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The lying stones of Wurzburg and Marrakech. (fake fossils)
Author/s: Stephen Jay Gould
Why the author gladly bought crudely forged fossils from a rock merchant in Morocco
We tend to think of fakery as an activity dedicated to minor moments of forgivable fun (from the whoopee cushion to the squirting lapel flower) or harmless embellishment (from my grandfather's vivid tales of the Dempsey-Firpo fight he never attended to the 250,000 people who swear they were there when Bobby Thomson hit his home ruff in a stadium with a maximum capacity of some 50,000).
But fakery can also become a serious and truly tragic business, warping (or even destroying) the lives of thousands, and misdirecting entire professions into sterility for generations. Scoundrels may find the matrix of temptation irresistible, for immediate gains in money and power can be so great, while human gullibility grants the skillful forger an apparently limitless field of operation. The van Gogh Sunflowers bought in 1987 by a Japanese insurance company for nearly 40 million dollars - then a record price for a painting - may well be a forged copy made in about 1900 by the stockbroker and artist manque Emile Schuffenecker. The phony Piltdown Man, artlessly confected from the jaw of an orangutan and a modern human cranium, derailed the profession of paleoanthropology for forty years until exposed as a fake in the early 1950s.
Earlier examples cast an even longer and broader net of disappointment. A large body of medieval and Renaissance scholarship depended upon the documents of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice-Great Hermes), a body of work attributed to Thoth, the Egyptian God of Wisdom, and once viewed as equal in insight (not to mention antiquity) to biblical and classical sources - until exposed as a set of forgeries compiled largely in the third century A.D. And how can we possibly measure the pain of thousands of pious Jews who abandoned their possessions and towns to follow the false messiah Shabbetai Tzevi to Jerusalem in the apocalyptic year of 1666 - only to learn that their leader, imprisoned by the Sultan and threatened with torture, had converted to Islam, been renamed Mehmed Efendi, and made the sultan's personal doorkeeper.
The most famous story of fraud in my own field of paleontology may not qualify for this first rank in the genre but has surely won both general fame and staying power by persisting for more than 250 years. Like all great legends, this story has a canonical form, replete with conventional moral messages and told without any variation in content across the centuries. Moreover, this canonical form bears little relationship to the actual course of events as best reconstructed from available evidence. Finally, to cite one more common property of legends, the correction of canonical errors gains further value in teaching us some important lessons about how we use and abuse our own history. Thus, the old tale merits yet another retelling, which I first provide in the canonical (and false) version known to so many generations of students (and no doubt remembered by many readers of this magazine from their college courses in natural science).
In 1726, Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer, an insufferably pompous and dilettantish professor and physician from the town of Wurzburg, published a volume, the Lithographiae Wirceburgensis (or Wurzburg lithography), documenting in copious words and twenty-one plates a remarkable series of fossils that he had found on a mountain adjacent to the city. These fossils displayed a great array of objects, all nearly exposed in three-dimensional relief on the surface of flattened stones. The great majority depicted organisms, nearly all complete and including remarkable features of behavior and soft anatomy that would never be preserved in conventional fossils - lizards in their skins, birds complete with beak and eyes, spiders with their webs, bees feeding on flowers, snails next to their eggs, and frogs copulating. But others showed heavenly objects - comets with tails, the crescent Moon with rays, and the Sun all effulgent with a glowing central face of human form. Still others depicted Hebrew letters, nearly all spelling out the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God - YHWH, usually transliterated by Christian Europe as Jehovah.
Beringer did recognize the difference between his stones and conventional fossils, and he didn't state a dogmatic opinion about their nature. Still, he didn't doubt their authenticity, and he did dismiss claims that they had been carved by human hands, either recently in an attempt to defraud or long ago for pagan purposes.
Alas, after publishing his book and trumpeting the contents, Beringer found out that he had indeed been duped, presumably by his students playing a prank. (Some sources say that he finally acknowledged trickery when he noted his own name written in Hebrew letters on one stone.) According to legend, the brokenhearted Beringer then impoverished himself by attempting to buy back all copies of his book and died dispirited just a few years later. Beringer's false fossils have been known ever since as Lugensteine, or "lying stones."
