One tooth. One solitary tooth. It may change the way modern Men In White interpret our origins.
Israeli archeologists released a statement today (27 December 2010) that they may have found the earliest evidence for homo sapien life (at best); others believe it more likely the remains are related to our so-called ancestor, the Neanderthal. The scientists found a handful of human teeth in layers of earth they suppose to be in the neighborhood of 400,000 years old. If the discovery is solidified it will lead to “…changes [in] the picture of evolution…”
The way an anthropologist or geologist date things is conceptually pretty simple: the Men In White pressuppose their archeological dig to be from a definite age; consequently all things found in the surrounding area are, with great certainty, declared to be of the same era. Inference of this kind can lead to colossal embarrassment. Just ask Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, an anthropologist with impeccable credentials; he was completely deceived by his own preconceptions. He, too, created a complex theory of human origins based on finding a few teeth and bone fragments.
It all started when skull fragments and a jaw bone were found during excavations (1908–15) at Piltdown, Sussex, England, by Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist. Since the pieces were found with remains of mammals of the Lower Pleistocene epoch, the bones were supposed to belong to a “Piltdown Man” who lived 200,000 to 1,000,000 years ago.
These remains had been brought to Sir Arthur Smith Woodward’s attention, keeper of the department of geology at the British Natural History Museum. Woodward’s friend, Sir Arthur Keith, the anatomist, was recruited into the investigation. Then Grafton Elliot Smith, a renowned brain specialist, joined the team. Together, they fell for one of the greatest hoaxes in the twentieth century. Many years later fluorine tests showed that the Piltdown fossil was no more than 50,000 years old. X-ray analysis proved that the jaw was from a chimpanzee; further tests demonstrated conclusively that the jaw and tooth were of modern origin. We now know that the Piltdown skull and jaw were fakes: an ape jaw, with filed-down molars, and a human skull that had been suitably stained to give the appearance for great age.
Self-deception is a problem in academia. Sometimes an entire community of learned scientists fall prey to a common delusion. These men from Sussex, experts in their various fields, were deceived by a mere proletarian. The Men In White were seeking grant money, awards, fame and international recognition. Their underwriters were impatient and wanted results.
The Men In White in our own day have preconceptions, too. These preconceptions lead to grand expectations. This expectancy leads to self-deception, and self-deception leads to the propensity to be tricked by others. Professional magicians claim that scientists, because of their confidence in their own objectivity, are easier to deceive than other people [i].
In any of the sciences, and particularly the discipline of anthropology, we might as well ask if the men of the caliber of Keith, Woodward, and Smith could be deceived by their own preconceptions to fall for the Piltdown Hoax, how can we be sure that the men of science today are not also deceived by their own expectations.
[i] BETRAYERS OF THE TRUTH by William Broad & Nicholas Wade, p. 108, New York: Simon & Schuster, ©1982.