Table of Contents
Part V: The Fallacy of Anthropological
How It All Began . . . .
Fig. 12. Mr. and Mrs. Hesperopithecus, reconstructed
from the tooth of a wild pig found in Nebraska. These figures
are redrawn from the "Illustrated London News" in 1922.
This explanatory text accompanied the sketch: "The poise
of the head should be noted, large muscles from the occiput to
the back and shoulders have to counteract the prognathous head
and heavy jaw--a simian character." It is amazing what can
be guessed from the tooth of a wild pig. The gullible public
can never really know how much imagination and how little science
enter into such reconstructions.
IN A UNIVERSITY,
although the spirit of competition between disciplines is not
overt as it is in the business world, there is nevertheless a
certain competitiveness. The amount of money which is budgeted
for each department is quite naturally related to the enrollment
in the courses it offers, so that there is a certain amount
1 of 6
of rivalry when it comes
to attracting students. Very large universities, of course, or
wealthy universities, do not have to worry too much when classes
are mere handfuls. When we were studying cuneiform in the University
of Toronto, there were only three of us; yet it was probably
at that time the largest class of its kind in the world. . .
The university could afford to sustain it for prestige, if nothing
The factor which decides for a
large proportion of students what courses they will enroll in
is public interest at the time. And by interest I would include
also what might be called "market demand," which of
course is a reflection of public interest. So there is a tendency
in learned circles where the subject matter lacks the advantages
of immediate practical importance, to seek to arouse public interest
by methods which are not always strictly scholarly. Anthropology
has been, I think, one of the chief offenders in this respect,
yielding all too frequently to the temptation of attracting attention
by advertising in ways which are more entertaining than scholarly.
Some disciplines like Psychology
always have a wide appeal, and it is not too difficult to obtain
student enrollment or a publisher for even very commonplace observations.
Astronomy appeals because the very magnitudes involved lend wings
to the imagination. The Applied Sciences make their way with
ease, novelty or practical advantage having their own compulsions.
But Anthropology has somehow or other always been tempted to
emphasize, a little bit at least, the grotesque aspects of its
subject matter in order to gain a hearing. This was particularly
so at the beginning, a hundred years ago. But it is still unfortunately
the case. One of the best ways to introduce a subject, either
to a class of students or to a reading public, is by the so called
historical method, in which the complexities are led up to by
tracing their supposed course of development through simpler
stages -- as though one might explore the complexity of adult
human behaviour by tracing back to the stages of childhood development.
For some reason, where most other sequences start with the simple
proceed to the complex, Anthropology seems to lean towards a
policy of starting with the ugly in order to lead to the refined,
making the assumption that in the historical process of development,
"first things" (even faces) must always be ugly. In
any sequence of illustrations, man's ancestors will always be
assumed to be uglier as they are more ancient. This is entirely
presumptive, for the first man need not have been ugly at all.
But once this evolutionary assumption is made, it becomes self-validating
for the simple reason that fossils are thereafter arranged in
sequences to demonstrate it. Reconstructions, by which I mean
pictures or models of man's supposed ancestors, could on this
principle be put in the
"right" order by a child who knew absolutely nothing
about human history. He would only have to be told that the ugliest
were the earliest -- and the rest could be left to him. This
may seem like an absurd over-simplification or even downright
misrepresentation. And it may actually be an exaggeration. Nevertheless,
we shall show that anthropologists themselves, ancient and modern,
seem to enjoy reinforcing the popular philosophy in this way,
not because the facts warrant it but because the public expects
it. And this is one of the favourite ways of achieving notoriety
-- or in more scholarly terms, "recognition." A man's
reputation is "made" if he can find some fragment out
of which to create a very ancient (and ugly) ancestor.
Anthropology saw its first heyday
of popularity with the sudden emergence of volume after volume
devoted to the curious ways of savage people. Once it had been
agreed that these "savages" represented a necessary
stage in human history before man achieved his present civilized
condition, it was inevitable that the process should be extended
backwards and that those representatives of the human race who
stood in the same chronological relationship to primitives that
primitives do to us, should be as utterly brutish and bereft
of culture relative to native civilizations as native civilizations
were felt to be towards the civilized European. Thus no matter
how upright and noble our first parents may have been in actual
fact, it was absolutely essential to present them as anything
but noble and upright. Indeed, if Adam and Eve had actually been
dug up with the appearance which we believe they must have had
when they came from God's hand, they most certainly would have
been rejected as frauds. This is no exaggeration. Quite a number
of modern skulls have been dug up from strata which demonstrated
that they were very early examples of modern-type men, and virtually
without exception they have at one time been rejected on one
pretext or another and "smitten from the record."