To illustrate the pedigree of the canonical tale, I cite the version given in the most famous paleontological treatise of the early nineteenth century, James Parkinson's Organic Remains of a Former World (volume 1, 1804). Parkinson, a physician by training and a fine paleontologist by avocation, identified and gave his name to the degenerative disease that continues to puzzle and trouble us today. He wrote of his colleague Beringer:
One work, published in 1726, deserves to be particularly noticed; since it plainly demonstrates, that learning may not be sufficient to prevent an unsuspecting man, from becoming the dupe of excessive credulity. It is worthy of being mentioned on another account: the quantity of censure and ridicule, to which its author was exposed, served, not only to render his contemporaries [sic] less liable to imposition; but also more cautious in indulging in unsupported hypotheses. . . . We are here presented with the representation of stones said to bear petrifactions of birds; some with spread, others with closed, wings: bees and wasps, both resting in their curiously constructed cells, and in the act of sipping honey from expanded flowers . . . and, to complete the absurdity, petrifactions representing the sun, moon, stars, and comets: with many others too monstrous and ridiculous to deserve even mention. These stones, artfully prepared, had been intentionally deposited in a mountain, which he was in the habit of exploring, purposely to dupe the enthusiastic collector. Unfortunately, the silly and cruel trick, succeeded in so far, as to occasion to him, who was the subject of it, so great a degree of mortification, as, it is said, shortened his days.
All components of the standard story line, complete with moral messages, have already fallen into place - the absurdity of the fossils, the gullibility of the professor, the personal tragedy of his undoing, and the two attendant lessons for aspiring young scientists: do not engage in speculation beyond available evidence, and do not stray from the empirical method of direct observation.
In this century's earlier and standard work on the history of geology (The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences, published in 1938), Frank Dawson Adams provides some embellishments that had accumulated over the years, including the unforgettable story, for which not a shred of evidence has ever existed, that Beringer capitulated when he found his own name in Hebrew letters on one of his stones. Adams's verbatim "borrowing" of Parkinson's last phrase also illustrates another reason for invariance of the canonical tale - later retellings copy their material from earlier sources:
Some sons of Belial among his students prepared a number of artificial fossils by moulding forms of various living or imaginary things in clay which was then baked hard and scattered in fragments about on the hillsides where Beringer was wont to search for fossils. . . . The distressing climax was reached, however, when later he one day found a fragment bearing his own name upon it. So great was his chagrin and mortification in discovering that he had been made the subject of a cruel and silly hoax, that he endeavored to buy up the whole edition of his work. In doing so he impoverished himself and it is said shortened his days.
Modern textbooks tend to present a caricatured "triumphalist" account in their "obligatory" introductory pages on the history of their discipline - the view that science marches inexorably forward from dark superstition toward the refining light of truth. Thus, Beringer's story tends to pick up the additional moral that his undoing at least had the good effect of destroying old nonsense about the inorganic or mysterious origin of fossils - as in this text for undergraduate students published in 1961:
The idea that fossils were merely sports of nature was finally killed by ridicule in the early part of the eighteenth century. Johann Beringer, a professor at the University of Wurzburg, enthusiastically argued against the organic nature of fossils. In 1726, he published a paleontological work . . . which included drawings of many true fossils but also of objects that represented the sun, the moon, stars, and Hebraic letters. It was not till later, when Beringer found a "fossil" with his own name on it, that he realized that his students, tired of his teachings, had planted these 'fossils" and carefully led him to discover them for himself.
A recent trip to Morocco turned my thoughts to Beringer. For several years, I have watched, with increasing fascination and puzzlement, the virtual takeover of rock shops throughout the world by striking fossils from Morocco - primarily straight-shelled nautiloids (much older relatives of the coiled and modern chambered nautilus) preserved in black marbles and limestones and usually sold as large, beautifully polished slabs intended for table or dresser tops. I wondered where these rocks occurred in such fantastic abundance; have the High Atlas Mountains been quarried away to sea level? I wanted to make sure that Morocco itself still existed as a discrete entity and not only as disaggregated fragments fashioning the world's coffee tables.
