Using frauds and errors to discredit real science

Strangely, creationist arguments with their opponents often revolve around past scientific mistakes rooted in evidence. Two favourites are the ‘Piltdown Man’ hoax (most familiar to the British public) and the ‘Nebraska Man’ mistake (perhaps more familiar to an American audience). In both these cases, creationists claim that the scientific establishment acted dishonestly in an attempt to shore up a weak theory of human evolution and that the subsequent exposure of the discoveries severely weakens the credibility of evolutionary scientists.

Piltdown Man

The Piltdown skull

The Piltdown skull

It has been known since the 1950s that ‘Piltdown Man’ was an outright fabrication, in which a modified orang utan jaw and an anatomically modern human skull were planted on an archaeological site where they appeared to be associated. It was hailed as the long-awaited proof of a ‘missing link’ between humans and apes. To huge public acclaim, the discovery was named Eoanthropus dawsoni in honour of its discoverer, a lawyer and amateur archaeologist, Charles Dawson (1864-1916). It confirmed the hypotheses of some the leading (mostly English) anthropologists of the day, who believed that the human brain ought to have developed before modern human dentition; on the other hand, they ran against mainstream opinion and were rarely discussed in the scientific literature of the early twentieth century outside the United Kingdom. Their main support seems to have come from the British public, who were keen to claim the most ancient human remains, which were often referred to as “the first Englishman”. American anthropologists such as Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), on the other hand, were quick to express doubts about the place of Eoanthropus in the human evolutionary tree and at least one openly speculated that it might be fraudulent.

Charles Dawson was certainly the hoaxer, although others, including names as eminent as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), have also been implicated at times. Dawson, though, has been linked with numerous other forgeries (such as supposedly Roman stamped tiles, shown by thermoluminescent dating to have been made c 1900) and the case against him cannot easily be dismissed. He was clearly an ambitious man, eager to receive public recognition and acclamation: he hoped that the discovery of Eoanthropus would result in his election to The Royal Society, which it did not. As discoveries elsewhere in the world showed that changes to dentition preceded the growth of the brain and that the earliest human fossils were all to be found in Africa, so ‘Piltdown Man’ became relegated to the curiosities of the fossil record. The skull was dropped from textbooks long before scientific testing in the 1950s confirmed what many had long suspected: the bones were less than a thousand years old. It is difficult to see why ‘Piltdown Man’ is used by creationists as evidence for the dishonesty of evolutionary scientists when they were as much victims of the hoax as anyone else and they were responsible for its eventual exposure.

Nebraska Man

Amédée Forestier’s imaginative reconstruction of Hesperopithecus

Amédée Forestier’s imaginative reconstruction of Hesperopithecus

In the case of ‘Nebraska Man’, the tooth of an extinct species of pig was identified by Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) as possibly belonging to a fossil anthropoid ape to which he gave the scientific name Hesperopithicus haroldcookii. Ignoring Osborn’s scientific caution, the discovery was reported excitedly by the tabloid press in 1922 as the first evidence for fossil hominids in North America. At the time, there was no understanding of the African origins of hominids, so palaeoanthropologists were open to the idea of early hominids in North America, just as some could accept an early human ancestor in England; Osborn thought that apes had developed in Asia, so the idea of a North American anthropoid ape was not completely outrageous. As some pig teeth can confusingly resemble hominid teeth, the initial misidentification was not quite such a matter of scientific incompetence as the creationists like to imply. Notoriously, a speculative reconstruction of what a fossil hominid might look like by Amédée Forestier (1861-1930) was published with an account of the discovery in The Illustrated London News on 24 June 1922. The illustration shows that the paper’s editor guessed that the supposed hominid would have had what were then thought to be typically Neanderthal features: it can hardly be assumed to represent the views of palaeoanthropologists. The misidentification was soon realised and a correction was published by William King Gregory (1876-1970). It is important to note that the discovery and picture were published not in a scientific journal, but in a newspaper; those responsible for the misidentification of the tooth were not those responsible for the reconstruction drawing; the correction was published as soon as the initial mistake had been detected. There is no question of evolutionary scientists perpetrating a ‘cover-up’.

Creationist propagandists tend to present these errors as being typical of palaeoanthropology and of the dishonesty of anthropologists. They then suggest that similar errors and misidentifications have been made in assigning those fossils that continue to be regarded by palaeoanthropologists as belonging to extinct hominid species and that they ought to be classified as either modern human or as ape. What the creationists fail to point out is that the errors were uncovered and corrected from within the scientific community and that the scientists involved made no attempt to suppress the evidence for their previous errors. In contrast, creationists rarely expose their own errors, and they sometimes fail to correct them when others expose them.

The so-called “man-tracks” from the Paluxy River (Texas, USA)

The so-called “man-tracks” from the Paluxy River (Texas, USA)

Did dinosaurs and humans co-exist outside The Flintstones?

