Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bone Wars

The general public are under the severe misconception a consensus exists among those in the paleo sciences. That all paleo-archaeologists, biologists, and other so-called experts in the fields pertaining to the gathering of fossils, are all agreed as to methodology of collection and how those collections are to be interpreted.

Thickening the intellectual fog surrounding the mythos of fossil gathering are the absurd, over the top, sensational media reports which blow any new finds like the recent "Ida" missing link way out of proportion beyond its real significance. This of course puts true science in jeopardy of being taken seriously.

Dr. Jerry Bergman wrote an article a couple of years ago which is relevant for our current media fascination with "Ida." It was published in the January/Feburary 2006 edition of Creation Matters, the laymen publication of the Creation Research Society. The original article contains the full resource bibliography:

Many studies find that the so-called objective field of human evolution is anything but objective — bias is common, and cases of corruption and fraud have been documented. Well-known examples include Piltdown man and Hesperopithecus, but many other examples exist. One of the best-known examples of greed, revenge, and open frauds involved the war between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh in the bone war of the late 1800s (Wallace, 1999).

Part of the reason for controversy is that the anthropological field is divided into “camps” or “schools” that, not uncommonly, are in competition with each other. Each school is often dominated by a small number of people who are often charismatic leaders. Each camp tries to “prove” its own theory of human evolution, often dogmatically, by using fossil bones, most of which are badly damaged fragments. Sides are taken in these conflicts and, as Morell (1995) eloquently demonstrates, the participants sometimes end up in conflicts where unethical behavior (and almost everything else) is fair game. Only physical aggression is ruled out (though not always).

A major issue in dealing with this problem is that no small amount of arrogance exists within the scientific community. Hooper claims that some scientists dogmatically believe that they have the answer, and only they have the right to ask questions — and if they don’t ask them, no one else should (2002). A review of this history vividly shows the “other side” of the leading scientists in each camp — those who dominate the literature in Nature, Science, and other leading scientific journals. Because fossil evidence accounts for less than 10 percent of the animal, it can be interpreted in many ways, even in the rare situation where a skeleton is relatively complete. Lucy, for example, is the most complete skeleton to date, and around three quarters of it is missing. Most other finds consist of, at best, a few bone fragments or sometimes just teeth.

For the last half century, the Leakeys have been at the center of this war. The endless, vicious, and sometimes physical confrontations between the Leakeys and others, such as Donald Johanson and Timothy White, are extremely illuminating as to how critically important preconceptions are in understanding the extant fossil evidence. As a young man, Louis Leakey was very “zealous about his Christianity and sometimes stood on corner soap boxes to deliver sermons” (Morell, 1995; p. 28). During his studies at Cambridge, though, his “growing knowledge of evolutionary theory” and his “more liberal views” led him away from the church and into full-time science work. Louis Leakey, along with the leading atheists and secularists of the day, became a supporter of the atheistic document, the “Humanist Manifesto.” He later became very hostile toward Christianity, an attitude that was passed on to at least one of his sons, Richard. When Richard was asked to be a guest on Walter Cronkite’s television program to discuss evolution and creationism as an “ardent anti-creationist,” Richard agreed to appear (Morell, 1995; p. 520).

This ploy to get him on the show turned out to be a trick — Cronkite wanted to pit Leaky and Johanson against each other to debate their radically different opinions about Australopithecus afarensis and other putative hominids. On the show, Johanson was less interested in an intellectual exchange to achieve a better understanding of human evolution than he was in attacking those with whom he disagreed. In my opinion, Richard Leakey came out better in this exchange, but some people felt otherwise. Shortly after the Cronkite show, the National Geographic Society, the Leakeys’ main source of financial support, turned down Richard’s grant application for funds to support his Koobi Fora research and for new explorations north and west of Lake Turkana (Morell, 1995; p. 523).

One common trait in the field is the difficulty the leading scientists have in evaluating the data fairly and objectively. Many, such as Tim White, professor at the University of California Berkeley are anything but reasonable and objective. In the words of Tim White’s University of Michigan professor, Milford Wolpoff, Tim knows the “right” way…and to think once he got a job and was treated with professional respect, he’d calm down a bit. But I was wrong… White’s self-righteous stance surfaced [in the field].... leading him to be “unspeakably rude and arrogant to others.” (Morell, 1995; p. 477).

