Part V: The Fallacy of Anthropological Reconstructions
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.
How It All Began . . . .
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
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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 else.
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 and
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
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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.
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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: (2)
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 evidence.
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: (3)
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, 1927, p.133.
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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 osteoarthritis, (5) 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.
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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!
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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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