Henry Fairfield Osborn and Piltdown Man’s Racist Legacy

[Edited 23 Jul 2017, intro rewritten; 24 Jul 2017, title changed]

The four “early men” of mid-century evolution: Java man, Piltdown man, Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man, as pictured in the 1952 edition of Elements of Biology. In 1953, examiners announced that Piltdown was in fact a fake. Though neatly X’ed out here by an anonymous student, the sudden removal of Piltdown precipitated a decades-long crisis for the many textbook authors who had used the “fossil” to support a popular non-African and non-Darwinian story of human origins.


According to Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History from 1908 to 1933, Piltdown man, the famous fake [1], was proof that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was wrong, and that modern humans did not need trace their ancestry through Africa.

He outlined his ideas in a paper read at the American Philosophical Society on April 29, 1927, and detailed them fully in an article in Science, published January 3, 1930.

Though Osborn’s ideas were not entirely outside the mainstream, his championing of Piltdown in the 1920s and 30s was a defensive move designed to shore up his professional status against the threat represented by a new generation of scientists, including several who worked directly under him at the museum, who were challenging basic assumptions upon which Osborn had built his reputation and institution. New evidence and new conceptualizations had started chipping away at Osborn’s favored theory of human evolution, a variation of orthogenesis that posited the existence of a “driving force” impelling species or races to develop progressively toward almost pre-defined end points.

To counter the challenge, Osborn went public. He turned the considerable resources of his museum toward the development of a wide range of compelling visual materials – reconstructions, painting, charts, graphs and photos – which he made available to textbook publishers and the popular press. Easy access to the these images, combined with the unchallenging non-Darwinian story they advanced, ensured their broad adoption.

It’s an American tragedy.

By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.

OSBORN’S EVOLUTION

First appearance. From Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Men of the Old Stone Age (1915).

Though few scientists in Osborn’s era doubted the common origin of species, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was thought by many to be an insufficient explanation for how it all worked. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 40s that new research in genetics laid a foundation for the restoration of natural selection under what would come to be called the modern synthesis. Until then, neo-Lamarckians remained free to seek evidence of evolution by acquired characteristics, saltationists could claim evolution happened in great mutation leaps (see Where’d Hugo Go?), and orthogenicists, like Osborn, could claim the fossil record, with Piltdown as a key point of evidence, supported a story of progressive evolutionary change driven by internal forces.

Though he was initially open to argument regarding the age and interpretation of Piltdown [2], by the end of the 1920s Osborn was promoting the find as authentic, indisputably old, and proof of his orthogenetic – and eugenic – beliefs.

Like many of his class contemporaries, including Theodore Roosevelt, Osborn viewed his “race” as superior, and defended its status and privilege as the natural consequence of progressive evolution. According to Osborn (and many others), White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, particularly those from Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries, carried in them a primitive robustness born of struggle against a relatively harsh environment; a robustness under threat from the softening forces of civilization and the supposedly degenerative effects of racial interbreeding.

But Osborn was also driven by the very proximate fear that his personal status, and its associated power to draw support from the rich and powerful for his museum, was under assault. And this fear only grew worse after the crash of 1929, when many of his museum’s supporters lost their fortunes.

In fairness, Osborn supported the scientists on his own staff who, gently but relentlessly, challenged the “old man’s” ideas. Nonetheless, despite objections from his staff, Osborn dedicated significant museum resources to the development and dissemination of displays that told the story of human evolution as he wanted to tell it.

DOUBLING DOWN ON PILTDOWN

To illustrate his 1915 book, Men of the Old Stone Age, and later for display at the Hall of Man at the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn commissioned a colleague at Columbia University, J. H. McGregor, to sculpt four supposedly scientific reconstructions of early humans based on fossil skulls. These busts, of Java man, Neanderthal man, Cro-Magnon man and Piltdown, along with reproductions of the famous murals of Neanderthal flint workers and Cro-Magnon cave painters by the accomplished Charles R. Knight (see: Race, Art and Evolution), became the icons of human evolution in textbooks.

