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Fake Fossils

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Creationists -- especially the YEC variety -- have a bit of a problem with the fossil record, which can and does provide good, solid evidence of how various species have evolved in the past. In addition to boldly asserting (without evidence) that we cannot trust the methods by which fossils are dated, creationists also assert that transitional fossils aren't really transitional, and they rarely miss an opportunity to bring up what they consider to be examples of faked fossils. Often, the specimen a creationist claims to be a hoax is actually a case of mistaken identity.

Creationists spend an inordinate amount of effort and print space harping on a handful of fake fossils. While there are indeed examples of hoaxes, mistakes, and deliberate frauds in paleontology (as is true with every scientific field), they are rare and insignificant next to the tremendous body of genuine fossils. The fake fossils are therefore of no relevance to the evo/cre debate, and deserve only to be dismissed as historical oddities. Creationists should pay attention to the indisputably genuine fossils if they wish to mount a challenge to evolution. So why the undue attention to the handful of fakes? It's most likely an attempt to lead their readers to believe that all fossils, and by extension all evidence for evolution, should be suspected for being fake. This is easier than dealing with the real fossils, if a bit lazy. On a more personal level, it implies that scientists are untrustworthy, or are otherwise too deluded by an evolutionary view to avoid obvious mistakes. In other words, it's yet another part of the smear campaign that creationists have endlessly waged against mainstream science since the earliest days of modern creationism. But in every case it was scientists, not creationists, who discovered and corrected the errors. Creationists, meanwhile, have a rather poor track-record in correcting their own mistakes.

Contents

Piltdown Man

Hoax. First specimens announced to public in 1912; Piltdown's fraudulent nature established by scientific examination in 1953-4. As of this writing, the identity and motives of the hoaxer are still unknown.

Piltdown Man, Eoanthropus dawsoni, was a supposed creature with a human-like cranium and an ape-like jawbone (mandible). When it was first "discovered", only British paleoanthropologists like Sir Arthur Keith took it seriously; most others tended to dismiss it as an accidental composite.

But the discovery of Piltdown II in 1917 was seeming evidence of reality; do accidental associations easily repeat themselves?

However, in 1924, Raymond Dart discovered the Taung Child (Australopithecus africanus) in southern Africa -- and it was the opposite of Piltdown Man: an apish skull with some adaptation for the human feature of walking upright. And as "real" early hominids were discovered, they fit into the Taung paradigm rather than the Piltdown one. As the number of Taung-style fossils increased, the Piltdown fossils got relegated to some obscure side branch.

The fossils were seldom considered to be potential forgeries until a 1953 conference of paleontologists, where Dr. J.S. Weiner brought up the possibility. Several of them then took a close look, and easily found signs of fakery -- something nobody had ever thought of doing before. But this was, in its own way, a vindication of the composite theory -- the Piltdown fakers had created composites from some human crania and orangutan jawbones, staining them and filing them to give them a more appropriate appearance.

The whodunit question has been much argued, with numerous suspects being proposed. One very interesting candidate suspect is paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who made only some enigmatic comments about those "fossils" over his whole career, like a comment that some feature was present "as if on purpose" (comme par exprès).

Nebraska Man

Mistake. The original Nebraska Man specimen, a tooth probably belonging to an extinct peccary, was discovered in 1917, and even named Hesperopithecus haroldcooki. In 1922, this tooth was misidentified as belonging to a species of anthropoid ape; in 1927, this error was corrected. This misidentification came about because pigs and peccaries have cheek teeth that look very similar to those in humans. Creationists have asserted that Nebraska Man was cited as evidence for evolution in the Scopes trial; this is flatly wrong, inasmuch as no scientific evidence whatsoever was cited in that trial. Likewise, Creationists also assert that scientists covered up the mistake, which ignores the fact that the Nebraska Man recantation made the front page of the New York Times.

Misidentifications do happen. Other notable examples: Basilosaurus, first thought to be a marine reptile, but then shown to be an early cetacean. A ring-shaped creature, Peytoia, turned out to be the mouth of Anomalocaris -- and what was first thought to be the bulk of the animal turned out to be its front appendages. The worm Hallucigenia was first reconstructed as walking on some long spines and having mysterious upward tubes; turning it upside-down yielded a more reasonable reconstruction: an animal that walks with stubby legs and protects itself with upward-pointing spines. Such misidentifications are not, in and of themselves, particularly harmful to the scientists who make them, nor yet to science in general; it's only when a scientist clings to an error long past the time it has been demonstrated to be such, that any harm is done. In this context, it is instructive to compare the scientific community's treatment of Piltdown and Nebraska Man (each of which was discarded soon after the evidence refuted the notion that it could be a hominid ancestor) to the Creationist community's treatment of pretty much any of Creationism's numerous demonstrated errors (all of which are still in circulation -- including the ones on Answers In Genesis' "do not use" list).

Archaeoraptor

Chimera. In November of 1999, National Geographic magazine showcased a new fossil named Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, despite that specimen's not having gone through proper scientific review. The fossil was noteworthy as a possible "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds. It was not discovered by field paleontologists, but rather by a Chinese farmer who had constructed the piece from two fossils that had been found separately, probably in the expectation that it would fetch a higher price.

The composite nature of the fossil was quickly revealed, but not quickly enough to prevent National Geographic from getting egg on its face. The magazine was forced to issue an apology to its readers, and in October of 2000, published an article explaining the origin of the error. It is important to note however, that this fiasco stands in stark contrast to the reception of the "Archaeoraptor" material within the paleontological community. The specimen was a nomen nudum, and as such, the appropriate researchers were reserved in their comments, and certainly never advanced this material in the peer-reviewed literature as prima facie support for the theropod origin of birds. Indeed, in the entire debate on avian phylogenetics, the word of the popular press must be taken with a very large grain of salt. (See Witmer 2002 for a succinct review of this matter).

Both before and since the "Archaeoraptor incident", China has produced a wealth of genuine fossils that serve as admirable "missing links" between theropod dinosaurs and birds. Creationists, of course, would rather you pay attention to Archaeoraptor and ignore these real fossils, which have provided spectacular evidence for the dinosaurian origin of bids. Ironically, the two fossils used to construct Archaeoraptor are actually themselves important finds.

Finally, note that "Archaeoraptor" should not be confused with Archaeopteryx, a "missing link" first discovered in the 19th century, which is genuine.

Bathybius

Mistake. Bathybius was not a fossil, but a putative primitive organism that was "discovered" living on ocean floors. It was a gelatinous layer with tiny granules in it that were sometimes observed to move around. In 1868, Thomas Huxley named it Bathybius haeckelii, because it seemed much like Ernst Haeckel's idea of a very primitive organism -- Urschleim or ancestral slime.

However, during the Challenger expedition (1872-1875), chemist John Buchanan noticed that Bathybius appeared in ocean-floor samples preserved with alcohol, but not those in normal seawater. After some experimentation, he discovered that he could produce Bathybius by adding alcohol to an ocean-floor sample; this "organism" turned out to be a precipitate of calcium sulfate. When the expedition returned, Huxley "ate leek", but otherwise took it in stride. For more details, check out this Huxley archive.

Eozoon

Mistake. In 1864, Canadian geologist John William Dawson examined some Precambrian Canadian Shield rocks that looked like thin alternating layers of white and green/brown rock. He concluded that those rocks were fossils of an organism, naming it Eozoon canadense; these were the first fossils ever found in such rocks. Or so it seemed.

Dawson became convinced that it was the shell of a giant foraminiferan, one hundreds of times larger than all known ones. However, two Irish geologists proposed that Eozoon was really a metamorphic feature caused by minerals segregating under heat and pressure. The nature of Eozoon was bitterly argued about for several years, though German biologist Karl Möbius demonstrated in 1879 that Eozoon had none of the distinctive features of foraminiferans. This convinced almost everybody but Dawson, but the final evidence came in 1894, when some geologists discovered Eozoon in some limestone blocks ejected from Mt. Vesuvius (they were broken off and dragged upward by upward-flowing lava). This convinced everybody but Dawson that Eozoon was a metamorphic feature; he died in 1899 still believing that Eozoon was a a fossil organism.

Dawson, curiously enough, was a creationist, a stubborn holdout like Louis Agassiz. He thought that Eozoon was too complicated to be a result of early-Earth evolution, though Charles Darwin and others thought that it was no trouble for evolution. In fact, it seemed like what one would expect of evolution: the earliest organisms being relatively primitive. And when "real" Precambrian fossils were discovered, they fitted that expectation very well.

History of Eozoon; has a picture of the "fossil"
Brief history of Precambrian fossil discoveries
Short John Dawson biography
Longer John Dawson biography

Bathybius meets Eozoon?

According to Stephen Jay Gould (essay in The Panda's Thumb), there were some who believed that Eozoon was a fossil of Bathybius(!)

External Links

See Fake fossils/Links

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