So, reverting to those earlier
days of Anthropology, we find museums coming into being and taking
the form of a kind of Madame Tussaud's where the wonder-weary
public were invited to enjoy the questionable stimulus of viewing
their supposed ancestors whose chief glory was their bestial
appearance. Even animals have some beauty. But these really have
none. The slightest excuse served to create a missing link out
of some tiny fragment of doubtful identity. And even before Darwin's
Origin of Species was published, P. T. Barnum (1)
1. Barnum, P. T.: see A. O. Lovejoy, The
Great Chain of Being, Harvard, 1942, p.236.
was inviting the public
to see his collection of curiosities including some genuine "primitives,"
and other miscellaneous fossil items. In 1842 Barnum's Circus
Exhibit (by combining it with Scudder's and Peele's Museums)
became the basis of the American Museum in New York City, enlivened
with freak shows and stage entertainment. It is said that Queen
Victoria was once told an "off-colour" joke and that
her shattering response was, "We are not amused." But,
unlike Queen Victoria, the people of her time were highly "amused"
by these anthropological displays, and it has only been in very
recent years that museums have begun to tone down some of their
more entertaining reconstructions of man's supposed ancestors.
A. E. Hooten, in one of his many
informative and entertaining volumes, told the story of a certain
prelate who ridiculed the Hall of Man in New York in which so
many of these reconstructions had been neatly lined up to give
the desired effect. He pointed out how Henry Fairfield Osborn,
who was responsible for it, denied the accusation that this was
not science; and in an article in a newspaper, closed by saying
triumphantly, "The Hall of Man still stands." Next
day, apparently, the prelate in his reply closed with the words,
"The Hall of Man still lies!" Hooten remarked:
There is just enough truth in
that statement to make it cut. Some evolutionary exhibits and
reconstructions of extinct men have been carried out with the
elaboration of details and assumption of omniscience which are
not justified by the scientific data on hand. It is absolutely
impossible to infer from the human skull the morphological details
of the eyes, the ear, the tip of the nose, the lips, the form
and distribution of hair, and the color of skin, hair, and eyes.
So that I think the laugh was on the side of the archbishop because
the scientists have overreached themselves and gone beyond their
Hooten was always
known for his keen wit and I think he must have been a very healthful
influence in his day, but evidently his words were not heeded,
for the making of these reconstructions has proceeded apace.
The above had been written in 1937, but ten years before this,
Hooten had referred to another astounding piece of nonsense:
A well known Latin American
Paleontologist worked the pampas formations to such an extent
that he caused a fossil monkey to evolve into a Homunculus patagonicus,
and created from an Indian atlas bone and the femur of a fossil
cat, the common ancestor of all existing men!
Perhaps a classic
example of this kind of fallacious reconstruction revolves around
the appearance and
2. Hooten, A E., Apes, Men, and Morons,
Putnam Sons, New York, 1937, p.60.
3. Where Did Man Originate?" Antiquity, vol.1, June,
disappearance of Hesperopithecus.
In 1922 a single molar tooth was found in a Pliocene deposit
in Nebraska. A Professor Osborn described it as belonging to
an early type of pithecanthropoid, which he named Hesperopithecus.
At the same time the eminent Elliott Smith in England induced
the Illustrated London News (4) to publish a double-spread reconstruction of Mr.
and Mrs. Hesperopithecus -- all on the strength of this small
tooth. Subsequently, it was established that the tooth
belonged to a peccary, and Hesperopithecus disappeared from view.
However, in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
since the previous edition had listed Hesperopithecus with all
honours, it was necessary to make some reference to the fact
that this specimen had vanished. But the horrid truth was concealed
as far as possible by disclosing no more than that the tooth
was eventually found to belong to "a being of another order,"
which is another way of spelling "wild pig."
It was a great
day in the annals of evolutionary anthropology when, in 1857,
a fossil skull was found by Fuhlrott near Dusseldorf, at a place
ever since universally known as the Neanderthal Cave. This skull
was precisely what the doctors had ordered because it lent itself
to reconstructions which would satisfy, in terms of ugliness,
even the most demanding of viewers. The reconstructions which
have been made of this much maligned gentleman are legion and
they are a clearer evidence of the stimulating effect of imagination
than they are of scientific objectivity. The fact of the matter
is that Neanderthal Man was evidently suffering from chronic
an ailment which forced him to adopt a stooped posture, inviting
a comparison with the gait of an ape while in fact having absolutely
nothing to do with it.
In 1940, in the
University of Knowledge Series, published in collaboration with
a number of eminent authorities in various fields, there is a
volume entitled The Story of Primitive Man, which is the
joint work of Mabel Cole and Fay-Cooper Cole of the Department
of Anthropology in the University of Chicago. The jacket cover
has a reconstruction of Neanderthal Man with his head thrust
forward and an almost entire absence of neck (a peculiarly apelike
feature). The same gentleman, his apishness slightly more accentuated,
if possible, carries his club across the frontispiece on page
xii. On page
4. Illustrated London News, June 24,
1922, pp.942-943: "The earliest man traced by a tooth: an
astounding discovery of human remains in Pliocene strata."
5. Coon, C. S., The Story of Man, Knopf, Nework., 1962,
p.40. Also A. J. E. Cave, 15th International Congress of Zoology,
London, reported in Discovery, Nov. 1958, p.469.
40 a closeup gives the
reader an even clearer picture of this vacuous-looking idiot,
while on the opposite page the book pictures his family, including
a child of about eight or ten years of age who looks even more
stooped than his elders. Fig. 13 shows a recent reconstruction
-- the stoop at last removed!
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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