I discovered that most of these fossils come from quarries in the rocky deserts, well and due east of Marrakech, and not from the intervening mountains. I also learned something else that dispersed my fears about an imminent dispersal of an entire patrimony. Moroccan rock shops dot the landscape in limitless variety; there are young boys hawking a specimen or two at every hairpin turn on the mountain roads, impromptu stands at every lookout point, and large and formal shops in the cities and towns. The aggregate volume of rock must be immense, but the majority of items offered for sale are either entirely phony or at least strongly "enhanced." My focus of interest shifted dramatically from worrying about sources and limits to studying the ranges and differential expertise of a major industry dedicated to the manufacture of fake fossils.
Some enhancements are quite cleverly done - as when the strong ribs on the shell of a genuine ammonite are extended by carving into the smallest and innermost whorls and then "improved" in regular expression on the outer coil. But other "ammonites" have simply been carved from scratch on a smoothed rock surface, or even cast in clay and then glued into a prepared hole in the rock. Other fakes are simply absurd - as in my favorite example of a wormlike "thing" with circles on its back, grooves on both sides, eyes on a head shield, and a double projection, like a snake's forked tongue, extending out in front. (In this case the forger, too clever by half, at least recognized the correct principle of parts and counterparts, for the specimen comes in two pieces that fit together, the projecting "fossil" on one slab and the negative impression on the other, where the animal supposedly cast its form into the surrounding sediment. The forger even carved negative circles and grooves into the counterpart image, although they do not match the projecting, and supposedly corresponding, embellishments on the "fossil" itself.)
But one style of fakery emerges as a kind of industry standard, as defined by constant repetition and presence in all shops. (Whatever the unique and personal items offered for sale in any location, this vin ordinaire of the genre can always be found in abundance.) These "standards" feature small (up to six inches in length), flattened stones with a prominent creature spread out in three dimensions on the surface. The fossils span a full range, from plausible trilobites to arthropods (crabs, lobsters, and scorpions, for example) with external hard parts that might conceivably fossilize (although never in such complete exactitude) and small vertebrates (mostly frogs and lizards) with a soft exterior, including such delicate features as fingers and eyes, which cannot be preserved in the geological record.
After much scrutiny, I finally worked out the usual mode of manufacture. The fossil fakes are plaster casts, often remarkably well done. (The lizard that I bought, which can be seen in two photographs accompanying this column, must have been cast from life, for a magnifying glass reveals the individual pores and scales of the skin.) The forger cuts a flat surface on a real rock and then cements the plaster cast to this substrate. (If you look carefully from the side, you can always make out the junction of rock and plaster.) Some fakes are crudely done, but the best examples match the color and form of rock to overlying plaster so cleverly that distinctions become nearly invisible.
When I first set eyes on these fakes, I experienced the weirdest sense of deja vu, an odd juxtaposition of old and new that sent shivers of fascination and discomfort up and down my spine - a feeling greatly enhanced by a day just spent in the medina of Fez, the ancient walled town that a millennium has scarcely altered, where only mules and donkeys carry the goods of commerce and where high walls, labyrinthine streets, tiny open shops, and calls to prayer (heightened during the fast of Ramadan) mark a world seemingly untouched by time and conjure up every stereotype held by an uninformed West about a "mysterious" East. I looked at these standard fakes and I saw Beringer's Lagensteine of 1726. The two styles are so uncannily similar that I wondered at first if the modern forgers had explicitly copied the plates of the Lithographiae Wirceburgensis - a silly notion that I discarded as soon as I returned and consulted my copy of Beringer's original. But the similarities remain overwhelming. I purchased two examples - a scorpion of sorts and a lizard - as virtual dead ringers for Beringer's Lugensteine, and I present on these pages a visual comparison of the two sets of fakes, separated by 250 years and a different process of manufacture (carved in Germany versus cast in Morocco). I only wonder if the proprietor believed my assurances, rendered in my best commercial French, that I was a professional paleontologist and that his wares were faux, absolument et sans doute - or if he thought that I had just devised a bargaining tactic more clever than most.
