Piltdown Man and other phantom species

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Piltdown gang

John Cooke’s painting The Piltdown Gang, with anatomist Arthur Keith in a white coat, and behind him (in front of a portrait of Darwin) Charles Dawson. Photograph: Rex


Today [first published 18 December 2012] marks a century since the official presentation to the Geological Society of London of what was later to be revealed as one of the most notorious hoaxes in the history of science. This was Piltdown Man, initially accepted by many as the fossil remains of an early human.

The hoax, created by combining parts of a medieval human skull with the lower jawbone of an orang-utan, was only exposed in 1953. While doubts had certainly arisen, within Britain at least, the hope that an Englishman had found in Sussex support for Darwin’s theory ofevolution, and backing for the conventional view that human evolution had been led by the development of a larger brain, created a climate in which the claim was largely supported.

The specimen was, therefore, given a Latin name: Eoanthropus damson (Dawson’s dawn man, after the collector and almost-certain hoaxer Charles Dawson). E dawsoni was not the only species that Dawson conjured into reality. Back in the 1890s, Dawson had announced the find of the teeth of what appeared to be a missing link between reptiles and mammals. This too gained sufficient credibility to be given a scientific name: Plagiaulax dawsoni.

Although the specimens were forgeries, the fact that they were named, illustrated, published and discussed meant that the species nevertheless achieved some sort of existence, at least for several decades. It feels a little as if there should be some sort of limbo, perhaps similar to the place that ballpoint pens and odd socks go, reserved for these phantom species.

It would be a crowded place for, when you stop to count, there are a large number of these non-beings, usually enjoying a brief virtual existence before being re-identified as a variant of a known species or a simple mistake. Most have little impact: the ones we recall are those that generated much enthusiasm and controversy. I came across an example of the latter in an essay by Anne Flore Laloë, included in a collection published earlier this year. This was a supposed creature identified by Thomas Huxley.

Like Dawson’s two “missing links”, Huxley’s Bathybius haeckelii was a much-desired link between inorganic matter and organic life. It was “discovered” in 1868 when Huxley re-examined samples of mud from the Atlantic seafloor, taken a decade before during the sounding work done in preparation for the laying of telegraph cable.

Huxley spotted what appeared to be a veined, albuminous ooze, having “so far the attributes of a Vegetable, that it is able to elaborate Organic Compounds out of the materials supplied by the medium in which it lives, and thus to provide the sustenance for the Animals imbedded in its midst”.

The name of Huxley’s new species was given in honour of Ernst Haeckel, who had suggested the existence of Urschleim (primordial slime) as the origin of all life. This was a discovery, rather like the more recent “arsenic life“, that created considerable excitement. However, while arsenic life was quickly and successfully challenged, it turned out that B haeckelii was to enjoy a more prolonged existence, turning up in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean before being shuffled off to the phantom species limbo by John Young Buchanan of the Challenger expedition in the 1870s.

Such stories have been used by creationists to suggest that supporters of evolution are either easily duped or untrustworthy fraudsters. It cannot be denied that when a phantom species becomes famous, it is likely to be fulfilling a role or roles much desired by at least part of the scientific community – filling a theoretical gap, providing proof of common assumptions, flattering national pride or justifying new research funding.

However, while there have been a handful of hoaxes, it is usually perfectly good science, intermixed as it necessarily is with theoretical expectations and cultural assumptions, that creates, sustains and then banishes phantom species. Just like other ideas – phlogiston, universal ether, quintessence, gravitational vortexes and, likely, dark matter and string theory – they are products of, and spurs to, the development of science.

Fraud and the decline of science

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Engraving of Edward Sabine, 1865
Edward Sabine was accused of fixing his results. Photograph: National Maritime Museum.

Today on this site Alok Jha published a fascinating article on fraud and misconduct in scientific research, suggesting that “bad practice … is rife” and that its scale is becoming ever-more apparent through the use of software and statistical analyses that flag up suspicious results.

These bad practices, which vary in seriousness, are itemised. They include fraud, massaged results, plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, sloppiness, selective publishing, incorrect attribution of work and nondisclosure of conflicts of interest. Jha suggests that “Increasing competition for shrinking government budgets for research and the disproportionately large rewards for publishing in the best journals have exacerbated the temptation to fudge results or ignore inconvenient data”.

While things may feel pressured today, it made me consider the extent to which, in the past, opportunities and livelihoods might depend on producing good or believable results. Before there was any kind of obvious career path for the sciences, coming up with the goods at the right moment for the right patrons was critically important.

Jha’s list of scientific sins brought to mind another such list, from a famously forthright and rancorous diatribe by Charles Babbage, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and designer of the Difference Engine. Although the book was ostensibly about science, its organisation and funding in England – it was called Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes – its chief targets were personal.

Above all, Babbage picked out the career of Edward Sabine for criticism. Sabine, unlike Babbage, had received patronage from the elite that dominated the Royal Society in the late 18th and early 19th century and, crucially, controlled its connections with the chief source of government patronage for science, the Admiralty and its Board of Longitude.

Babbage was out to show that not only was the system closed, with a small group controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed, but also that one of the chief beneficiaries, Sabine, was undeserving.

In one of the most remarkable sections of this remarkable text, Babbage picked on the pendulum observations that Sabine had made on Arctic voyages led by John Ross and William Parry in 1818-20, for which he had received £1000 from the Board of Longitude and was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. Babbage wrote of the “extraordinary nature” of Sabine’s observations, which had a “remarkable agreement with each other … unexpected by those most conversant with the respective processes”.

