Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Dubious Discovery of the Nebraska 'Nasher

                     It would, I think, be safe to say that whilst they may not be au fait with the details, the majority of people will at least be familiar with the name of Piltdown Man. It would also, I further contend, be equally safe to say that far fewer are familiar with, or are even aware of, Nebraska Man. 
The story starts with in run up of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial (more of which another day), when William Jennings Bryan, who would be the lead prosecutor in that trial and was the leading opponent of Darwinism in 1920s America, was offered space in the New York Times of Sunday, February 26th 1922, in which to further advance his arguments. In his article, Bryan quoted at length from an address delivered before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Toronto on December 28, 1921 by Professor W Bateson, another sceptic of Darwinism, entitled Evolutionary Faith and Modern Doubts

Henry Fairfield Osborn

The following week, the newspaper offered Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, an eminent palaeontologist, the right of reply, and as Osborn mischievously wrote  
“… realising that quotations from the highest scientific authorities in the world would not have the slightest influence upon him or his followers, I referred him to the writings of St. Augustine, also to the Holy Scriptures,” 
with especial regard to the Book of Job xii:8 – ‘Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,’ adding that if he did, he might not lose his religion but might just become an evolutionist. 

New York Times September 17th 1922

Just nine days later, Osborn received a fossil tooth from Harold J Cook, a farmer and geologist from Snake Creek, Nebraska -the home state, Osborn gleefully pointed out, of W J Bryan himself. Osborn identified the small, water-worn tooth as the upper second molar of an as-yet unidentified primate, to which he gave the genus and species names Hesperopithecus haroldcookii - Hesperopithecus means Ape-man of the Western World – and was claimed as the first higher primate to be discovered in North America. There was some initial scepticism - Arthur Smith Woodward, of Piltdown fame, wrote in Nature June 10th 1922, that the tooth might equally be the lower molar of an ancient bear and that, “There is, indeed, some reason to suspect that Hesperopithecus has received an inappropriate name.” 

Nature August 26th 1922

Osborn responded with an article, also in Nature (August 26th 1922), entitled ‘Hesperopithecus, the Anthropoid Primate of Western Nebraska,’ in which he made the case for his identification of his subject. He draws parallels with the distribution of Upper Miocene and Pliocene Strepsicerine and Hippotragine antelopes, arguing that primates might follow a similar distribution – on the map, the discovery place of Hesperopithecus is marked with an ‘X’. 

Enlarged Map from Nature August 26th 1922

Photographic illustrations of the Nebraska tooth in comparison to chimpanzee, pithecanthropus and North American Indian molars show their similarities and differences, and he concludes, 

Comparison of teeth - from Nature August 26th 1922

I have not stated that Hesperopithecus was either an Ape-man or in the direct line of human ancestry, because I consider it quite possible that we may discover anthropoid apes (Simiidae) with teeth closely imitating those of man (Hominidas), just as we have discovered in the true Piltdown man (Eoanthropus) teeth closely imitating those of the chimpanzee,” 
which, in addition to showing a commendable scientific reticence, also illustrates how the influence of Piltdown befuddled and bedevilled the study of palaeoanthropology.  Osborn had plaster copies of the tooth made, which he distributed to universities in North America and Europe, and opinions flooded in from numerous interested parties. In 1925 and 1926, parties of fossil collectors travelled to the Snake Creek beds and abundant new specimens were discovered. Unfortunately, these new examples were enough to prove that they came from a species called Prosthennops – which just happened to be an early extinct relation of the modern peccary. That’s right – the Ape-man of the Western World was actually a pig!


 Retractions and corrections followed – but not from Osborn, who simply didn’t mention Hesperopithecus ever again. There is a certain schadenfreude to be savoured here, as Osborn was one of the most pompous, self-satisfied individuals ever to grace a field over-populated by pompous, self-satisfied individuals – this was a man who, in the selfless interest of encouraging potential palaeoanthropologists, published a book listing his many publications and illustrated with photographs of his numerous awards and medals. 

Bibliography of the Published Writings of H F Osborn 1916

Of course, the anti-Darwinists loved all this – they couldn’t have wished for more in the wettest of their damp dreams. The case of the Nebraska Man still crops up on the web-sites of the cerebrally-challenged as ‘proof’ of the vacuity of science and its methods, without realising that this is precisely how science works. A find is made, a hypothesis follows, which is tested and reviewed, and if the claims are found to be wanting, they are rejected and a better model prevails, which, in turn, remains open to criticism. If something is wrong, no matter what it is, and if a better explanation can be made, then minds are changed and hands held up. I have yet to see this happening in the screeds of the deity-disturbers – but then again, I try to avoid anything written in coloured Comic-Sans.

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