Thursday, October 21, 2004

Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes?

The fact that there is a conference in Rome at the moment about Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his work has reminded me of one of the more unusual accusations made against a theologian of this century.
I don't profess to know much about Teilhard de Chardin or his work - what little I do know suggests that he made a sincere, if ultimately ineffective attempt to form a synthesis of the theological and scientific worldviews. It is easy to critise his work with the benefit of hindsight (and the advances made in the philosophy of science) and he has very much fallen out of fashion, but the questions of the cosmic significance of Christianity and the relationship between religious and scientific speculation are not trivial and I would be reluctant to be too quick to judge the orthodoxy of his intentions.
Anyway, in 1912 and 1915, some bones came to light which were found in a quarry in Sussex. British paleontologists came to the conclusion that the remains belonged to the so-called 'missing link' and were hugely important in understanding the evolution of man. The stage of evolution to which these bones attested was called 'Piltdown Man' after the quarry in which they were discovered. However, in the 1950's, it was realised that the remains were faked - they turned out to be a mixture of artificially aged human and primate bones.
So, where does Teilhard come in? In 1983 Stephen Jay Gould (admittedly no friend of religion) published his famous article Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes wherein he conjectures (based on circumstantial evidence) that Teilhard was partially responsible for the hoax. Personally, I'm tickled by the idea that the young Jesuit playing a practical joke with such far-reaching consequences, but it's probably only fair to mention that opinion is very divided on who may be responsible and Gould's 'evidence' is very, very circumstatial. This page, for example, has a number of links protesting Teilhard's innocence and there are several other suspects.

No comments: