[TODAY]Piltdown Man and stem cell cloningSome American and European experts have began comparing the controversy over Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research with the Piltdown Man scandal, one of the most infamous hoaxes in science. The nature of the two cases is quite similar in essence. The former involves fabrications and exaggeration in the research process, while the latter was a fabrication of a 300,000-year old hominid skull. The development of the two cases also shows a surprisingly similar process.
In 1912, Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur geologist from Sussex, England, announced at a meeting of the Geological Society in London that he had discovered the “missing link” between ape and man, for which archeologists had long been searching.
Mr. Dawson claimed he had found the skull of an ancient fossil hominid in Piltdown quarry in Sussex. Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the British Museum; Arthur Keith, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute; Grafton Elliot Smith, renowned anatomist and anthropologist; and French evolution expert Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin participated in the process of deciding that the skull in question belonged to a fossil hominid who had lived in the region 300,000 years earlier. Their involvement is similar to Dr. Gerald Schatten’s co-authorship with Dr. Hwang.
The British raved at Mr. Dawson’s announcement and scientists and men of religion around the world paid attention to the Piltdown Man. Newspapers covering the story about the Piltdown quarry skull sold briskly. The craze was not much different from the attention of newspapers and media shown to Dr. Hwang’s research. The fossil hominid was named Eoanthropus dawsoni, a Latin translation of “Dawson’s Dawn Man.” Britain’s excitement over the Piltdown skull was based on nationalistic motives. The British were rather displeased that the Cro-Magnon man and the Neanderthal had been discovered in continental Europe. The skull of Piltdown Man gave pride to the British that the progenitor of the human race had lived in England. Similarly, Koreans hoped Dr. Hwang and his team’s human embryonic stem cell research would win a Nobel Prize and wanted it to be the world’s best in the biomedical field.
The skull of the Piltdown Man displayed in the British Museum was treated as conclusive evidence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Plaster casts of the Piltdown skull were sent to museums around the world. As a reward for the “great discovery,” Mr. Keith, Mr. Woodward and Mr. Smith were conferred titles by the king. Their peerages were invisible rewards comparable to the support of Korean nation, tens of billion won in grants, VIP-level security protection and lifetime free first-class travel on Korean Air that was provided to Dr. Hwang.
The most notable similarity between the Piltdown Man scandal and Dr. Hwang’s case is that the doubts raised by young experts were overwhelmed by the frenzy for a great scientific achievement in Britain and, in Korea, by nationwide respect and anticipation to a scientific hero. What both cases had in common is that the enthusiasm of the media and the expectation of the public to be the “best in the world” pushed the doubts aside. From 1916, a series of reports pointed out that the lower jaw and teeth on the Piltdown skull belonged to a chimpanzee; that the jawbone and skull did not belong to the same creature; and the teeth had been filed. However, those suspicions were ignored.
Young scientists who had earlier raised questions on the paper of Dr. Hwang’s research team were also met with scorn. The icon of the skull finally collapsed in light of a new dating technique called the fluorine absorption test in 1953. Geologists Kenneth Oakley and Joseph Weiner revealed the shocking fact that the Piltdown Man was made up of a skull of a man who had died only several centuries earlier and the jawbone of an orangutan.
While the Piltdown Man scandal was a metaphysical matter, Dr. Hwang’s controversy is a case related to realistic issues regarding the treatment of previously incurable diseases as well as the national confidence and interests of Korea. The case is shocking and the world is paying attention to its development. Some might have been jealous of Dr. Hwang’s stardom. The substance of the case hinges on whether the announced research result was valid. However, the case will not be completely resolved unless we pay attention to the cultural substructure. Koreans have become so used to the compressed growth of the economy and other fields that they suffer a chronic illness of hastiness, approximation and the moral hazard of justifying the means with the purpose. Separate to Dr. Hwang’s comeback plan, we should all reflect upon and repent of this Korean illness.
* The writer is an adviser and senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie