondered whether these genes could provide insights into the link between the likes of goldfish and humans. The problem was that he didn’t have the molecular tools to do the experiments required.

Then along comes CRISPR—a new crazy-powerful gene editing technique that enables scientists to locate, edit, add, and subtract genes with incredible precision. One of Shubin’s postgraduate students, Tetsuya Nakamura, used CRISPR to prevent the expression of Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 in developing zebrafish. The result? Drastically shortened fin rays. But wait—that meant these Hox genes somehow were involved in both endochondral bone development (as in the mice) and in dermal bone development (as in the zebrafish), which was unexpected, to say the least. The expected result would have been malformations up near the base of the fish’s fin, where endochondral bone anchors the fin to the body of the fish. But when it comes to science, unexpected results are often far more exciting than expected ones!

In parallel to the CRISPR work, a graduate student in Shubin’s lab, Andrew Gehrke, ran an experiment of his own. To understand it, you need to know that limbs develop from the body outwards. Previous work had shown that Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 genes were expressed in the wrists and ankles of mice, and that the cells that expressed these genes went on to form the feet and hands. Following the previous technique, Gehrke engineered zebrafish embryos so that cells expressing Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 would glow red. The expected result? That the base of the fin would turn out to glow. The unexpected and actual result? The fin rays were glowing.

Okay, so what the heck does all this mean? As both types of animals, ray-finned fish and tetrapods, develop, the Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 genes seem to direct the development of structures at the most distal (away from the body) parts of the limb. In ray-finned fish, the cells that make up these structures form from dermal bone. In tetrapods, they are made up of endochondral bone. But that major difference aside, there is a obviously deep, evolutionary link—at the molecular level—between the hands and feet of tetrapods and the fin rays of fish.

As Shubin told The New York Times, “Here we’re finding that the digits and the fin rays have some sort of equivalence at the level of the cells that make them.” Was Shubin surprised at the finding? “Honestly,” he said, “you could have knocked me over with a feather—it ran counter to everything that I was expecting after working on this problem for decades.”

But the similarities between fins and limbs can be overstated. These new findings do not suggest that fin rays and fingers are the same thing. Rather, the work suggests that somewhere along our evolutionary path the Hox genes that patterned ray fins got redirected somehow and co-opted to pattern hands and feet. Although a more nuanced bottom line, it’s still a very important result that—well, I’ll let Shubin tell you:

“[This new work] shows us how bodies are built. By understanding the biology of fish, we understand the basic architecture of our bodies, and how genes and cells interact to build us, and how we evolve.”

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an e-mail or shoot me a Tweet @keeps3.


What We’re Reading

A smorgasbord this week—interesting basic evolutionary biology news, two separate meditations on the monument to non-science known as the Ark Encounter, a couple of looks back at recent past climate change, and, finally, a philosophical question: why do we love the rare and exotic and revile the commonplace? I mean, really, from a biological point of view, it’s the weeds that are succeeding….

  • From Fins Into Hands: Scientists Discover a Deep Evolutionary Link, The New York Times, August 17, 2016 — Carl Zimmer reports on the latest results from Neil Shubin’s lab showing homologies between fin rays in bony fish and endochrondal bones in tetrapods.
  • The Strange Case of the Butterfly and the Male-Murdering Microbe, The Atlantic, August 19, 2016 — NCSE’s Glenn Branch writes: “With a title like that, I can’t expect that you’ll bother to read my blurb before clicking through, but I’ll just add that the subline of Ed Yong’s article is ‘A battle between an insect and a microbe led to one of the fastest evolutionary changes ever observed.'”
  • Are Dinosaurs Overrated?, Extinct: The Philosophy of Paleontology Blog, August 22, 2016 — “Rarity both enhances and diminishes value.” Philosopher Derek Turner untangles that paradox with respect to paleontology. A must for all you ammonoid fans out there, even if all you dinosaur fans will want to rawr in protest.
  • Aboard Noah’s Ark, in a Kentucky Corn Field, Religion & Politics, August 23, 2016 — Tim Townsend takes a detailed look at Ark Encounter. “The purpose of AiG’s ark is to hammer home the idea that secularism is itself a flood that will one day sweep billions of us away, leaving only a handful of righteous to be saved. It’s a colossal wooden warning in the middle of a Kentucky farm field.”
  • Ark Park Opens with Government Support, (PDF, pp. 10-11), KAS Newsletter August 2016 — Daniel Phelps is understandably appalled at “the examples of jaw-dropping pseudoscience and non-science and the fervor with which they are promoted” at Answers in Genesis’s newly opened Ark Encounter theme park.
  • Humans Have Caused Climate Change For 180 Years, Science Daily, August 25, 2016 — A team of researchers from the Australian National University has found indicators of anthropogenic climate change extending back to the 1830s, far earlier than previously thought. In a new paper in Nature explaining their examination of corals and tree rings, among other proxies, this team was able to discern an anthropogenic signal from the early Industrial Revolution, suggesting a more sensitive response to anthropogenic emissions than previously recognized.
  • Volcanic Eruption Masked Acceleration In Sea Level Rise, Science Daily, August 26, 2016 — The timing of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 was unfortunate because it confused and obscured the signal of climate change. A new paper in Scientific Reports explores how sea level rise may have been slowed down by the effects of Mt. Pinatubo–a temporary change that is now, apparently, waning. 


Happy Birthday to the National Parks

Happy Birthday to the National Parks! Candle flames added to cacti.

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act, organizing the management of the existing parks, monuments, and other protected federal lands under a single body, and granting that new body the authority and responsibility “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

It was a bold and novel move. While a few parks (beginning with Yellowstone in 1872) had been set aside under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior, and other lands placed under the protection of the Army, most of America’s protected wild lands were under the authority of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. As one might imagine, that jurisdiction meant that the national forests and wildlife reservations were managed for multiple uses, including scenic enjoyment and wildlife preservation, but also for logging, mining, ranching, and other uses that tend to degrade the wilderness. Even when the lands were managed for use by wildlife, the effects could be dire, as when predators were eliminated in hopes of boosting populations of game for human hunters. It was an extension of the way that kings had once set aside hunting preserves, and how the traditional commons was managed.

National parks represented a different way of thinking about the relationship of people to nature, and of government to wild land. It was an acknowledgment that nature exists as an end unto itself, and a recognition that the scope of human activity had grown so vast that untrammeled nature needed protection.

In the era of climate change, that charge is even more important and even more challenging. As Glenn Branch and I discussed in a webinar with the National Park Service a few weeks ago, no national park is untouched by the effects of climate change. Most famously, the namesakes of Glacier National Park are disappearing. But Yosemite and its surrounding forest, for example, are ravaged by ever more wildfires. And warmer winters are leaving forests in many parks at greater risk from beetles, denuding the forests and placing the parks at greater fire risk. Such threats are ubiquitous, and pose both a practical and philosophical challenge to the future of the parks.

As Glenn and I pointed out, the parks are also exceptional teaching opportunities. NCSE’s Grand Canyon trip, and the scholarships which NCSE members help fund, treat the Grand Canyon as the world’s greatest geology lab, as well as a place to explore ecological life zones and the nature of science itself. One of last year’s scholarship winners, Crystal Davis, finds that 90% of her students (from a low-income city in Los Angeles County, California) have never visited a national park, and so makes an effort to take field trips to expose them to the wonders of the natural world.

The parks have also been a boon to science, in ways that their founders surely never envisioned. Yellowstone was set aside in 1872 not because of its remarkable wildlife, but because of its remarkable geothermal features and the enormous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Similarly, the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone’s south were set aside to preserve their remarkable vistas, and Glacier (to Yellowstone’s north) was protected so people could see mountains capped by, well, glaciers. But after a century of subsequent development, those parks (and surrounding designated wilderness areas, national forests, and various state parks) have created a massive swath of protected habitat, one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on Earth. A review of species lists from various national parks found that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had lost only one species since the 19th century, and the subsequent successful reintroduction of gray wolves has corrected even that deficit. Being able to study a virtually intact ecosystem has been invaluable to ecologists, conservation biologists, and to ethnobotanists and anthropologists trying to understand life in western North America before white settlement.

Yellowstone also, famously, contributed a building block for modern molecular biology. Bacteria from Yellowstone’s famous hot springs offered a solution to one of the great challenges in the early days of DNA sequencing, yielding an enzyme capable of replicating DNA at high temperatures. Researchers needed to heat up DNA samples to unravel the DNA before amplifying it, and the enzymes that do the job of copying DNA in most critters just couldn’t stand the heat. But Thermus aquaticus lives in near-boiling water all the time, so researchers predicted (rightly) that its enzymes would handle the task just fine. The growth of DNA sequencing for research, forensics, and personal interest since then is all thanks (in part) to the prescience of Ulysses Grant for creating Yellowstone, Woodrow Wilson for organizing the Park Service to protect it, and subsequent generations of leaders for upholding these vital parts of our national identity, what Wallace Stegner rightly called “the best idea we ever had.”


A Debate To Look Forward To

ScienceDebate logoHere at NCSE, we tend to frown on formal staged debates, especially about science itself. But in this political season, there’s an exception to be made. Working with ScienceDebate, we and dozens of other scientific societies have developed a list of twenty pressing questions that everyone running to be the next president of the United States should answer before the election.

These aren’t gotchas, and it’s not meant as a pop quiz. The questions go to the heart of the challenges the next president will need to confront. One question addresses science education; another tackles climate change directly. The biodiversity crisis—intimately connected with evolution—merits a question, as does the challenge of developing new vaccines and promoting existing ones. Other questions probe how our next president will promote research, support innovation, protect science from political interference, shape national and global energy policy, and confront crises in public health and the environment.

Will we see Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson answering these questions on stage? Their campaigns have all been invited to send back written responses, and asked to agree to discuss their responses on stage. I’d encourage you to contact candidates and urge them to give America the science debate we deserve.

Nor should you stop there. One third of the Senate—thirty-four seats—and every seat in the House are up for election in November. These questions are just as relevant for those policymakers as for the next president, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t raise them in local debates and candidate forums. The same is true for gubernatorial elections and state legislatures. School boards may not have much influence over issues like immigration of scientists and engineers or ocean policy, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t borrow appropriate questions from this same list and pose them to every candidate on your ballot.

Science itself isn’t up for debate. But our leaders can and should explain how they’ll work to advance science, and how they’ll use science to guide their choices, while they’re in office.

What We’re Reading

In reviewing a new (but, sadly, not novel) book espousing “intelligent design,” Kriti Sharma points to the author’s assertion that the only possible response to evolution is existential despair. A brief survey of biologists, however, suggests that such is hardly the case. Indeed, the study of evolution inspires wonder, excitement, intrigue, and adventure—and that describes just one extraordinary evolutionary biologist, whose new memoir is reviewed below. Now, when it comes to climate change, the bare facts are depressing enough—contemplating the likelihood of an adequate response given the political challenges can be chilling. At least science continues to make new discoveries, suggest solutions, inspire action, and provide options; I, for one, take hope in that.

  • A Wild Life Indeed (PDF), Current Biology, August 8, 2016 — Jonathan B. Losos reviews Robert Trivers’s memoir Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist: “a frank, honest and compelling view of a complicated man who’s lived a fascinating life and happens to be a scientist.”
  • Bracing Ourselves for the Climate Tipping Point, Pacific Standard, August 16, 2016 — As scientists prepare to evaluate the prospects for not exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius global warming limit, Eric Holthaus is pessimistic: “if maintaining the 1.5-degree limit is technically achievable, that in no way means it is politically achievable.”
  • Holding Out for a Hero, Religion Dispatches, August 16, 2016 — Reviewing the latest “intelligent design” screed, Kriti Sharma is unimpressed both with “the same tired, often-refuted argument” at its center and with the simplistic motivations behind it: “this book and its proponents can’t save those of us who don’t believe that salvation is as simple as answering one question correctly.”
  • Mouse Microbes May Make Scientific Studies More Difficult to Replicate, Science, August 17, 2016 — Not to brag, but you heard it here (and here, and here) first. Unrecognized variables often explain research results that appear not to be reproducible​. For example: “Increasingly, experimenters are questioning the potential research impact of the microbiome…. Rarely even discussed a few years ago, this potential source of variability attracts growing attention at lab animal care conferences, says MSU’s attending veterinarian, Claire Hankenson. ‘We didn’t know to look for it before,’ she says.”

photo credit: “Despair,” by Edvard Munch, via Wikimedia Commons / The Athenaeum.


Bell Rings for Darwin

Alexander Graham Bell, via Wikimedia Commons

Missing from Thomas F. Glick’s What About Darwin? (2010) is Alexander Graham Bell (right; 1847–1922), who is usually credited with patenting the first practical telephone. Glick’s book, as I’ve mentioned here before, presents, in the words of its Victorian subtitle, “all species of opinion from scientists, sages, friends, and enemies who met, read, and discussed the naturalist who changed the world.” Reviewing it for Reports of the NCSE, I described it as “simply a delightful book to browse through” in part because there are so many unlikely people to be found in it offering their views on Darwin. But Bell, a prolific inventor, a leader in the eugenics movement, and a mover and shaker in the scientific establishment of his day (he helped to establish the journal Science, for example), was a likely candidate—and yet is not to be found there.