He devotes a whole section to ‘the frauds of observers’, writing that “Scientific inquiries are more exposed than most others to the inroads of pretenders”, because only the “initiated’ are in a position to spot them. The first listed is HOAXING, which is only excusable inasmuch as it reveals the gullibility of those who should know better. The next is FORGING, which fortunately is rare. Then come TRIMMING and COOKING, which Babbage intimates were Sabine’s sins.

The Trimmer “[clips] off little bits here and there”, while adding on elsewhere, to make his results more agreeable. “His object is to gain a reputation for extreme accuracy” and it can be difficult to detect. The Cook’s art is, likewise, “to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy”. But instead of keeping close to the actual average reached, it can involve radical selectivity in results or the use of different formulae to create a false agreement.

Babbage was confident that future philosophers (men of science) would be able to discover the Cooks, if not the Trimmers:

it would most probably happen that the cook would procure a temporary reputation for unrivalled accuracy at the expense of his permanent fame. It might also have the effect of rendering even all his crude observations of no value; for that part of the scientific world whose opinion is of most weight, is generally so unreasonable, as to neglect altogether the observations of those in whom they have, on any occasion, discovered traces of the artist.

In a bit of casual 19th century sexism, he added that, thus, “the character of an observer, as of a woman, if doubted is destroyed”.

Was Sabine guilty? The jury would seem to be out – he was certainly a diligent observer, but the young officer, unused to his borrowed instruments and on his mettle, no doubt desperate to bring home impressive results in the hope of future commissions, may well have been tempted to a little trimming.

Did Babbage’s doubts destroy his character or career? Emphatically not. Sabine proved himself to be a willing aid to the Admiralty and was evidently both plausible and an excellent networker, successfully bringing together a disparate range of individuals and interests in support of what has become known as the Magnetic Crusade in the 1830s and 40s. He lived to a ripe age, was president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society and was knighted in 1869.

In the short term at least, it would seem that the accuser’s reputation suffered more than the accused.

Crimes against history: the literary imaginations of Figes and Froude

A few days ago, there was an article in The Nation, by Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen on ‘Orlando Figes and Stalin’s Victims‘. It presents the evidence against Figes regarding claims of inaccuracy and invention in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, revealed largely as a result of checking against archived interviews by the publishers of a planned Russian edition.

Because these sources and/or their relatives are still living, the question of fidelity to the sources is particularly charged. In addition, the politics of Russia and opponents of the regime make much of the content a live issue. There is, therefore, an interesting question of whether anyone would have cared, or checked, had this in fact been a book about the longer-distant past.

That said, the question of Figes’s reputation for truth-telling has also been a matter for scrutiny, above all because of the revelation that he had written negative reviews of the works of rivals and a positive review of his own book on Amazon. Thus Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern was described as “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published”, and The Whisperers was declared “beautiful and necessary”, written by an author with “superb story-telling skills”.

There is something incredibly fascinating about such tales of ambition, pride, fraud and revelation. However, laying that aside (and suggesting you read the article linked above for more), I was particularly struck by an undertone in the claims of Figes and charges of his accusers that relates to views of what history can or should be, and struck a direct chord with the debates of the 19th century that I am in the middle of reading about in Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (which I hope to finish and review here very shortly).

It is, above all, a question of the relationship between history and storytelling, or, to put it in 19th-century terms, whether it is scientific or literary. Figes’s own anonymous and hugely positive comments about “story-telling skills” and the ‘beauty’ of the book  contrast very clearly with the accusations of Reddaway and Cohen: “mistakes”, “invention”, “misrepresenting”, “for dramatic purpose”, “cannot be fully trusted”. These defects are contrasted with what they call the “meticulous transcription” of interviews that were done on Figes’s behalf by the Memorial Society – their equivalent of Leopold von Ranke‘s archives revealing “wie es eigentlich gewesen”, what really happened.

It is all thoroughly reminiscent of the accusations thrown at one 19th-century historian, James Anthony Froude, by another, Edward Freeman. As Ian Hesketh shows, Freeman was incensed by Froude’s literary approach to history, claiming that his imagination led him to interpret all the (very real) archival work he had done in light of his desired narrative. Freeman wrote of Froude’s “Constant inaccuracy of reference”, blaming the “vagaries of narrative and judgement” on of “an inborn and incurable twist, which makes it impossible for him to make an accurate statement about any matter”. He made history fiction, and his account of Thomas Becket “the life of an imaginary being in an imaginary age”.

It was a vice that became known as “Froude’s disease” and, although the term is no longer recalled, the accusation can still be recognised. Froude, of course, was the more popular writer, but the newly-professionalising, discipline-defining historians like Freeman made a virtue of studies that were of interest only to other trained specialists. While readers may have sensed a past world brought to life, encouraged by the presence of references and original sources, “what passes for history in the hands of Mr. Froude is a writing in which the things which really happened find no place”.

I suspect Freeman was a little unfair. However he, Reddaway and Cohen similarly accuse their targets of having been led astray from the true path of history by desire to capture readers with a clear story. It is the strong belief in the validity of their view of the past that has led them to reinterpret the evidence, very possibly with the positive aim of creating a truer, more believable picture, rather than wishing to falsify the past or simply trying to write a best-seller.

The two sides put ‘truth’ in a different place. For these reviewers it is within the unadorned, uninterpreted archives; for the writers it is within the picture conjured up by the combination of their archival research, historical imagination and literary skill. There is merit in both views. Certainly, the kind of objective, disinterested history that Freeman advocated today seems unrealistic, and probably undesirable, but we do most certainly expect things in quotation marks to be accurate, and that references should point adequately to real physical, written or oral evidence.

Beware, all ye writers of popular history and literary non-fiction, of “Froude’s disease”, although it may yet be preferable to “Figes’s disease”.