Initially, Piltdown’s place in Osborn’s story was insecure. He even inserted a note in the second edition of Men of the Old Stone Age (1916) referencing an article by Garrit S. Miller of the Smithsonian Institution who concluded the jaw in question was “generically identical” to that of an adult chimpanzee. [3] But as Osborn’s orthogenetic ideas came under increasing assault in the 1920s, rather than modify his core beliefs, he doubled down. In an article published in 1927 titled, ”Recent Discoveries Relating to the Origin and Antiquity of Man,“ Osborn repositioned Piltdown as the “dawn man” his Linnaean name, Eoanthropus dawsoni, implied. He pushed Piltdown back in time to the Pliocene and pushed forward Piltdown’s relative cultural advancement (which he pegged as somewhere between the modern “Negro” and the “Chinese”). This helped Osborn make two critical claims: first, the common ancestor of humans and apes, hominidae and sminiidae, was so far in the past as to be not worth discussing. And second, that modern “Whites” are not quite as culturally advanced as were Cro-Magnons, which Osborn suggested was due to racial mixing.

To reinforce his points, in his 1930 Science article, Osborn published a graphic “family tree of man” that would join McGregor’s busts and Knight’s murals to become part of the standard package of graphics used to illustrate the story of human evolution in textbooks for decades.

This graphic, read from bottom to top, illustrates Osborn’s belief that the evolutionary lines that led to humans and apes split early. Read from right to left, it illustrates Osborn’s ideas regarding relative level of cultural development.


Though the bust was available, Gruenberg illustrated Piltdown using a line drawing apparently copied from an original produced by the Geological Society of London.

PILTDOWN IN AMERICAN TEXTBOOKS

Piltdown man made his first appearance in an American high school classroom in Benjamin Gruenberg’s Elementary Biology, published in 1919. He was mentioned last in B. B. Vance and D. F. Miller’s Biology for You, published in 1958 (five years after it was found to be a fraud!). But Piltdown’s heyday was in the two-decade period between 1932 and 1952, when he was featured in about 60% of the textbooks published (see database). The four McGregor busts made their first appearance as a set in 1935 in An Introduction to Biology by Edward Loranus Rice and Biology by Frederick L. Fitzpatrick and Ralph E Horton. Osborn’s family tree first appeared a year earlier in the highly eugenic Man and the Nature of His Biological World by Frank Covert Jean (et al.).

The McGregor busts, along with the skull reconstructions of the same four species, appeared in An Introduction to Biology by Edward Loranus Rice (1935), Biology by Frederick L. Fitzpatrick and Ralph E Horton (1935, pictured above), General Biology (Mavor, 1936), Our World of Living Things (Heiss et al., 1936), Adventures with Living Things (minus Cro-Magnon, Kroeber and Wolff, 1938 and 1950), Man and His Living World (Stanford, 1940), Living Things and You (Downing and McAtee, 1940), Biology: The Science of Life (MacDougall et al., 1943), Exploring Biology (Smith, 1943), Man and His Biological World (Jean et. Al., 1944), and Elements of Biology (Dodge, Smallwood et al., 1948, 1952).


CHALLENGED

However, it would be easy to overstate the power of Osborn’s propaganda. From the start, Osborn’s interpretations did not go unchallenged. As Ronald Ranger points out in An Agenda for Antiquity, many prominent anthropologists, including Robert Lowie, Clark Wissler and Margaret Mead, “were outraged by [Osborn’s] views on race and evolution” (178). Further, Ranger thinks it is likely most museum visitors (and by extension most biology students) simply enjoyed the spectacle of the busts and artifacts and skipped the didactics.

Regardless, throughout his run, Piltdown place in the history of human evolution remained unstable.

Piltdown was rarely introduced without disclaimer. Authors almost always noted early debates regarding the association of the skull fragments and jaw. And his age was always in dispute. Though Osborn dated Piltdown to the end of the Pliocene, or about 1,250,000 years before present (BP), the very popular textbooks by W. M. Smallwood (et al., 1934 on) dated Piltdown to just 100,000 BP, while Jean (et al., 1934) dated the fossil to somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 BP.