Morell concludes that, like Wolpoff, Richard Leakey also “assumed that White would eventually outgrow this behavior. Instead, Richard himself became a target” (Morell, 1995; p. 477). For example, when Leakey explained his concerns about White’s interpretation of a fossil, White “started shouting at me, calling me a dictator, said that it was a disgrace that I should be in charge — all this rubbish…he wanted to have nothing more to do with me, and finally walked out of my office and slammed the door.” (Morell, 1995; p. 478)

Debates are required to make progress in science — but the viciousness that Morell eloquently documents is hardly what we would expect of anthropologists who are interested in the truth and who desire others to rationally evaluate their ideas. The behavior shown by these individuals was so extreme that it could not be discussed in a family publication. In addition, the morals of some of the leading scientists leave much to be desired.

Fraud among Darwin researchers

The scientific method is an ideal approach to gaining knowledge, but it is an especially difficult way to “prove” certain science hypotheses, such as those involving origins. A good example of this difficulty is “the theory of evolution (which) is ... a theory highly valued by scientists…but which lies in a sense too deep to be directly proved or disproved” (Broad and Wade; 1982, p. 17).

One famous case of evolution fraud, that of Viennese biologist Paul Kammerer, was the subject of a now-classic book titled The Case of the Midwife Toad (Koestler, 1972). Dr. Kammerer’s fraud involved painting “nuptial pads” with India ink on the feet of the toads he was studying. Even though his work, which was forged to support the Lamarckian theory of evolutionism, was exposed, it was used for decades to support certain evolution ideologies, including that by Trofin D. Lysenko (Kohn, 1988; p. 47). In a similar case, William Summerlin faked the results of a test in the 1970s simply by drawing black patches on his white test mice with a felt-tip pen (Chang, 2002).

Another recent case of fraud in evolution is that of Archaeoraptor, the “evolutionary find of the century” that purportedly proved bird-dinosaur evolution. The National Geographic Society “trumpeted the fossil’s discovery ... as providing a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds” (Simons, 2000). Archaeoraptor was used by “some prominent paleontologists” to prove a “long-sought key to a mystery of evolution.” High-resolution X-ray CT work found “unmatched pieces, skillfully pasted over.” The fraud was also determined to be “put together badly-deceptively” involving “zealots and cranks,” “rampant egos clashing,” “misplaced confidence,” and “wishful thinking.” It was the Piltdown man story all over again. Simons adds that this is a story in which “none” of those involved look good.

One of the “most pungent” cases of fraud involved paleontologist Viswat Jit Gupta who discovered a treasure trove of fossils that made “astonishing additions to the faunal lists” of species in the area he worked (Talent, 1989). After extensive investigation researchers concluded that Professor Viswat Jit Gupta salted the area with fossils, evidently stolen from teaching collections. He published close to 300 papers about the finds over a period of 25 years —all of which are now in doubt. Talent (1989) concludes, as a result of this case, “the database for the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic of the Himalayas has, as a consequence of these publications, become so marred by inconsistency as to throw grave doubts on the scientific validity of any conclusions that might be drawn from it. Because the iostratigraphical underpinning of so much Himalayan stratigraphy is in question, the credibility of many years of labour by numerous geologists is at stake.” As Judson concludes: “The difficulty, labor, and time that have been required to clear up the mess are incalculable. A residue of doubt will long shadow later work” (2004, p. 134). Talent (1989) adds “similar cases of carelessness over data or confusion over concepts is rife."

Inquiry has now confirmed that what the British Guardian called “one of archaeology's most sensational finds” — a purportedly 36,000-year-old skull fragment discovered in a peat bog near Hamburg was falsified. This fragment was believed to be a “vital missing link between modern humans and Neanderthals” (Harding, 2005). The thirty-year academic career of the discoverer, distinguished German anthropologist Professor Reiner Potsch von Zieten, “has now ended in disgrace after the revelation that he systematically falsified the dates on this and numerous other ‘stone-age’ relicts” (Harding, 2005). The crucial skull fragment, once believed to have come from the world’s oldest Neanderthal, has now been determined to be a mere 7,500 years old, according to the Oxford University radiocarbon dating unit.

Other skulls were wrongly dated by Von Zieten as well. After redating the evidence, it was concluded that he had methodically falsified the dates on numerous artifacts: he had simply made up the dates to fit his theories. Testing revealed that all the skulls dated by Potsch were, in fact, much younger than he had claimed. Thomas Terberger, who discovered the hoax, stated that as a result of the hoax, “anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago” (quoted in Harding, 2005).

The committee also found that Von Zieten had committed numerous other “falsehoods and manipulations.” His deceptions were so serious that it “may mean an entire tranche of the history of man’s development will have to be rewritten” (Harding, 2005). Yet another of the professor’s finds, Binshof-Speyer woman, was determined to have lived in 1,300 B.C., not 21,000 years ago, and Paderborn-Sande man, which was dated by the professor at 27,400 B.C., died only “a couple of hundred years ago, in 1750.” Further research found that he had passed off fake fossils as real and had also plagiarized other scientists’ work. The scandal was finally exposed when Professor Von Zieten was caught trying to sell his department’s entire chimpanzee collection to a museum in the United States. The committee that investigated him involved ten different meetings with twelve witnesses to produce findings that were documented to be increasingly bizarre. After a while it was hard to take it seriously.…It was just unbelievable. At the end of the day what he did was incredible. (quoted in Harding, 2005). It was also found that the professor could not even operate the carbon dating machine that he claimed to have used to produce the now-discredited dates!

Professor Von Zieten was forced to end his career after confirmation of the “falsehoods and manipulations” came to light. This scandal is critically important in physical anthropology because his thirty year academic career yielded many sensational finds that were important evidence for modern evolution theory. Evidently he found that he could get away with the frauds, and continued to make outrageous claims until they became so ludicrous that somebody began to investigate. The university administrators admitted that they should have discovered the professor’s bizarre fabrications much earlier, but the “high profile anthropologist… [had] proved difficult to pin down.” Evidence now exists that he began “inventing things” at the very start of his career over thirty years ago. After returning to Germany from America, where he did his doctorate, and accepting a professorship, he “simply made things up.” An example of his claims was a supposedly fifty-millionyear- old “half-ape” which he claimed was found in Switzerland, but was actually found in France.

Continued investigation will likely reveal much more about this case, which has reminded many of the infamous Piltdown affair. Honesty does exist. Evolutionists are at times very candid, such as Johanson’s admission that now “nobody really places a great deal of faith in any human [evolution] tree” (Morell, 1995; p.546, emphasis in original). Yet, many of their arguments are over this tree, which seems to change with each new find. The reason is that construction of these trees is based on evidence that is so flimsy and fragmentary that a wide variety of interpretations is possible — which in turn is a major explanation for the many heated conflicts that have characterized paleoanthropology. There are so little hard data that most of the findings can be construed in several different ways.

Another reason for so much controversy is that new fossil discoveries are rarely shared with other scientists for years, if ever, due to concerns over publishing priorities. Typically, to get full credit for a discovery, the finder must hoard the fossil for a decade or more before allowing others to study it so that he can publish first. An additional consideration is that these fossils are generally very fragile and easily broken — working with them tends to damage them. Consequently, most researchers have access to only photographs or, at best, casts. In view of this fact, it is not surprising that major disagreements are common. Most anthropologists must rely only on descriptions and interpretations put forward by the discoverer of the fossils — the very person who has a vested interest in proving his own theories.


A review of paleoanthropology finds that the field is far less objective than physics, chemistry, or even biology. Furthermore, fraud and fakery have occasionally been demonstrated. In a field based on little evidence and many assumptions, the “bone wars” illustrate the conflicts which are common among scientists in this area. The unprofessional and at times even fraudulent behavior is not what one would expect from professionals. I teach anthropology at the college level, and after preparing this paper, I will from now on cover the evidence for human evolution in a very different way than I have in the past.

Dr. Bergman teaches biology, molecular biology, chemistry, anthropology, and anatomy at NorthwestState in Ohio, where he has been on the faculty for over 20 years. He may be reached at: jbergman@northweststate.edu.

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