Quote: Sherwood Washburn on intellectual traditions in human origins

Sherwood Washburn was a prominent biological anthropologist of the mid-twentieth century, best known as the architect of the “New Physical Anthropology” movement to bring population thinking and primate behavioral ecology into the study of human origins. In the early 1950s, he became involved in an exchange of views about the import of the Piltdown hoax on thinking about modern human origins. The following paragraphs are from a 1954 commentary in American Anthropologist: “An old theory is supported by new evidence and new methods”.

Just before this passage, Washburn details that “There have been two major theories concerning the origin of men anatomically like ourselves” – one theory positing a very recent appearance of modern people during the last glaciation, and a second theory positing a very ancient appearance of modern people and their long coexistence with Neanderthals and other extinct forms.

The Piltdown specimen was a primary buttress for the idea of a long existence of modern humans. When the hoax was revealed, other supposed evidence for the existence of modern humans at a very early time was subject to doubt, and the antiquity of skeletal remains like the Galley Hill material was shown to be erroneous.

Washburn comments on the intellectual traditions that guided various scientists’ reactions to the Piltdown evidence:

Since 1946 events have moved so rapidly that everyone is readjusting and what one said even a few years ago may be quite different from present belief. But it is necessary to look at the past a little more to understand subsequent events. I have mentioned Weidenreich and Hooton, not in the spirit of praise or blame, but as representatives of different traditions. In general, the Germans never accepted early Homo sapiens or Piltdown. The English accepted early sapiens, and the Americans have followed the English tradition. One might put the matter this way: apparently it was as hard for a German to believe in early Homo sapiens as it was for an Englishman to be a skeptic. Hrdlička followed the German tradition. I am no intellectual historian and make no pretense of having read the vast literature on fossil man, but the influence of the intellectual tradition on the interpretation of human fossils is so great that the record makes little sense without considering it. As a part of these traditions, we all have built-in preconceived notions. Was it dogmatic for Weidenreich to accept the result of Friederich’s study, showing that the Piltdown jaw was that of an ape? Or was it dogmatic for Hooton to reject this conclusion? Each acted in accord with previous belief and in accord with the tradition to which he belonged. Both were right. The jaw was that of an ape, but it was impossible that such a jaw should be associated with a sapiens skull by chance. Both were wrong in that neither saw the possibility of a fake as the explanation.
It is easy to refer to the other person’s guesses as preconceived and dogmatic, but from the point of view of the developing science of human evolution the essential point is that progress comes when the area open for personal debate is narrowed. The development of chemical dating methods makes it possible to settle some of the problems which up to now have been matters of personal opinion. Frequently human bones have been found under circumstances in which there is real doubt about their associations and the more such problems can be settled by methods which are independent of intellectual traditions the more rapidly our understanding of human evolution will progress.

In textbooks and popular accounts of the history of paleoanthropology, Piltdown takes a very prominent place.

These popular accounts usually elide other supposed evidence of the great antiquity of modern humans in Europe, like the Galley Hill and Fontéchevade fossil remains, or the contribution of Louis Leakey’s Kanam and Kanjera discoveries in Africa.

A complicated story with various forms of incomplete evidence and competing intellectual traditions is harder to tell than a simple story of a hoax. But the complicated story provides a better model for understanding the ways that fossil and archaeological evidence can contribute to long-lasting scientific debates.

UPDATE (2019-08-22): It strikes me upon re-reading that Washburn is not very fair here to Gerrit Smith Miller, the American who concluded that the jaw and skull of the Piltdown “specimen” could not represent a single species. Miller also didn’t get it right, but he certainly didn’t “follow the English tradition”.

I wrote previously about the doubters: “Lessons of Piltdown doubters”.