Major Evolutionary Blunders: The Imaginary Piltdown Man

Focused and vividly imagining his next move, the young boy is filled with determination as his mind pictures the football soaring. He runs, positions his legs, and says aloud, “This time I’m gonna kick that ball!” On his back a moment later, a dazed and embarrassed Charlie Brown stares up at Lucy gleefully holding the football and wonders why he fell for her ploy yet again. His oft-repeated blunder over the almost 50 years Charles Schulz produced the Peanuts cartoon evidently connected with people who empathized with Brown as either gullible, eternally optimistic, or both.

A mysterious mental interplay exists between imagination, visualization, experience, facts, and beliefs that our mind interprets and reconciles. Likely, these constructs help shape and are reciprocally shaped by our worldviews and our wills.

“Seeing” is a sophisticated mental process in which the brain rapidly associates incoming data from the eyes and other sensors with previously learned information stored in the brain. Matching data-information sets are further refined into a sensation we perceive as “sight.” Imagination enables someone to form mental images or elaborate sensations that are not necessarily connected to inbound data, stored information, or objective human experience. Careful researchers of evolutionary theory appreciate the constant tension between unavoidable imagination that may produce insightful hypotheses and the reckless gullibility that can lead to embarrassing blunders.

Fertile Imaginations Nourish Evolutionary Theory

The role imagination can play in the mental processing of data helps explain how someone who believes the naturalistic evolutionary worldview can look at fossil bones and “see” transitional features or look at an odd fish from the ocean depths and “see” primitive features that others don’t.

Eminent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould details why inherent elements of evolutionary theory must appeal to our imaginative ability to “see” the unseen things from the past. He describes one such element as extrapolationism or scope, in which researchers use “history from data of an imperfect record that cannot, in any case, ‘see’ past causes directly, but can only draw conclusions from preserved results of these causes.” This is accomplished, he says, by explaining “large-scale results by extrapolation from short-term processes…[and] extrapolation to longer times and effects of evolutionary changes actually observed in historic times (usually by analogy to domestication and horticulture).”1

Extrapolation in the sense Gould identifies isn’t the same as an inferential conclusion but always invokes some imagination to project from the known to the unknown—it fills in the gaps. Intervening time or distance is usually proportional to how much conjecture is summoned; the larger the gap, the more imagination is needed. For instance, what explains the apparent design of interrelated parts in living things? Since people know that design is the cause of multiple parts purposely working together in man-made things, many people infer that intelligent design is also the cause of such parts in living creatures. Darwinists, however, see how organisms can change somewhat in observable time, extrapolate this observation to immense time periods, and imagine radical changes in organisms.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains:

It took a very large leap of the imagination for Darwin and Wallace to see that, contrary to all intuition, there is another way and, once you have understood it, a far more plausible way, for complex “design” to arise out of primeval simplicity. A leap of the imagination so large that, to this day, many people seem still unwilling to make it.2

Scientists who question appeals to imagination in lieu of data are merely dismissed by top evolutionary authorities like Jerry Coyne: “It is not valid, however, to assume that, because one man cannot imagine such pathways, they could not have existed.”3 Other such authorities personally disparage critics of illusory evolutionary mechanisms:

Anyone can state at any time that he or she cannot imagine how evolutionary mechanisms might have produced a certain species, organ, structure. Such statements, obviously, are personal—and they say more about the limitations of those who make them than they do about the limitations of Darwinian mechanisms.4

Since evolutionists must extrapolate, people should expect their conclusions to stretch beyond what observable evidence will bear. But when this is pointed out, they craftily argue that a detractor’s inability to imagine a process is not valid evidence against the reality of the imagined process. Nevertheless, because evolutionary theory rests on a pillar of extrapolative imagination—nearly unbridled imagination—there is clearly the susceptibility for interpretive blunders or even outright hoaxes. Therefore, repetitions of these blunders are not simply mistakes.