Faced with evidence for undeniably extinct creatures, such as dinosaurs, it becomes imperative for creationists to show that they existed up to the time of Noah’s Flood (which, as the mechanism that they usually believe killed them, is thus confirmed for creationists by the fossil record). For a number of years, their star exhibit has been a series of tracks in the bed of the Paluxy River in Texas, which has been important to the creationist case since Whitcomb and Morris published photographs of supposed human footprints from the riverbed in The Genesis Flood in 1961. In 1982, Glen Kuban (born 1957) pointed out that the peripheries of a series of ‘human’ footprints known as the ‘Taylor trail’ have gradually been changing colour as the exposed rock weathers. Where the weathering has taken place, it reveals that the footprints, far from being human in character, are typical of three-toed dinosaurs. The creationist response, in 1986, was to suggest that the colour changes might be fraudulent! Other lines of argument have also been employed: the supposed human artefacts found in geological deposits, fossils of anatomically modern humans from geologically ancient deposits and so on. These need to be examined on a case-by-case basis, as no single explanation can be given for such diverse pieces of evidence.

The age of the earth

One of the main areas where creationism impacts most directly on archaeology is on its attack on scientific dating methods, most particularly on radiometric dating. The process of radioactive decay is central to most scientific dating in archaeology. Because certain atoms are unstable, their nuclei sometimes break apart and change into another element (for instance, when they emit a high-energy particle consisting of two protons and two neutrons – an alpha-particle – or when a neutron inside the nucleus breaks into a proton and an electron and the electron – a beta-particle – is ejected at high speed). Radiometric dating is possible because of the fact that the decay of a radioactive element into its daughter element takes place at a constant rate, known as the half-life. The half-lives of various radioactive isotopes can be measured very precisely. Uranium-235 (U235), for instance, has a half-life of 713 million years. Starting with a known quantity of U235, in 713 million years this material will consist of half U235 and half Lead-207 (Pb207). In another 713 million years, half of the remaining uranium will decay, and the material will now consist of three-quarters lead and one-quarter uranium. Radiometric dating of minerals using a wide variety of elements has shown that the oldest rocks to be found on earth are around 3.8 billion years old, while those of the moon are closer to 4.1 billion years old. This has been taken to suggest that the earth began to form around 4.5 billion years ago, the oldest earth rocks having been covered by deposits that are more recent or drawn back beneath the crust by subduction to melt again in the mantle. Similarly, radiometric dating of the rocks in which fossil hominids are found has suggested that the earliest human ancestors so far discovered can be dated at over 5 million years ago, while the earliest members of our own species are presently thought to have lived about 200,000 years ago.

The creationists cannot accept an age for modern humans of 200,000 years, never mind an earth that is 4.5 billion years old. Their only recourse is to find a way of discrediting radiometric dating. They have to explain why there is such widespread agreement among the different dating methods pointing to an old earth and a consistent chronology for human beings that extends back for many millennia before 4,004 BCE. Most of their attacks are on the nature of radiometric dating: it is not a closed system, we do not know how much of the daughter element was present at the time of creation, we do not know that radioactive decay rates have remained constant… True, these are problems for radiometric dating, but they do not invalidate the techniques and they can be overcome. For instance, where two different radioactive isotopes from a single sample can be measured, it is unlikely that contamination in an open system would produce wrong radiometric dates that are compatible; the daughter element is not always stable itself and will produce a further daughter element; it is a central tenet of creationism that the universe has not changed since the moment of creation (which is why evolution is impossible in the creationist view), so by their own rules, radioactive decay ought to show no variation through time.

What creationists do not pick on are things like varves, ice cores and tree rings, where it is possible to count annual developmental rings. These three techniques produce entirely consistent results. True, there are slight discrepancies between these techniques and those of radiocarbon, but they are explained by the open system of the atmosphere, where the amount of Carbon-14 produced varies according to a number of external factors. Once again, these small scale effects would not be enough to make the difference between a 6,000 year-old earth and one that is much older (radiocarbon dates can be acquired stretching back about 40,000 years, beyond which the quantities of Carbon-14 are too small to measure).

Conclusion: creationism is false and willfully fraudulent

Creationism is ultimately a dogmatic and inflexible religious system that demands an unquestioning belief in its authority from its followers. It does not represent the mainstream views of those within the religions in which it has taken hold. Despite the claims of so-called Scientific Creationism or Intelligent Design, their system is not open to testing in anything like the ways that would be acceptable to mainstream scientists. Members of some creationist institutions are required to sign statements that they will uphold and not question the central beliefs of creationism. Many prominent creationists apparently believe that whatever advances the cause is true, whereas whatever damages it is false (an attitude with a venerable Christian history: the third-century bishop Clement of Alexandria taught that it is right to lie if it helps spread the faith, even to the extent of denying something palpably true). Errors should be covered up as soon as possible and only admitted when failure to do so threatens greater damage to the cause. If colleagues spread errors, it is better not to criticise them in public, as it is better to deceive believers than to have them question the legitimacy of their leaders. This exposes the huge gulf between ‘creation science’ and real science. Scientists become famous by overturning the errors of previous generations; in ‘scientific creationism’, a system based on authority and faith, someone who exposes an error is a treacherous apostate.