An alternate line up from the American Museum of Natural History, photographed without Piltdown. From Leslie A. Kenoyer and Henry N. Goddard’s General Biology (1937).

An alternate “early man” line up was featured in General Biology by Leslie A. Kenoyer and Henrry N. Goddard (1937). [4] Credited to the American Museum of Natural History, this image, photographed from a slightly higher angle and lit differently than the standard shot, notably did not include Piltdown.

An alternate “reconstruction” can be found in M. W. de Laubenfels’ quirky Life Science (1941). De Laubenfels objected to how “humanized” Piltdown appeared in other publications, derisively calling this representation, “Gurth, the Saxon.”

The “dehumanized” illustration of Piltdown from M. W. de Laubenfels Life Science (1941, 1949).

Perhaps the most significant early challenge is found in Gairdner B. Moment’s General Biology for College (1942). Gairdner’s text is notable for being among the first textbooks to take a strong “anti-eugenic” stance since that topic’s first serious introduction in George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology (1914). Rather than publishing the standard McGregor photos, Moment published photos of the “hairless phase” of McGregor’s busts as they appeared in Fanz Boas’ seminal General Anthropology (1938). [5] When hairless, and uncolored, the busts lose much of their obvious racial characteristics.

The “hairless phase” of McGregor’s Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon busts as featured in Franz Boas’ General Anthropology (1938).

Moment does not picture Piltdown, and he all but dismisses the find as, “the most problematical of an extremely problematical group” (496).

THE MISSING CHILD

Absent from all textbooks of the 1930s and most from the 1940s was any discussion of one of the key paleontological finds in the story of human evolution, the “Taung Child,” or Australopithecus africanus, discovered by South African quarrymen in 1924 and described by neuroanatomist Raymond Dart in 1925.

It is now believed one of several identified species of Australopithecus evolved into the genus Homo some 2 million years ago. But while Peking man (sometimes ‘Pekin’), discovered and described between 1929 and 1937, made it into most textbooks by 1938, [6] Dart’s fossil showed up in only a smattering. It didn’t make its first appearance in the most popular high school biology textbook, Modern Biology, until 1965. [7]

There are many reasons why Dart’s fossil took so long to gain acceptance. Some good. Some political. But Piltdown certainly played a major part. Australopithecus just didn’t fit the Out of Asia theory of human evolution that Osborn promoted, and Piltdown “proved.”

It’s not like the story wasn’t out there.

In 1940, E. E. Stanford, in Man and the Living World, had enough confidence to start the story of human evolution with Australopithecus (referring to Dart’s find as the “Taungs skull”). He exaggerated the fossil’s age, stating, “this relic is perhaps ten million years old.” But he made clear its importance when he wrote that the fossil represented a creature that “appears closer to the human line than any other ape-remains so far discovered” (645).

But Stanford stood pretty much alone. Virtually all other authors started the story of human evolution with Java man (or sometimes Peking man), followed by Piltdown. This Out of Asia line up, with its ready set of visual support materials – Java, Piltdown, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon – would prove extremely difficult to dislodge, even after Piltdown was cut.

As late as 1949, the year a new dating technology, the fluorine test, showed Piltdown to be no more than 50,000 years old, Wolfgang Pauli, in his wildly pro-eugenic textbook, The World of Life, edited by Bentley Glass, would still confidently claim Piltdown was “the earliest direct ancestor of modern man yet discovered” (498).

(For more, see The Aggressive Mutation of Post-War Eugenics, and The Eugenic Zombie in a Graveyard of Textbooks and Eugenics in 20th Century High School Biology Textbooks.)

AFTER THE FALL

Though it wouldn’t introduce Australopithecus until 1965, Modern Biology (Moon et al.) dropped any mention of Piltdown (or Cro-Magnon) with its 1947 revision. Exploring Biology (Smith), the second-most popular high school text dropped Piltdown (and introduced the modern synthesis) in 1949. And General Biology for College (Moment) de-indexed Piltdown (and introduced Australopithecus tranvallensis) in 1950.