Seeing What You Always Imagined

On January 17, 1913, America’s leading scientific journal, Science, described a memorable meeting in England to report “a discovery of the greatest importance…the nearest approach we have yet reached to a ‘missing link’…probably few will deny that Eoanthropus [“early man”] Dawsoni is almost if not quite as much human as simian [higher primate].”5

Excitement bubbled over fossil discoveries near Piltdown, England, of an almost totally human cranial cap in close proximity to a partial jawbone nearly identical to that of an ape. Eoanthropus fit evolutionary expectations beautifully, in contrast to Eugene Dubois’ 1894 report of Pithecanthropus (“ape man”), whose humanlike lower limbs and apelike head made scientists “angry and skeptical” because “a being with a human head and an apelike body was expected, not the other way around.”6

When the Eoanthropus’ apelike jaw was carefully examined, researchers unmistakably saw that “molars 1 and 2 are typically human,” though “their cusps have been worn perfectly flat by mastication [chewing].”5 Another expert closely inspected impressions on the inside of the humanlike cranium left by arteries housed between the brain and skull. He distinctly saw “the arrangement of meningeal arteries was typically simian, as was a deep notch in the occipital region.”5

But evidently their minds saw obvious things that weren’t really there. Eoanthropus, or Piltdown Man, constitutes a major evolutionary blunder. The world’s best evolutionists were duped for 40 years before the find was revealed as a forgery in a 1954 Science publication, which included some exculpatory commentary that there had always been a few skeptics.7 This “missing link” consisted of a genuine human cranium and an orangutan’s jaw bearing molars manually flattened with a file—all stained with a man-made patina to look ancient. The New York Times summed up the situation:

The skull eventually brought knighthoods to its three leading expositors, Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, Sir Grafton Elliot Smith and Sir Arthur Keith. These learned gentlemen were honored after having spent many years and many pages discoursing on the very human features they discerned in Piltdown man’s apelike jaw and the very apelike features they found in his human cranium. The Piltdown skull illustrates the ever-present danger for scientists of seeing what they expect to see.8

As evolutionists, these knighted but misguided scientists were rooted in the kind of imaginary extrapolationism that fosters visualizations and mental constructs that do not exist in a reality outside their minds. And their scientific prodigies are trapped in the same way.

Extrapolation in the 21st Century

On May 19, 2009, researchers held a memorable press conference at the American Museum of Natural History hosted by New York City’s mayor to unveil a discovery that purportedly yielded “unprecedented insight into our ancestry.” It was headlined as “Fossil Ida: Extraordinary find is ‘missing link’ in human evolution.”9 Elation boiled over about an alleged 47-million-year-old fossil, Darwinius masillae, of a lemur-like animal dubbed “Ida.”

Ida’s evolutionary significance was evidently in the eye of the beholder. “The more you look at Ida, the more you can see, as it were, the primate in embryo,”9 stated British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who narrated the BBC documentary on Darwinius, Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link. George Washington University anthropologist Brian Richmond summed up his mental picture as “This specimen looks like a really early fossil monkey that belongs to the group that includes us.”10

Paleontologist Dr. Jørn Hurum led Darwinius’ research team and underscored the significance of what they saw: “This will be the one pictured in the textbooks for the next hundred years.”9 His team’s credibility was buttressed by the inclusion of University of Michigan’s celebrated paleontologist Philip Gingerich, renowned for describing Pakicetus (“whale from Pakistan”), a diminutive, long-legged, land-dwelling creature that he “sees” as the ancient ancestor of whales.

However, in little over 100 days, the specter of another overhyped evolutionary blunder loomed as headlines about Darwinius read, “Bone Crunching Debunks ‘First Monkey’ Ida Fossil Hype.”11 Why? A top science journal, Nature, published critical research claiming Darwinius was not even close to the same evolutionary grouping as apes.12

Hurum defended his view of Darwinius by aptly stating that “there’s a lot of ways to do cladistics,” which intimates that the Nature researchers selectively cross-compared fossils and living animals to compile a cherry-picked set of comparative traits—a procedural possibility—to contrive a foreseen cladistics outcome. Thus, Gingerich called the Nature team’s explanation “implausible.”11 Cherry-picked or not, the critics still ascribed the causality for most of the specimens’ similar traits as due to convergent evolution, a conclusion that is yet again just an extrapolated mental construct that exists only in the minds of the believers.

