What Can We Know About Prehistoric Man? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 , we started looking at G. K. Chesterton’s commentary on the zeal of paleontologists of his day.  Chesterton noted that there is a definite and often ignored difference between the science of paleontology and empirical sciences such as aerodynamics.  In part 2, we hear more from Chesterton on the extrapolations he saw in his day:

For instance, I have pointed out the difficulty of keeping a monkey and watching it evolve into a man. Experimental evidence of such an evolution being impossible, the professor is not content to say (as most of us would be ready to say) that such an evolution is likely enough anyhow.

He produces his little bone, or little collection of bones, and deduces the most marvellous things from it. He found in Java a piece of a skull, seeming by its contour to be smaller than the human. Somewhere near it he found an upright thigh-bone and in the same scattered fashion some teeth that were not human. If they all form part of one creature, which is doubtful, our conception of the creature would be almost equally doubtful.

But the effect on popular science was to produce a complete and even complex figure, finished down to the last details of hair and habits. He was given a name as if he were an ordinary historical character. People talked of Pithecanthropus as of Pitt or Fox or Napoleon. Popular histories published portraits of him like the portraits of Charles the First and George the Fourth. A detailed drawing was reproduced, carefully shaded, to show that the very hairs of his head were all numbered.

No uninformed person looking at its carefully lined face and wistful eyes would imagine for a moment that this was the portrait of a thigh-bone; or of a few teeth and a fragment of a cranium. In the same way people talked about him as if he were an individual whose influence and character were familiar to us all.

The historical sciences, as we have pointed out many times on this blog, operate very differently than the empirical sciences.  We are far more certain about the laws of aerodynamics than the activities of Homo erectus.  One we can test with live experimentation, and the other we cannot.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that historical sciences give us no knowledge about the past.  Paleontology, as an example, can tell us many interesting things about prehistoric life.  What I and Chesterton are saying is that there are much larger error bars on what paleontology tells us than what the science of aerodynamics tells us.  The interpretation of the data from paleontology is far less sure than the data from aerodynamics.  It behooves the scientific community to make these differences clear.

  • And they do. You seem to suggest that they do not take into account a very high degree of scepticism but mostly operate by sort of wishful whim.

    Again, if Chesterton were made aware of the myriad of direct and historical testing used in anthropology and paleontology, I doubt very much he would paint these sciences this way. You have no such excuse.

    Whereas aerodynamic testing can be done directly – does it fly can be answered very quickly with a yes or no – testing for historical sciences is very much broader and very much more open to ‘best’ explanations of the current evidence. That’s why historical sciences are always an evolving trade smothered in qualifying terms. But the evolution of these sciences does not mean these explanations are overturned en masse; rather, as new and better techniques are developed, our knowledge is deepened as uncertainty slowly gives way to samples yielding empirical data that almost always improves the explanations.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Chesterton died in 1936. I’m baffled as to why you keep quoting a man whose death predated so much new evidence, in some cases by many, many decades.

  • Chesterton’s comments on this issue transcend specific pieces of evidence. He is speaking as a philosopher of science, not as a scientist. The fact that more fossils have been found in the last 70 years does nothing to change the force of the points he was making.

  • Andrew Ryan

    But it’s not limited to paleontology, is it? Chesterton could not have foreseen DNA analysis of hominid fossils.

    [iPod won’t let me paste URL link or even text excerpt!]