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DEBATE OVER VALIDITY OF FOSSIL POINTS TO DILEMMA SCIENTISTS FACE WITH HOAXES

EACH YEAR as April 1 approaches, I consider a pseudoscientific phenomenon that fits the occasion, like those spectacular fakes, Piltdown man and the Cardiff giant. This year I address another announced fraud; however, the story ending differs.

First, some background. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his controversial "Origin of the Species." In it, he expounded the theory of evolution, which according to zoologist Steven Jay Gould is "the basic idea that organisms connect by ties of genealogy."

Just two years later, Karl Haberlein discovered a remarkable fossil deposited in a Bavarian limestone mine at the time of the dinosaurs. Two layers of the rock were split apart to display the impression in both surfaces. The fossil was largely reptilian with a long bony tail, but it had feathers, the defining characteristic of birds. Here was an evolutionary connection, a "missing link" between two otherwise distinct classes of life: dinosaurs and birds.

Richard Owen immediately purchased the fossil for the British Museum and assigned it to the genus Archaeopteryx, Latin for ancient wing. I consider myself fortunate to be among the many thousands who have seen there those two flat rocks with their striking impressions of feather and bone.

With this background established, we jump ahead a century and a quarter to 1985. Then, just 10 years ago, a group of scientists including the famous British astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, announced that Archaeopteryx is a fake. At a scientific meeting and in scientific literature they claimed that the "fossil" was formed by pressing modern feathers into a layer of artificial cement spread over the genuine imprint of a small dinosaur. Owen, they claimed, participated in the fraud because, as an opponent of evolution, he was "setting a trap" for the Darwinians.

This was not one of those three-headed aliens stories suitable only to the sensational press of supermarket check-out counters: it made the British "Times" and "Guardian" and was headline news in respected newspapers in this country as well. Creationists -- those who reject evolution for religious reasons -- rejoiced: here was a real crack in their opponents' armor.

The debunkers' claim was considered so important that a team of five British Museum scientists headed by anthropologist Alan Charig spent weeks investigating it. Their results, reported in "Science," reject the fraud charges for many reasons. If glue was spread over one face of the rock, the two faces would not fit perfectly. But they do. There would be a discontinuity between the rock and the cement. There isn't. And fossil parts between the feathers and the rock surface fit matching parts of the other rock face. Finally there are five other Archaeopteryx fossils. Did a team of charlatans continue gluing until the most recent was discovered in 1956?

The worst aspect of this ridiculous attack was its indictment of Owen, who has for too long been portrayed as a villain of science. A fine new biography, "Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist" by Nicolaas Rupke, fully discharges this view. Owen believed that God had both initiated life and established forces to support and extend it. These forces included evolution. Thus Owen was in fact an evolutionist who disagreed with Darwinians only about the mechanisms that drove the process.

As to the attack itself: "Scientists find themselves in Catch-22," says Gould. "If we respond vigorously to an outrageous claim, we stand accused of hysteria. Thus, the most irresponsible ideas often get the best press."

Some might apply this lesson to contemporary jurisprudence.

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