I discovered Bell’s absence from Glick’s book because I was mildly curious about a passage that appears from time to time in creationist literature. A representative occurrence is in Bryon C. Nelson’s “After Its Kind” (1927), which I discussed in “Haeckeling Darwin with a Full Nelson.” Nelson writes, “Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and a student of evolutionary problems, said, ‘Natural selection does not and cannot produce new species and varieties. On the contrary its sole function is to prevent evolution.” He even provides a source: World’s Work, Dec. 1913, page 177. And there indeed appears a recognizable version of the quotation there, although after “varieties” there appears, following a comma, “or cause modifications of living organisms to come into existence.” The words are from Walter Archer Frost’s interview with Bell.

As is evidence from the title of the interview—“A Race of Human Thoroughbreds”—Bell was talking about eugenics. He was rejecting “fantastic and impracticable schemes for … preventing the propagation of undesirable characteristics” in favor of encouraging the propagation of desirable characteristics. But his discussion of natural selection is confused. He seems to be arguing that just as natural selection against inferior characteristics cannot produce a superior human, artificial selection against inferior characteristics cannot do so. But by the same token, since he is explicitly in favor of artificial selection for superior characteristics, leading to “the evolution of a higher and nobler type of man,” he should allow that natural selection for superior characteristics can result in evolution!

At least on the evidence of “A Race of Human Thoroughbreds,” Bell seems to be not only confused about natural selection but also dubious about its efficacy. His doubt, at least, is understandable, for he was writing at a time that Julian Huxley dubbed the eclipse of Darwinism, when (as Huxley wrote in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis [1942]): “Zoologists who clung to Darwinian views were looked down on by the devotees of the newer disciplines, whether cytology or genetics, Entwicklungsmechanik or comparative physiology, as old-fashioned theorizers; and the theological philosophical antipathy to Darwin’s great mechanistic generalization could once more raise its head without fearing too violent a knock.” But his attitude toward evolution per se is not on display in the interview. So I sought it elsewhere—and found it, not in Glick’s book, but in a distinctly goofy context.

In a January 27, 1873, letter (PDF) to his parents and sister-in-law, Bell thanked them for a newspaper clipping about one Andre Foglin. I don’t know exactly which clipping he received, but there were a number of stories in the press at the time reporting various anatomical peculiarities of Foglin: “Andre’s chest was round as a shield, with an enormous development of pectoral muscle: his arms were exceedingly long, and in walking he would swing them like the arms of a windmill.” After he was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, he was autopsied, whereupon it was discovered that “[t]he clavicle, shoulder-blade[,] and sternum all exhibited wonderful abnormal modification in the direction of the bird skeleton.” His son, also named Andre, supposedly was “several degrees nearer to the bird type than his father was.”

Whether he found it plausible or goofy, the clipping provoked Bell to discourse on his attitude toward Darwin and evolution in general. He wrote, “Should young Andre Foglin live to perpetuate his 3 peculiarities, posterity may perhaps believe in Darwin as I do,” and continued by explaining:

I cannot understand the prejudice with which many people view an honest and hard-working investigator like Darwin.

Geology has shown us that the Scriptural account of the Creation cannot be taken in a literal sense. To me it is infinitely more reasonable to suppose that Man is lineally descended from a monkey, than that he was moulded out of a piece of dirt!

Indeed if we do not put our own interpretation on the old testament—I do not see how Darwinism is opposed to the Scriptures. Darwin has revealed laws by which (given an inconceivable length of time) the whole vegetable and animal kingdoms (including man) have been developed from inorganic elements—by only one simple art of creation. Geology has shown not only that that inconceivable length of time has existed, but has even recovered the remains of animals—that blend the characters of what are now distinct species of animals. Indeed several of Darwin’s theoretical animals and plants have been found to have had an actual existence.

When Africa—the home of the man-like apes—and doubtless the cradle of the human race—has been searched, we may look forward to the discovery of human fossils approaching still nearer the ape-forms—than the fossils men found in France—or the lower type of Africans. [emphasis in original; when the transcript diverged from the original, the original is followed]

I can’t say that I care for the racism of the last six words (though it should be said that his biographer Robert V. Bruce describes Bell as “too sensible, experienced, and decent a man to be a racist”—see his Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude [1973]). But otherwise it seems like a sound response to Darwin’s work—sound as a Bell.


Pinning Down Piltdown


If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I spend a chunk of time each year in southeast England. If you’ve ever been there, you know that it’s a simply gorgeous part of the world, with winding roads snaking through verdant forests and farmland. Dotted along the lanes are, of course, pubs, and one of those pubs, in the village of Piltdown, bore a name that always made me smile—Piltdown Man.