But an odd similarity across disparate cultures and centuries doesn't make an essay. I only extracted sufficient generality when I realized that this maximal likeness in appearance correlates with a difference in meaning that couldn't be more profound. A primary strategy of the experimental method in science works by a principle known since Roman times as ceteris paribus ("all other things being equal") - that is, if you wish to understand a controlling difference between two systems, keep all other features constant, for the difference may then be attributed to the only factor that you have allowed to vary. If, for example, you wish to test the effect of a new diet pill, try to establish two matched groups - folks of the same age, sex, weight, nutrition, health, habits, ethnicity, and so on. Then give the pill to one group and a placebo to the other (without telling the subjects what they have received, for such knowledge would, in itself, establish inequality based on differing psychological expectations). The technique, needless to say, cannot be perfect (for true ceteris paribus can never be obtained), but if the pill group loses a lot of weight and the placebo group stays the same, you may conclude that the pill probably works as hoped.
Ceteris paribus may be a far more distant pipe dream in trying to understand two different contexts in the developing history of a profession, for we are now not manipulating a situation of our own design, but rather studying past circumstances in complex cultures that cannot be regulated by our experimental ideals at all. But any constancy between the two contexts increases the hope of illustrating and understanding their differences in the following special way: if we directly examine the disparate treatment of the same object in two cultures, worlds apart, then at least we learn that such disparities arise from the cultural differences, for the objects treated do not vary.
The effectively identical Lugensteine of early-eighteenth-century Wurzburg and modern Marrakech embody such an interesting difference in proposed meaning and effective treatment by two cultures - and I am not sure that we should be happy about the contrast. But we must first correct the legend of Beringer and the original Lugensteine if we wish to grasp the essential difference. As so often happens in the construction of canonical legends for moral purposes of a later age, the standard tale either distorts or mistakes nearly every important detail of Beringer's sad story. (I obtained my information primarily from an excellent book published in 1963 by Melvin E. Jahn and Daniel J. Woolf, The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer. Jahn and Woolf provide a complete translation of Beringer's volume, along with incisive and extensive commentary about the paleontology of Beringer's time. I used original sources from my own library for all quotations not from Beringer in this essay.)
First of all, on personal issues not directly relevant to the theme of this essay, Beringer was not tricked by a harmless student prank but rather purposely defrauded by two colleagues who hated his dismissive pomposity and wished to bring him down. These colleagues - J. Ignatz Roderick, professor of geography and algebra at the University of Wurzburg, and Georg von Eckhart, librarian to the court and the university - had the stones carved (or, in Roderick's case, probably did much of the carving himself) and then hired a seventeen-year-old boy, Christian Zanger (who may also have helped with the carving), to plant them on the mountain. Zanger, a double agent of sorts, was then hired by Beringer (along with two other boys, both apparently innocent of the fraud) to excavate and collect the stones.
This information comes from incomplete and somewhat contradictory records of hearings held in April 1726 before the Wurzburg Cathedral Chapter at the City Hall of Eivelstadt (the site of Beringer's mountain just outside Wurzburg). These records, discovered by the German scholar Heinrich Kirchner in 1935 in the state archives of Wurzburg, focus on the testimony of the three boys. Zanger, the double agent, states that Roderick had devised the scheme because he "wished to accuse Dr. Beringer . . . because Beringer was so arrogant and despised them all." I was also impressed by the testimony of the boys hired by Beringer. Their innocence seems clear in the wonderfully ingenuous statement of Nicklaus Hahn that if he and his brother "could make such stones, they wouldn't be mere diggers."
The canonical tale may require Beringer's ruin to convey the desired moral, but the facts argue differently. I do not doubt that the doctor was painfully embarrassed, even mortified, but he evidently recovered, kept his job and titles, lived for another fourteen years, and published several more books (including, although probably not by his design or will, a posthumous second edition of his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis). Eckhart and Roderick, on the other hand, were disgraced. Eckhart died soon thereafter, and Roderick, having left Wurzburg (voluntarily or not we do not know), then wrote a humbling letter to the prince-bishop begging permission to return - which His Grace allowed after due rebuke for Roderick's past deeds - and to regain access to the library and archives so that he could write a proper obituary for his deceased friend Eckhart.
