December 12, 2017

Piltdown Chicken

Stephen Caesar

In November 1999, National Geographic published photographs of what it claimed was incontrovertible proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs. In an article titled “Feathers for T. Rex?” the magazine announced, “New Birdlike Fossils Are Missing Links in Dinosaur Evolution” (Sloan 99). The article featured a photograph, taken under ultraviolet light, of a creature “[w]ith arms of a primitive bird and the tail of a dinosaur” (Ibid. 100). The fossil, named Archaeoraptor, was discovered in Liaoning Province, China, and was trumpeted as “a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds” (Ibid.). The photo was accompanied by a quotation in large letters by Stephen Czerkas, who led the study of the fossil: “IT’S A MISSING LINK between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds that could actually fly” (Ibid. [emphasis original]). Czerkas also commented, “This fossil is perhaps the best evidence since Archaeopteryx that birds did, in fact, evolve from certain types of carnivorous dinosaurs” (Ibid. 101).

Eventually, the word got out — like so many other “proofs” of Darwinism, the fossil was a fraud. In the “Letters to the Editor” section of the March 2000 issue of National Geographic, Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) wrote: “I have concluded that Archaeoraptor is a composite. … Though I do not want to believe it, Archaeoraptor appears to be composed of a dromaeosaur [a small, carnivorous dinosaur] tail and a bird body.” National Geographic’s embarrassment was immense. In its October 2000 issue, it published an article by investigative reporter Lewis Simons, who uncovered the truth behind the hoax. His lengthy investigation, which took him all the way to China, revealed

a tale of misguided secrecy and misplaced confidence, of rampant egos clashing, self-aggrandizement, wishful thinking, naive assumptions, human error, stubbornness, manipulation, backbiting, lying, corruption, and, most of all, abysmal communication (Simons 128).

Simons learned that a Chinese farmer, eager to sell a fossil to foreigners who would pay top dollar, had dug two fossils out of his land and glued the parts together with homemade paste. He attached the tail from one fossil to the body of the other and then proceeded to add on the legs and feet (Ibid. 128-129). “The result,” reported Simons, “was the ‘missing link’ — the body of a primitive bird with teeth and the tail of a landbound little dinosaur, or dromaeosaur” (Ibid. 129).

The doctored item was bought by a Chinese fossil dealer who “acknowledged that he often sold ‘composites’” (Ibid.). The bogus fossil eventually found its way to Stephen Czerkas (quoted above), who, along with his wife, is a dinosaur enthusiast with no scientific qualifications. Upon obtaining the fossil, the Czerkases contacted leading paleontologist Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta. The Canadian scientist didn’t spend a lot of time investigating the find; Simons wrote that “Currie was so distracted by other commitments around the world that he gave the Archaeoraptor project short shrift” (Ibid. 130).

As it turned out, Currie did have reservations about the fossil but neglected to inform the National Geographic Society’s Christopher Sloan, the driving force behind the November 1999 article. Simons referred to this as “a most damaging lapse of responsibility” on Currie’s part (Ibid.). Later, Currie and the Czerkases had the fossil examined at the University of Texas High- Resolution X-ray CT Facility in Austin. Professor Timothy Rose, who ran the examination, noticed something wrong and said “there was a chance that it was a fraud” (Ibid.). In response, Currie sent Kevin Aulenback, a fossil technician at the Tyrrell Museum, to investigate the fossil. Aulenback concluded that the fossil “is a composite specimen” (Ibid. 131).

Stephen Czerkas, meanwhile, along with Currie and other scientists, tried to submit a scholarly paper on the “missing link” to the prestigious scientific journals Nature and Science; both rejected the article due to lack of evidence (Ibid. 131-132). Simons, describing the original draft of the Nature submission, wrote:

On its fifth page the paper stated that the dromaeosaur- like tail on a birdlike creature suggested a previously unknown element in the evolution of birds from landbound dinosaurs. In short, this was what Czerkas would tell National Geographic was “a missing link” (Ibid. 131).

Despite the rejections, the November 1999 issue of National Geographic went ahead and published the highly doubtful fossil. Simons referred to the media frenzy that surrounded this alleged proof of evolution as “[a] dog-and-pony show for reporters” (Ibid. 132).

The following month, Xu Xing (who first went public with the fraud) emailed Christopher Sloan (the author of the National Geographic article) stating, “I am 100% sure … we have to admit that Archaeoraptor is a faked specimen” (Ibid. 132). Simons describes the less-than-honest way that Xu, who had collaborated in the blunder, tried to cover his tracks: “National Geographic published a cleaned-up version of Xu’s letter in its March issue [quoted above], at his request changing ‘faked’ to ‘composite’” (Ibid.).

Once the jig was up, those responsible began confessing their foolishness. Czerkas admitted that he and his wife had made “an idiot, bone-stupid mistake.” Currie said it was “the greatest mistake of my life.” Sloan said,“I was dragging in a monster” (Ibid.). William L. Allen, Editor-in- Chief of National Geographic, asked, “How did we get into this mess?” (Ibid. 128). Simons hints at the reason why so many experts fell for the hoax: “To some prominent paleontologists who saw it … the little skeleton was a long-sought key to a mystery of evolution” (Ibid.). In other words, they wanted to see evidence for dino-tobird evolution, so that is precisely what they saw. Interestingly, the original article from November 1999 practically admitted as much (without, of course, even realizing it). The article stated that the anatomical features of Archaeraptor are “exactly what scientists would expect to find in dinosaurs experimenting with flight” (Sloan 101). This is an absolutely golden example of the way in which evolutionists “see” evidence for evolution when there is none — all based on predetermined assumptions rather than scientific facts.

Criticism of the hoax has been harsh. In its October 2000 issue, Discover magazine featured an article titled “Twenty of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last Twenty Years.” One of the Top 20 was “Piltdown Chicken,” a sarcastic term for National Geographic’s evolutionary fraud. The term derives from Piltdown Man, the greatest hoax in the history of the theory of human evolution, in which a human skull had been artificially melded with an ape jaw and “discovered” in England in 1912 (Newman 80). For half a century it was used as “proof” of human evolution. The epithet “Piltdown Chicken” was actually coined several months earlier by U.S. News & World Report. In February 2000 it reported:

Imaginations certainly took flight over Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, a birdlike fossil with a meat-eater’s tail that was spirited out of northeastern China, “discovered” at a Tucson, Ariz., gemand- mineral show last year, and displayed at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Some 110,000 visitors saw the exhibit, which closed January 17; millions more read about the find in November’s National Geographic. Now, paleontologists are eating crow (Lord 53).

Storrs Olson, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, had warned the editors at the National Geographic Society about the possible fraudulence of the fossil back in November 1999, when the article was first published. “The public is being completely bamboozled,” he said when the scandal broke (Ibid.). Just as earlier paleontologists had embraced Piltdown Man because they were dying for evidence of human evolution, more recent scientists embarrassed themselves by gullibly embracing Archaeoraptor — a gullibility stemming from their overwhelming desire to prove a theory that is incorrect from the start. Yes, Dr. Olson, the public is indeed being bamboozled.

References

Lord, Mary, “The Piltdown Chicken.” U.S. News & World Report, 14 February 2000.

Newman, Judith. (2000). “Twenty of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last Twenty Years.” Discover 21, no. 10.

Simons, Lewis M. (2000). “Archaeoraptor Fossil Trail.” National Geographic 198, no. 4.

Sloan, Christopher P. (1999). “Feathers for T. Rex?” National Geographic 196, no. 5.


Stephen Caesar is the author of the ebook The Bible Encounters Modern Science, available at www.1stbooks.com.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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