Thursday, March 04, 2010

Patrick J. Buchanan Waxes Greatly About That of Which He Knows Not

An article making the rounds on the conservative blogs by Patrick Buchanan, one-time GOP presidential candidate, trots out more half-truths about evolution and global warming. Titled, the Hoax of the Century, Buchanan makes the following statements:
With publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, the hunt was on for the "missing link." Fame and fortune awaited the scientist who found the link proving Darwin right: that man evolved from a monkey.

In 1912, success! In a gravel pit near Piltdown in East Sussex, there was found the cranium of a man with the jaw of an ape.

"Darwin Theory Proved True," ran the banner headline.

Evolution skeptics were pilloried, and three English scientists were knighted for validating Piltdown Man.

It wasn't until 1953, after generations of biology students had been taught about Piltdown Man, that closer inspection discovered that the cranium belonged to a medieval Englishman, the bones had been dyed to look older and the jaw belonged to an orangutan whose teeth had been filed down to look human.
Because Buchanan knows so little about evolution and the fossil record, he imagines that the above paragraphs are quite pithy. They are not. Is it true that Piltdown took in some well-known scientists? Yes, it is. What is largely responsible for this, however, is how good a hoax it was. To this day, we don't know for sure who perpetrated it, although the cloud of suspicion hangs over the head of Charles Dawson, who died in 1915, three years after the "remains" were found. Dawson took advantage of the fact that, in its infancy, the study of human evolution simply did not have the tools necessary to uncover such a hoax.

What Buchanan does not say is that, despite the fact that many people did accept it, many also did not. Ales Hrdlicka, the founder of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and Franz Weidenreich, describer of the Zhoukoudian (Peking Man) fossils both thought that the remains were questionable. Hrlicka came right out and pronounced it a hoax while Weidenreich admitted that he did not understand how it could fit with what was known of human ancestry at that time.

The other thing that Buchanan does not say is that Weidenreich had great reason to wonder. Beginning in the early 1800s all the way up through the uncovering of Piltdown and beyond, a huge assortment of fossil human remains had been discovered all over the Old World. There had been Neandertal discoveries in Europe, at the sites of Spy, La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, St. Cesaire just to name a few. In Africa, one of the key predictions of Darwin, that human ancestral remains would be found there, had been borne out, with the discoveries of Australopithecus remains in the 1920s and 1930s. Homo erectus remains had been discovered in East Asia beginning in the 1890s and more was to come. Somehow, Buchanan, in his effort to make his point about human evolution, fails to mention any of these.

Simply put, by the time Piltdown was dethroned and removed from the human fossil "tree," most workers in the field had already considered doing so. There was simply no place for it. It was an anomaly in the record of human evolution. It is not the first time that science has been taken in by a hoax and it will not be the last.

He continues:
In 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, identified a tooth fossil found in Nebraska to be that of an "anthropoid ape." He used his discovery to mock William Jennings Bryan, newly elected to Congress, as "the most distinguished primate which the State of Nebraska has yet produced."

Invited to testify at the Scopes trial, however, Osborn begged off. For, by 1925, Nebraska Man's tooth had been traced to a wild pig, and Creationist Duane Gish, a biochemist, had remarked of Osborn's Nebraska Man, "I believe this is a case in which a scientist made a man out of a pig, and the pig made a monkey out of the scientist."
Not only is this untrue, it conflicts broadly with another creationist myth, that Osborn did testify and embarrassed William Jennings Bryan at the trial. The truth of the matter is that Osborn was not even on the list of witnesses that the defense brought. The NCSE report on this "myth" has this to say:
Quite simply, Henry Fairfield Osborn never testified at the Scopes trial. He was not even on the list of scientific witnesses that the defense team organized. The front page of the New York Times for July 14, 1925, has a boxed article entitled "List of Scientists and Ministers to Aid Scopes if Evidence Is Admitted on Evolution and the Bible." This article begins with the statement: "The complete list of witnesses for the defense in the Scopes trial called so far and who are either here or on the way was announced today as follows. . . ." The article goes on to list the names, positions, and affiliations of fifteen people; Osborn is not among them.
Not only was he not there, he wasn't planning to be there. Now let's turn to Nebraska Man. When I was doing my graduate work in anthropology, I took a course on forensics. One of the things we were taught is that when doing experiments to see how bone will behave, pig bone is always used because it behaves the most like human bone. Pig teeth, in fact, are very similar to human teeth and a very worn pig tooth and a very worn human tooth are similar in appearance. Osborn was sent a human tooth in isolation from any provenance. While this doesn't entirely excuse his mistake, it does make it a bit more understandable. As Jim Foley, on the TalkOrigins page notes:
Most other scientists were skeptical even of the more modest claim that the Hesperopithecus tooth belonged to a primate. It is simply not true that Nebraska Man was widely accepted as an ape-man, or even as an ape, by scientists, and its effect upon the scientific thinking of the time was negligible. For example, in his two-volume book Human Origins published during what was supposedly the heyday of Nebraska Man (1924), George MacCurdy dismissed Nebraska Man in a single footnote:"In 1920 [sic], Osborn described two molars from the Pliocene of Nebraska; he attributed these to an anthropoid primate to which he has given the name Hesperopithecus. The teeth are not well preserved, so that the validity of Osborn's determination has not yet been generally accepted."
Further, as far as a primate tooth in North America was concerned, this was not so odd. Fossil primate remains are known from North America. Adapids were present in the Eocene epoch (55 to 34 mya) and were, depending on where Ida fits, the precursors to the Omomyids (Tarsiers) and maybe the lemuriforms and lorisiforms as well. As late as the late Eocene, one finds fossil tarsiers in North America. Then the line dies out and the only branches that survived were those in the Old World. It is not until the end of the Oligocene (34 to 23 mya) that one begins to find large-bodied primates in the Old World that were the precursors of today's apes and humans. In the early 1920s, very little attention had been turned to North America in terms of fossil hominid research and so, while the idea of a Pliocene primate would certainly raise eyebrows today, in Osborn's time, it would not have done so.

From here, Buchanan turns his attention to global warming, the "great hoax of the 21st" century. I am not qualified to evaluate his arguments in this area because I do not have the necessary background. I can say, however, that his attention to detail and truth in evaluating evolution are appalling and if he approaches global warming the same way, he is way out of his depth. This sort of "gotcha" editorial should be an embarrassment to conservatives everywhere.

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