But on the central intellectual theme of Beringer's significance in the history of paleontology, a different kind of correction inverts the conventional story in a more meaningful way. The usual cardboard tale of progressive science triumphant over past ignorance requires that benighted "bad guys" - who upheld the old ways of theological superstition against the plainly obvious and observational truths of advancing science - be branded as both foolish and stubbornly unwilling to face nature's empirical factuality. Since Beringer falls into this category of old and bad, we want to see him as hopelessly duped by preposterous fakes that any good observer should have recognized-hence the emphasis, in the canonical story, on Beringer's mortification and on the ridiculous character of the Lugensteine themselves.
The Wurzburg carvings are, of course, absurd by modern definitions and understanding of fossils. We know that spiders' webs and lizards' eyes - not to mention solar rays and the Hebrew name of God - cannot fossilize, so the Lugensteine can only be human carvings. We laugh at Beringer for not making an identification that seems so obvious to us. But, in so doing, we commit the greatest of all historical errors by arrogantly judging our forebears in the light of modern knowledge perforce unavailable to them. Of course, the Lugensteine are preposterous once we recognize fossils as preserved remains of past organisms. By this criterion, letters and solar emanations cannot be real fossils, and anyone who unites such objects with plausible images of organisms can only be a fool.
But when we enter Beringer's early-eighteenth-century world of geological understanding, his interpretations, however improbable (and however tragically misguided), do not seem so absurd. First of all, Beringer was puzzled by the unique character of his Lugensteine and adopted no dogmatic position about their nature. He did regard them as natural and not carved (a portentous error, of course), but he demurred on further judgment and repeatedly stated that he had chosen to publish in order to provide information so that others might better debate the nature of fossils - a tactic that scientists supposedly value. The closing words of his penultimate chapter may be a tad grandiose and self-serving, but shall we not praise the sentiment of openness?
I have willingly submitted my plates to the scrutiny of wise men, desiring to learn their verdict, rather than to proclaim my own in this totally new and much mooted question. I address myself to scholars, hoping to be instructed by their most learned responses. . . . It is my fervent expectation that illustrious lithographers will shed light upon this dispute which is as obscure as it is unusual. I shall add thereto my own humble torch, nor shall I spare any effort to reveal and declare whatever future yields may rise from the Wurzburg field under the continuous labors of my workers, and whatever opinion my mind may embrace.
More importantly, Beringer's hoaxers had not crafted preposterous objects but had cleverly contrived - for their purposes, remember, were venomous, not humorous - a fraud that might fool a man of decent will and reasonable intelligence by the standards of interpretation then current. Beringer wrote his treatise at the tail end of a debate that had engulfed seventeenth-century science and had still not been fully resolved. What did fossils represent and what did they teach us about the age of the earth, the nature of our planet's history, and the meaning and definition of life?
Beringer regarded the Lugensteine as "natural," but not necessarily as organic in origin. In the great debate that Beringer knew and documented so well, many scientists viewed fossils as inorganic products of the mineral realm that somehow mimicked the forms of organisms (but might also take the shapes of other objects, even including planets and letters - thus making the Lugensteine not preposterous prima facie). This debate could not have engaged broader or more crucial issues for the developing sciences of geology and biology - for if fossils are remains of organisms, then the earth must be ancient, life must enjoy a long history of consistent change, and rocks must form from the deposition and hardening of sediments. But if fossils can be inorganic results of a "plastic power" in the mineral kingdom (that can fashion other interesting shapes like crystals, stalactites, and banded agates in different circumstances), then the earth may be young and virtually unchanged (except for the ravages of Noah's Flood), while rocks, with their enclosed fossils, may be products of the original Creation, not historical results of altered sediments.
If pictures of planets and Hebrew letters could be "fossils" made in the same way as apparent organisms, then the inorganic theory gains strong support, for a fossilized aleph or moonbeam could not be construed as a natural object deposited in a streambed and then fossilized when the surrounding sediment became buried and petrified. The inorganic theory had been fading in Beringer's time, while the organic alternative gained continually in support. But the inorganic view remained plausible, and the Lugensteine therefore become clever and diabolical, not preposterous and comical.
In Beringer's day, theories of spontaneous generation remained popular for explaining the origin of life; if simple organisms can arise by the influence of sunshine upon waters or heat upon decaying flesh, why not conjecture that simple images of objects might form upon rocks by natural interactions of light or heat upon inherent "lapidifying forces" of the mineral kingdom? Consider, moreover, how puzzling the image of a fish inside a rock must have appeared to people who regarded rocks as products of an original creation, not as historical outcomes of sedimentation. How could an organism get inside? And how could fossils be organisms if they frequently occur petrified, or made of the same stone as their surroundings? We now have simple and "obvious" answers to these questions, but Beringer and his colleagues still struggled, and any sympathetic understanding of early-eighteenth-century contexts should help us to grasp the centrality and excitement of these debates and to understand the Lugensteine as legitimately puzzling.
I do not, however, wish to absolve Beringer of all blame under an indefensibly pluralistic doctrine that all plausible explanations of past times may claim the same weight of judicious argument. The Lugensteine may not have been absurd, but Beringer had also encountered enough clues to uncover the hoax and avoid embarrassment. However, for several reasons involving flaws of character and passable intelligence short of true brilliance, Beringer forged on, finally allowing his judgment to be canceled by his desire to be recognized and honored for a great discovery that had assumed so much of his time and expense. How could he relinquish the fame he could almost taste when he wrote:
Behold these tablets, which I was inspired to edit, not only by my tireless zeal for public service, and by your wishes and those of my many friends, and by my strong filial love for Franconia, to which, from these figured fruits of this previously obscure mountain, no less glory will accrue than from the delicious wines of its vine-covered hills.
I am no fan of Dr. Beringer's. He strikes me, first of all, as an insufferable pedant - so I can understand his colleagues' frustration, while not condoning their solutions. (I pride myself on always quoting from original sources, and I do own a copy of Beringer's treatise. I am no Latin scholar, but I can read and translate most works in this universal scientific language of Beringer's time. But I cannot make heads or tails of the convoluted phrasings, the invented polysyllabic words, the absurdly twisted sentences of Beringer's prose, and I have had to rely on Jahn and Woolf's translation, previously cited.)
Moreover, Beringer saw and reported more than enough evidence to uncover the hoax, had he been inclined to greater judiciousness. He noted that his Lugensteine bore no relationship to any other objects known to the burgeoning science of paleontology, not even to the numerous "real" fossils also found on his mountain. But instead of alerting him to possible fraud, these differences only fueled Beringer's hopes for fame. He made many observations that should have clued him in to the artificial carving of his fossils: Why were they nearly always complete, and not usually fragmentary like most other finds? Why did each object seem to fit so snugly and firmly on the enclosing rock? Why did only the top sides protrude, while the lower parts merged with the underlying rock? Why had letters and sunbeams not been found before? Why did nearly all fossils appear in the same orientation, splayed out and viewed from the top, never from the side or bottom? Beringer's own words almost shout out the obvious and correct conclusion that he couldn't abide or even discern: "The figures expressed on these stones, especially those of insects, are so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor."
Beringer's arrogance brought him down in a much more direct manner as well. When Eckhart and Roderick learned that Beringer planned to publish his work, they realized that they had gone too far and became frightened. They tried to warn Beringer, by hints at first, but later quite directly as their anxiety increased. Roderick even delivered some stones to Beringer and later showed his rival how they had been carved - hoping that Beringer would then draw an obvious inference about the rest of his identical collection.
Beringer, however, was now committed and would not be derailed. He replied with the argument of all true believers, the unshakable faith that resists all reason and evidence: yes, you have proved that these psychics are frauds, but my psychics are the real McCoy, and I must defend them even more strongly now that you have heaped unfair calumnies upon the entire enterprise. Beringer never mentions Eckhart and Roderick by name (so their unveiling awaited the 1934 discovery in the Wurzburg town archives), but he had been forewarned of their activities. Beringer wrote in chapter 12 of his book:
Then, when I had all but completed my work, I caught the rumor circulating throughout the city . . . that every one of these stones . . . was recently sculpted by hand, made to look as though at different periods they had been resurrected from a very old burial, and sold to me as to one indifferent to fraud and caught up in the blind greed of curiosity.
Beringer then tells the tale of Roderick's warning, but excoriates his rival as an oafish modern caricature of Praxiteles (the preeminent Greek sculptor) out to discredit a great discovery by artificial mimicry:
Our Praxiteles has issued, in an arrogant letter, a declaration of war. He has threatened to write a small treatise exposing my stones as supposititious [sic] - I should say, his stones, fashioned and fraudulently made by his hand. Thus does this man, virtually unknown among men of letters, still but a novice in the sciences, make a bid for the dawn of his fame in a shameful calumny and imposture.
If only Beringer had realized how truly and comprehensively he had spoken about "a shameful calumny and imposture." But Roderick succeeded because his carvings had been sufficiently plausible to inspire belief by early-eighteenth-century standards. The undoing of all protagonists then followed because Beringer, in his overweening and stubborn arrogance, simply could not quench his ambition once a clever and plausible hoax had unleashed his ardor and vanity.
In summary, the Lugensteine of Wurzburg played a notable role in the most important debate ever pursued in paleontology -a struggle that lasted for centuries and that placed the nature of reality itself up for grabs. By Beringer's time, this debate had largely been settled in favor of the organic nature of fossils, and this resolution would have occurred even if Beringer had never been born and the Lugensteine never carved. Beringer may have been a vain and arrogant man of limited talent, working in an academic backwater of his day, but at least he was struggling with grand issues - and he fell because his hoaxers understood the great stakes and fashioned frauds that could be viewed as cleverly relevant to this intellectual struggle, however preposterous they appear to us today with our additional knowledge and radically altered theories about the nature of reality and causation.
(One often needs a proper theory to set a context for the exposure of fraud. Piltdown Man fooled some of the world's best scientists for generations, and I will never forget what W. E. Le Gros Clark, one of the three scientists who exposed the fraud in the early 1950s, said to me when I asked him why this resolution had not occurred earlier. Even an amateur in vertebrate anatomy, like myself, has no trouble seeing the Piltdown bones for what they are - the staining is so crude; the file marks applied on the orangutan teeth in the lower jaw are so obvious, yet so necessary to make the teeth seem human in the forger's plan, for the cusps of ape and human teeth differ so greatly. Le Gros Clark said to me: "One needed to approach the bones with the hypothesis of fraud already in mind. In such a context, the fakery immediately became obvious.")
The Lugensteine of Marrakech are, by contrast - and I don't know how else to say this - merely ludicrous and preposterous. No excuse save ignorance - and I do, of course, recognize the continued prevalence of this all-too-human trait - could possibly inspire a belief that the plaster blobs atop the Moroccan stones might be true fossils, the remains of ancient organisms. Beringer thus was grandly tricked in the pursuit of great truths, however inadequate his own skills. We are merely hoodwinked for a few dollars that mean little to most tourists but may make or break the lives of local carvers. Caveat emptor.
In contrasting the conflicting meanings of these identical fakes in such radically different historical contexts, I can only recall Karl Marx's famous opening line to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, his incisive essay on the rise to power of the vain and cynical Napoleon III, culminating in his appointment as emperor in 1852, as contrasted with the grand hopes and disappointments inspired by the original Napoleon. (The French revolutionary calendar renamed the months and started time again at the establishment of the Republic. In this system, Napoleon's coup d'etat occurred on the 18th of Brumaire, a foggy month in a renamed autumn of year VIII - or November 9, 1799. Marx, who may be justly out of fashion for horrors later committed in his name, remains a brilliant analyst of historical patterns.) Marx opened his polemical treatise by noting that all great events in history occur twice - the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
Beringer was a pompous ass, and his florid and convoluted phrases must rank as a caricature of true scholarship. Still, he fell in the course of a great debate, using his limited talents to defend an inquiry that he loved and that even more pompous fools of his time despised - those who argued that refined people wouldn't dirty their hands in the muck of 'mountains but would solve the world's pressing issues under their wigs in their drawing rooms. Beringer thus characterized this opposition from the pseudo-elegant glitterati of his day:
They pursue [paleontology] with an especially censorious rod, and condemn it to rejection from the world of erudition as one of the wanton futilities of intellectual idlers. To what purpose, they ask, do we stare fixedly with eye and mind at small stones and figured rocks, at little images of animals or plants, the rubbish of mountain and stream, found by chance amid the muck and sand of land and sea?
He then defended his profession with the greatest of geological metaphors:
Any [paleontologist], like David of old, would be able with one flawless stone picked from the bosom of Nature, to prostrate, by one blow on the forehead, the gigantic mass of objections and satires and to vindicate the honor of this sublime science from all its calumniators.
Beringer, to his misfortune, and largely as a result of his own limitations, did not pick a "flawless stone," but he properly defended the great value of paleontology and of empirical science in general. As a final irony, Beringer could not have been more wrong about the Lugensteine, but he couldn't have been more right about the power of paleontology. Science has so revolutionized our view of reality since 1726 that we, in our current style of arrogance, can only regard the Wurzburg Lugensteine as preposterous, because we unfairly impose our modern context and fail to understand Beringer's world, including the deep issues that made his hoaxing a tragedy rather than a farce.
Our current reality features an unslayable Goliath of commercialism, and modern scientific Davids must make an honorable peace, for a slingshot cannot win this battle. I may be terribly old fashioned (shades, I hope not, of poor Beringer), but I continue to believe that such honor can only be sought in separation and mutual respect. The temptations for increasing fusion with the world of commerce are omnipresent and well nigh overwhelming, for the immediate and palpable "rewards" are so great. So scientists go to work for competing pharmaceutical or computer companies and make monumental salaries but cannot choose their topics of research or publish their work. And museums expand their gift shops to the size of their neglected exhibit halls and purvey their dinosaurs largely for dollars in the form of images on coffee mugs and T-shirts or by special exhibits, at fancy prices, of rented robotic models, built by commercial companies and featuring, as their come-on, the very properties - mostly hideous growls and lurid colors - that leave no evidence in the fossil record and that therefore remain a matter of pure conjecture to science.
I am relieved that Sue the Tyrannosaurus, sold at auction by Sotheby's for more than 8 million dollars, will go to Chicago's Field Museum and not to the anonymity of some corporate boardroom, to stand (perhaps) next to a phony van Gogh. But I am not happy that no natural history museum in the world has funds for such a purpose - and that Disney had to pony up the cash. Disney is not, after all, an eleemosynary institution, and they will legitimately want their piece for their price. Will it be the Disney Hall of Paleontology at the Field Museum? (Will we ever again be able to view a public object with civic dignity, unencumbered by commercial messages? Must city buses be fully painted as movable ads, lampposts smothered, taxis festooned, even seats in concert halls sold one by one to donors and embellished in perpetuity with names on a metal plaque?) Or will it be Sue the Robotic Tyrannosaurus - the purchase of the name rather than the thing, for Sue's actual skeleton cannot improve the colors or sounds of the robots, and her value, in this context, lies only in the recognition of her name (and the memory of the dollars she brought down), not in her truly immense scientific worth.
I am neither an idealist nor a Luddite in this matter. I just feel that the world of commerce and the world of intellect, by their intrinsic natures, must pursue different values and priorities - the commercial world looms so much larger than our domain that we can only be engulfed and destroyed if we make a devil's bargain of fusion for short-term gain. The worth of fossils simply cannot be measured in dollars. But the Lugensteine of Marrakech can only be assessed in this purely symbolic way, for they have no intellectual value and can only bring what the traffic (and human gullibility) will bear. We cannot possibly improve upon Shakespeare's famous words for this sorry situation - and this ray of hope for the honor and differences of intellect:
Who steals my purse steals trash . . . But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.
But we must also remember that these words are spoken by the villainous Iago, who will soon make Othello a victim (by exploiting the Moor's own intemperance) of the most poignant and tragic deception in all our literature. Any modern intellectual, to avoid Beringer's sad fate, must hold on to the dream - while keeping a cold eye on immediate realities. Follow your bliss, but never draw to an inside straight.
Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University. He is also the Frederick P. Rose Honorary Curator in Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History.
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