Tag Archives: Piltdown

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. Continue reading