Some Remarks on Teilhard

and the Piltdown Hoax

Wilifred McCulloch

Teilhard Newsletter July 1981


[1] NATURAL HISTORY, in its June 1981 issue, published letters written by three distinguished scientists objecting to Stephen Jay Gould's attempt to implicate Teilhard as a co-conspirator in the Piltdown hoax. 1 Their letters were followed by a long response from Gould dismissing their arguments and narrowing his "complex hypothesis," which filled (one might say "inflated") so many pages of his August 1980 article in the same magazine, to two strong points.

Gould's main point, upon which he bases his charge of Teilhard's involvement in the hoax, is his interpretation of some letters Teilhard wrote in 1953-54 in response to a query from Dr. Kenneth Oakley as to what had happened some forty years earlier. Gould claims to have found in them a "fatal slip" which reveals that although Teilhard left England in late 1914 he had knowledge of the fossils that were not "found" until 1915. Furthermore, he claims to have detected a "pattern of misstatement" in the letters to Oakley which shows "a subtle attempt to direct suspicion away from himself." Teilhard's separate statements might exonerate him, Gould explains, but the pattern incriminates. We shall examine whether the pattern that Gould chooses to see in Teilhard's letters is supported, or not supported, by known facts.

Before summoning two Teilhard specialists - Mary Lukas and Karl Schmitz-Moorman -I should like to make a few points of my own.

First, whereas last summer's article contained many prominent scientific names, all too obviously "dropped" by the author to bolster his case (they fell far wide of the mark), in his 1981 article his supporters were nameless ("favorable respondents write short notes or pass a friendly oral remark.") No letter was presented which supported his position in any substantive way.

In his 1980 indictment of Teilhard, one of the scientists whom Gould enlisted in his argument was the late L. S. B. Leakey and, since no one has addressed this issue, 1 should like to point out that while Dr. Leakey certainly was quite open in voicing his suspicion that Teilhard was guilty, he never presented any evidence. The reason was that he never was able to find any. There is a letter in the archives of the Natural History Museum in London, 2 written by Dr. Leakey to Dr. Oakley, stating that he (Dr. Leakey) was convinced that Teilhard must have been responsible "in the first instance for playing a joke on Dawson and then that both continued jointly with the hoax" and it asks Oakley to supply any evidence at all that can confirm his suspicions. What is important about this letter is that Leakey wrote it on the 15th of September 1972 - just a month before he died. So much for Dr. Leakey as a witness for the prosecution.

Secondly, Gould intimated in his 1981 article that the eminent scientists who argued for Teilhard's non-involvement in the hoax acted out of friendship for Teilhard since most had been colleagues or special students of his work. It would be more logical to say that, having known Teilhard, they are more able than Gould to judge Teilhard's character. Gould in his 1980 piece was guilty of projecting onto Teilhard certain motivations - envy of experts for their fame, reputation and cash, 'blowing his own horn" over Peking man, attempting to direct suspicion away from himself, playing a magnificent game on the "professionals" to test how far they could be taken in - that cannot in any way be attributed to Teilhard. They may reveal something about Gould's way of thinking, but not about Teilhard's. This is an important point because the whole substructure of Gould's argument has been his attempt -subtle and not so subtle - to recast Teilhard's character and motives to show him to be guilty.

In addition, Gould did not mention two scientists - George Gaylord Simpson and Peter Medawar - who [2] have been highly critical of Teilhard's philosophy yet have gone on printed record that they do not believe Teilhard could possibly have been involved.

A third and most important point: toward the end of his 1981 reply to Teilhard's scientist-defenders, Gould alleged: "Teilhard was on the site continually. He met Dawson three years before Smith Woodward had even heard of the finds. Teilhard and Dawson became friends and prospect-ed together extensively. " That simply is not true. According to Mary Lukas, biographer of Teilhard, all of Teilhard's published and unpublished letters of this period show that he visited the Piltdown site only three times in all: on May 31, 1912, August 8-10, 1913 and on August 30,1913. And Dr. Karl Schmitz-Moorman, Editor of the eleven volumes of Teilhard's scientific writings and custodian of four out of eighteen of Teilhard's Notebooks has described in the life of a Jesuit seminarian of the per-iod, proving that Teilhard could have had neither time nor opportunity for such involvement.

Details of Schmitz-Moorman's argument are given in the following article. Briefly, they are that seminary life was so highly circumscribed that Teilhard and Dawson could not possibly have had time "to prospect together extensively." Courses, study hours, Masses, prayers and meals had to be respected to the minute; Tuesday and Thursday afternoon walks had to be taken in the company of at least two other Jesuits; students' doors could be opened at any time by superiors. One day a week was free for an excursion, but because of the vow of poverty, students had little money for trains and Piltdown was bout 40 miles from the seminary.

These are basic facts. Gould has built what he calls his "complex hypothesis" by ignoring them.

Fourthly, though Gould's "strong point" is invalidated by the evidence showing that Teilhard could not have had the time or opportunity to be involved, nevertheless, what Gould calls the "fatal slip" in Teilhard's letters of 1953-54 should be addressed. This point has been ably contradicted in print by Mary Lukas who spent some time this last fall examining the Dawson-Woodward correspondence in the British Museum. She holds that Teilhard did not "slip" at all.

Her argument, which may be read in a short article in this Newsletter, appeared in greater detail in the centennial issue of AMERICA magazine, May 2. 1981. The solution she offered there has been commended by members of the scientific establishment: by Edward 0. Dodson, Professor of Biology at Ottawa University, by Glyn Daniel, Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University and Editor of ANTIQUITY, and by Kenneth Oakley himself, to whom Teilhard wrote the very 1953-54 letters which Gould used in order to implicate Teilhard. In a letter to Mary Lukas dated August 4, 1981, Dr. Oakley wrote that her solution in AMERICA constituted "a total refutation of Gould's interpretation of Teilhard's letters to me in 1953-19541. . . . You have . . . unearthed evidence that will seriously undermine Gould's confidence in having any evidence against Teilhard in regard to what he (Teilhard) said in his letters to me."

Finally, the question of who, if anyone, helped Dawson at Piltdown has been a subject of gossip within some scientific circles for almost 30 years. There, perhaps, it should remain until a study can be offered to the public that is based on meticulous research and with the pros and cons presented in a clear and convincing manner. Gut feelings are not enough for, as we know, they too often mask ego and shadow aspects of a personality, a professional grudge or just an idée fixe that cannot stand up to facts. This is a plea not for Teilhard alone, but for anyone who might be the object of suspicions that cannot be substantiated. It is also a plea for a more serious view of the scientist's responsibility in writing for the public.

Let me make it clear that what I am objecting to is not the fact of Teilhard's being suspected; it is the manner in which Gould's case against him has been presented - built on innuendo, inept psychologizing, false analogies and an almost complete absence of real research into the abundant records of the period of the Piltdown fraud. His "complex hypothesis" is contradicted by basic facts.

In considering Gould's latest article, as well as his original piece and the sensationalized pre-publication releases to the press last summer, it would seem that from the beginning - whatever the motivation- there has been no desire on the part of either Gould or NATURAL HISTORY to carry on a serious and open investigation.




1 The Piltdown Hoax comprised two sets of fossil forgeries "unearthed" between 1908-1915 by the amateur paleontologist Charles Dawson and his scientist companion Arthur Smith Woodward of the British Museum. The first set was "found" at Barkham Manor and the second set at Sheffield Park - both sites being on the Piltdown gravel beds near Uckfield in Sussex, England. The hoax was exposed in 1953 by J. S. Weiner, K. P. Oakley and W. LeGros Clark at the British Museum (Natural History), London and, based on carefully presented evidence, it was suggested that everything pointed to Dawson as the forger. (See J. S. Weiner's THE PILTDOWN FORGERY ([Oxford University Press, 1955) Teilhard (who was studying at the Jesuit Seminary at Ore Place, Hastings, from 1908-1912) was also an amateur digger, already becoming seriously interested in paleontology. He came to know Dawson during these years, and Gould claims that he was a co-conspirator with Dawson of the famous hoax.

2 This letter (Ref. 4/5) was found in the archives by Ellen Lukas, co-author with Mary Lukas of the biography, Teilhard. A xerox copy of the letter is in the editor's possession.

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