I never went inside, something I regret, but I always wonder if a model of the famous Piltdown skull lurked somewhere within. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here’s a quick summary. Charles Darwin predicted, in The Descent of Man (1871), that fossils would be found in Africa that would provide evidence that humans and primates shared a common ancestry. But the first hominin (hominins are organisms more closely related to modern humans than modern chimps) fossils were found not in Africa, but in Europe, and then Asia. At the time, many Europeans were suffering from a worldview that saw all things African as inferior, so there was initial rejection of Darwin’s prediction, and early hominin fossil finds in Europe helped to bolster that reaction. Of course, today, we know that humanity did indeed originate in Africa, but the first fossil hominins weren’t discovered on the African continent until the 1920s.

Thus, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a kind of competition brewing in Europe to find new human ancestors and claim the cachet that came with them. In 1907, a 200,000–600,000-year-old specimen of what is now known as Homo heidelbergensis was found in Germany. The idea that humans originated in Germany didn’t sit well with naturalists in England—in fact, almost anything having to do with Germany didn’t sit well with the English in the years just before World War I. It was with great pomp and circumstance, then that in 1912, lawyer and amateur fossil hunter Charles Dawson claimed to unearth a skull proving that a human ancestor had lived in England.

With the help of a paleontologist friend, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Dawson recovered parts of a large humanlike skull and more apelike jaw and teeth that he concluded belonged to a single individual that lived about 500,000 years ago. Dawson and Woodward named their find Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn man”), but it is more familiarly known, of course, by its nickname “Piltdown Man.” The discovery was celebrated with nationalistic zeal in England, as it let them claim the title of humanity’s cradle from the Germans. But before long, the celebration turned to embarrassment. In 1953 Oxford University scientists applied the new technique of fluorine dating to E. dawsoni and concluded that the remains were much younger than Dawson and Woodward had claimed. Curious, they looked a bit closer and realized that bones from a modern orangutan and modern human had been altered and dyed to make it look like they all belonged to the same specimen. There was skepticism about Piltdown Man’s authenticity before this, but now there was proof.

So whodunit? The obvious suspect was Dawson, of course, but many wondered if he acted alone or had help. Was Woodward in on it? How about Stephen Jay Gould’s pick Teilhard deChardin, a French Jesuit priest with a yen for paleontology who accompanied Dawson and Woodward on a few of their trips in search of Piltdown Man fragments? And then there’s Dawson’s friend anatomist Arthur Keith—he had the know-how to pull off a convincing fraud. Did he play a role? More exotically, could it have been an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a resentful Arthur Conan Doyle to discredit a scientific establishment that failed to share his embrace of spiritualism? All these players are, of course, dead, so the mystery has floated like the Sussex fog for decades…until now.

In another delightful example of scientists using their skills to solve mysteries (remember the tale of the Explorers Club?), paleoanthropologist Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University led a team conducting a detailed reevaluation of Piltdown Man. In their paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, the researchers claim to have shed light on the mystery. Like previous scholars, they identify Dawson as the most likely fraudster, since he had the means and opportunity to complete the job, not to mention a record of forgery and a serious yen to join the scientific “in-crowd” (he clearly hankered to be elected to the Royal Society). Using CT scans, precise measurements, DNA analysis, and spectroscopy, the team first determined that the ape bones came from a single orangutan, while the human bones came from at least two different individuals. De Groote’s team also discovered white putty on each bone that had been used to fill in gaps and alter the bones’ shape, as well as to cover cavities filled carefully with gravel to make the bones feel heavier (as they would were they actual fossils). Consistencies in the way the bones were altered with the putty and with dye led De Groote and her team to conclude, “Throughout the whole assemblage, there’s evidence of one hand, one maker, one signature”—that is, Dawson’s.

It shouldn’t go without saying that the fraud was not actually a very good one. Indeed, many have commented on how remarkable it is that anyone ever believed that Piltdown was a real fossil. Dental putty held the teeth in place, for example, and many bones showed recent and obvious file marks. However, as Michael Price writes in Science:

“Dawson was able to fool the experts of the day by employing the same trick used by successful con artists since time immemorial: He showed them what they wanted to see. ‘Dawson really played a very clever card,’ De Groote says. ‘With the findings coming out of Germany, and Britain wanting to be at the forefront of science, there was this sense that, ‘We must have these fossils in Britain, as well.’”

So perhaps there’s a lesson here. Indeed, De Groote concludes the summary section of her Piltdown paper with this thought: “The Piltdown hoax stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to be led by preconceived ideas, but to use scientific integrity and rigour in the face of novel discoveries.”

Before I go, a sad postscript. A few years ago, the Piltdown Man pub changed owners and its name. Its new name? The Lamb. I suppose that it’s natural that owning a pub named after a notorious hoax might make you feel a little sheepish. Baaah.

Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an email or shoot me a Tweet @keeps3.