Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man

[Edited 31 Aug 2017, updates to intro; title changed]

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, fixing them in place just as they reached their sell-by date.

Osborn’s championing of Piltdown was not the work of a confident scientist, but rather a defensive move by a man under attack. A new generation of scientists, including several who worked directly under Osborn at his museum, had started challenging the foundational ideas upon which Osborn had built his reputation. 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 predefined end points.

To counter challenges to his reputation and status, Osborn turned the considerable resources of his museum toward the development of a wide range of compelling visual materials that illustrated his story of evolution – reconstructions, painting, charts, graphs and photos – and distributed the materials freely to textbook publishers and the popular press.

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.

This, as they say, was a tragedy of historic proportions.

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. Continue reading