It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem… Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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Unraveling Piltdown: the science fraud of the century and its solution New York : Random House, c 1996 John Evangelist Walsh Piltdown forgery History Hardcover. 1st ed., later printing. xx, 279 p., [8] p. of plates: ill.; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [261]-268) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

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In 1913 amateur fossil hunter and archaeologist Charles Dawson found in a gravel pit the cranium and jaw of an entirely new species of humanoid, which became known as Piltdown man, which caused headlines worldwide as the missing link between man and ape. In 1952, it was exposed as a hoax and this book – ironically – a wonderful detective story, claims that no less a person than the inventor of Sherlock Holmes and author of other popular boy’s novels, Arthur Conan Doyle was the perpetrator.

Illustration shows an interior view of a hall in a museum with four men sitting quietly beneath a shelf of "Books of Religious Reference"; there is a small crowd gathered before them. Further along the hall is another group of four men sitting quietly beneath a shelf of "Books of Scientific Reference"; part of the display, labeled "Geography", shows an owl perched on an open book labeled "Kosmos" and a man standing next to a globe. Further still along the hall is a man lecturing to a large gathering in a section labeled "Chemistry". Portraits of Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Benedictus de Spinoza, and Thomas Paine hang from the vaulted archways above.

Illustration shows an interior view of a hall in a museum with four men sitting quietly beneath a shelf of “Books of Religious Reference”; there is a small crowd gathered before them. Further along the hall is another group of four men sitting quietly beneath a shelf of “Books of Scientific Reference”; part of the display, labeled “Geography”, shows an owl perched on an open book labeled “Kosmos” and a man standing next to a globe. Further still along the hall is a man lecturing to a large gathering in a section labeled “Chemistry”. Portraits of Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Benedictus de Spinoza, and Thomas Paine hang from the vaulted archways above.

The “skull”, discovered in Sussex was not in fact a half-million-year-old human ancestor, Eoanthropus, “dawn man,” but a crude amalgam of a medieval human brain case with an orangutan jaw of the same age. A few of the bones were painted with household brown paint and others roughly stained to resemble a fossil. Walsh argues that Conan Doyle (a trained anatomist) several times visited the Piltdown dig and was at the time writing The Lost World. What better publicity for a missing universe of ape-men than to find an extinct ape-faced human? There are other clues: he had once collected fossils in Malta (the real source of ancient hippopotamus bones scattered at the Piltdown site) and was a friend of an expert on 500-year-old orangutan skulls used for ritual purposes in Borneo. What is more, as a spiritualist Conan Doyle was anxious to attack conventional science – and interestingly enough evolution had become conventional science in a world ready to accept that men – except for those who put forth the arguments – needed to be regulated like any other form of livestock and what would follow would be eugenics and genocide.

Illustration shows a number of historical figures enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of "Sheol" after suffering the flames of Hell; at left is a dejected Devil sitting beneath a sign that states "This Business is Removed to Sheol, Opposite". Among those ferried across the river by "Charon" are "Hypatia, Fanny Elssler, Voltaire, Frederick [the] Great, Socrates, J. Offenbach, Darwin, J.S. Mill, Rousseau, George Sand, Galileo, Jefferson, Th. Paine, Goethe, [and] H. Heine".

Illustration shows a number of historical figures enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of “Sheol” after suffering the flames of Hell; at left is a dejected Devil sitting beneath a sign that states “This Business is Removed to Sheol, Opposite”. Among those ferried across the river by “Charon” are “Hypatia, Fanny Elssler, Voltaire, Frederick [the] Great, Socrates, J. Offenbach, Darwin, J.S. Mill, Rousseau, George Sand, Galileo, Jefferson, Th. Paine, Goethe, [and] H. Heine”.


Interestingly enough it was Darwin himself who realized that he was, quite conscious that my speculations run beyond the bounds of true science… It is a mere rag of an hypothesis with as many flaws and holes as sound parts… and in particular an inabilty to prove his theory using fossils, The number of intermediate varieties which have formerly existed on earth must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory, which he had the integrity to include in the 1902 edition of his work.

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So much public science fits into the category of Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity which were not much more than a parlor trick that he purchased in order to display that he was a “gentleman of leisure” with the time for such pursuits. This was done before the American Revolution in pursuit of a British peerage and the recognition and patronage that went with it – something he pursued even during and after the Revolution. During the 19th century public science went from parlor trick to side show and whether it was Mark Twain visiting a museum that displayed three skulls of Christopher Columbus – one from when he was a boy, one from when he was a young man and the last from when he was old – or the tragedy of Joseph Merrick displayed as the Elephant Man the dawn of modern technology had a dark side that displayed greater superstition and ignorance than any religion ever had.

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That Piltdown was a forgery should come as no surprise. That it took half a century to prove it was a forgery should tell you something about the evolution industry. It should also make the entire intellectual community review the evidence – or lack thereof – supporting the theory and question the impact of a mere rag of an hypothesis with as many flaws and holes as sound parts on the social sciences and the government policies that they generate.

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Amusingly enough it was the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, or more precisely of Arthur Conan Doyle, Gilbert Keith Chesterton‘s unassuming clerical detective, Father Brown, who gives us the final judgement on Piltdown Man and all of Darwin’s “creation” when he tells us, you are a great poet! You have called an uncreated being out of the void. How much more godlike that is than if you had only ferreted out the mere facts! Indeed, the mere facts are rather commonplace by comparison.

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