In striking contrast, in the first edition of the college-level Biology (1950), a textbook that would go on to dominate that market, author Claude Villee, like Pauli the year before, provided a long description of Piltdown. And like Pauli, relied for reference on the influential, and extremely racist, Up from the Ape by Harvard anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton (1931). Hooton, according to Villee, believed Piltdown “to be closer to the direct evolutionary line leading to man than any fossil so far discovered” (Villee, 1950, p. 532).

The revelation that Piltdown was a hoax in November, 1953, proved to be an extinction event for two venerable textbook series, Elements of Biology (Dodge, Smallwood), first published as Biology in 1916, and Man and His Biological World (Jean et al.,  first published as Man and the Nature of His Biological World in 1934). Both were “old school,” to put it pleasantly, on the topics of race and eugenics. And both, unsurprisingly, were all-in on Piltdown.

The Piltdown shock in fact all but obliterated the topic of human evolution in high school textbooks through the rest of the 1950s. Modern Biology dropped the topic altogether in its 1956 edition. And the topic, covered thoroughly in Exploring Biology in 1949, was relegated to a brief mention on last pages of the 1959 edition. The topic of human evolution only returned to high school textbooks in 1960, pushed to restoration both by the publicity surrounding the discoveries by Richard and Mary Leakey at Olduvai George in Tanzania, and by the fear of a “science gap” generated by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. But amazingly, thought perhaps unsurprisingly, what was restored were McGregor’s busts, minus Piltdown of course.

Eugenics remained a featured topic in Modern Biology (Moon et al.), the most popular high school textbook, through its 1963 edition, and Biology (Villee), the most popular college text, through its 1967 edition. The McGregor busts illustrated both. Given the slow pace of textbook turnover, this means biology students well into the 1970s were taught a story of human evolution Henry Fairfield Osborn would have recognized as his own.


[1] Unveiled ceremoniously at a 1912 meeting of the Geological Society of London, Piltdown man became the pride of Great Britain. Conjured from a few skull fragments, a jaw bone, a tooth and an odd collection of associated flora and fauna fossils, Piltdown was proof that England, like rivals France and Germany, was once home to prehistoric humans.

Collected by amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson, and presented by the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum of Britain, Arthur Smith Woodward, Piltdown man was “the missing link,” a creature whose features matched what many experts expected an early human to look like.

[2] Piltdown did have its detractors. William King Gregory, who worked under Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, suggested as early as 1913 that Piltdown was a deliberate hoax. The key question regarding the association of the skull fragments, which seemed clearly human, and jaw, which looked very simian, remained unsettled throughout Piltdown’s run. Were they parts of the same individual or did they just happen to fall into the same pit? But after the distinguished Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum of Natural History announced in 1917 that Dawson had discovered a second set of Piltdown fossils (the year before he died in 1916) at a site just a few miles from the original, the debate was considered by most closed, even though the precise location of the second site was never identified and the circumstances surrounding it and the first find were sketchy at best. Even Gregory was converted.

[3] See: “The Lower Jaw of the Piltdown Man Referred to an Adult Chimpanzee.”

[4] Kenoyer’s text, though it did not picture McGregor’s Piltdown bust, did feature Osborn’s family tree.

[5] Boaz expressed serious doubts about Piltdown early, writing in 1938, “On the European continent and in America there have been from the first numerous skeptics as to the validity of Eoanthropus (General Anthropology, 1938, p. 60).

[6] See: Kroeber, Elsbeth and Walter H. Wolff. 1938. Adventures with Living Things. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company,  p 746.

[7] See: Otto, James H., and Albert Towle. 1965. Modern Biology, New York: Holt, Rienhart and Winston, Inc., pp 544-549.


REFERENCES

Boaz, Fraz. 1938. General Anthropology. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. 1915. Men of the Old Stone Age. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons [Second Edition, 1916].

––. 1927. “Recent Discoveries Relating to the Origin and Antiquity of Man.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 66: 373-389.

––. 1930. “The Discovery of Tertiary Man.” Science 71: 1-7.

Ranger, Ronald. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn & Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890–1935. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.


DATABASE

Biology Textbook Database (Piltdown): A complete list of textbooks reviewed for this article. Includes links to public domain texts and author biographies where available.

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