Convergence is not an observation demonstrated to flow from objectively discernable causes but is actually a declaration based on mental pictures of diverse organisms independently evolving similar traits as they are shaped over time by similar environmental pressures—pressures which themselves are not real, quantifiable forces but exist only as figures of speech.

Much Evolutionary Science Is a Mental Construct

Certainly, these blunders reinforce some immediate take-home cautions in assessing evolutionary conclusions. Namely, we need to recognize that in human origins research, fast fame can trump facts. We must realize critical fossil analysis is quite limited since only a few researchers get to study the specimens firsthand, and much original research, like with Darwinius, is carried out in relative secrecy. Remember, history shows that nearly all fossil finds are initially overhyped and under-investigated. Because human origins research can be so subjective, one paleoanthropology researcher voiced a relevant admonition: “We have only to recall the Piltdown adventure to see how easily susceptible researchers can be manipulated into believing that they have actually found just what they had been looking for.”13

It is important to understand that the scientists’ susceptibility to these evolutionary blunders is inextricably tied to their theory-driven need to envision nonexistent things in subjective or fragmentary findings. Fertile imaginations necessarily grow from evolutionary theory’s pillar of imaginative extrapolationism, which constantly seeks to craft a storyline for Darwinism’s historical narrative. This contentment with mental constructs that only exist in one’s mind makes it easier to mentally project humanlike volitional abilities onto nature and see it as life’s grand designer.14

Evolutionists appear to largely live in what could be described as a will-driven reality—i.e., they see what they want to see; they see a past they believe has happened, and that desire drives their vision.

Extrapolating from the known to the unknown exposes the evolutionary theory to robust challenges. Extrapolation is only conceivably plausible if Earth’s history has been relatively uniform from a geological, climatic, astronomical bombardment, etc., standpoint. Therefore, every major catastrophe is a challenge to the assumption of uniformity—and the legitimacy to extrapolate. It is also valid to ask: How much of the “evidence” for evolution is only an extrapolated mystical mental construct that is driven more by sheer expectation than by science?


  1. Gould, S. J. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 59.
  2. Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton, xii.
  3. Coyne, J. A. 1996. God in the Details. Nature. 383 (6597): 227-228.
  4. Miller, K. 2004. The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of “Irreducible Complexity.” Debating Design: from Darwin to DNA. Ruse, M. and W. A. Dembski, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 81-82.
  5. Haddon, A. C. 1913. Eoanthropus Dawsoni. Science. 37 (942): 91-92.
  6. Moore, R. 1962. Evolution. New York: Time Incorporated, 132.
  7. Straus, W. L., Jr. 1954. The Great Piltdown Hoax. Science. 119 (3087): 265-269.
  8. Wade, N. New Light on an Old Fraud. The New York Times, November 11, 1990.
  9. Randerson, J. Fossil Ida: Extraordinary find is ‘missing link’ in human evolution. The Guardian. Posted on May 19, 2009, accessed September 21, 2015.
  10. Handwerk, B. “MISSING LINK” FOUND: New Fossil Links Humans, Lemurs? National Geographic News. Posted on May 19, 2009, accessed September 21, 2015.
  11. Keim, B. Bone Crunching Debunks ‘First Monkey’ Ida Fossil Hype. Wired Science. Posted on October 21, 2009, accessed September 21, 2015.
  12. Seiffert, E. R. et al. 2009. Convergent evolution of anthropoid-like adaptations in Eocene adapiform primates. Nature. 461 (7267): 1118-1121.
  13. Maienschein, J. 1997. The One and the Many: Epistemological Reflections on the Modern Human Origins Debates. Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research. Clark, G. A. and C. M. Willermet, eds. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 413.
  14. Guliuzza, R. 2011. Darwin’s Sacred Imposter: Natural Selection’s Idolatrous Trap. Acts & Facts. 40 (11): 12-15.

* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.

Cite this article: Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. 2015. Major Evolutionary Blunders: The Imaginary Piltdown Man. Acts & Facts. 44 (12).