What the Ape Man Can Teach Us About a Common Mental Mistake

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Pithecanthropus is the ape-man. He’s also known as the Java Man and the Peking Man. Latin-loving scientists call him Homo erectus, Homo modjokertenses, Meganthropus palaeojavanicus, Pithecanthropus robustus, and Pithecanthropus dubius.

He is the creation of Dutch physician Eugene Dubois. In the 1890s, Dubois discovered a few bony remains of a primitive-looking human in the gravels of the Solo River basin in Java, Indonesia. With these remains, he constructed Pithecanthropus and claimed he was the Missing Link that completed Darwin’s theory of evolution.

With Pithecanthropus, he thought he would shake God down from the heavens.


Although the popular science crowd was enthusiastic over the findings, some were dubious of Dubois, including G.K. Chesterton, who objected in The Everlasting Man that those few bones were too “few and fragmentary and dubious to fill up the whole of the vast void that lies between man and his bestial ancestors, if they were his ancestors.”

Some might argue that Chesterton was simply too subjectively wedded to the claims of religion to accept the objective findings of science. After all, Dubois, a physician and man of science, engaged in objective research and believed that Pithencanthropus was the Missing Link.         

It’s here one finds a central truth that underlies every troubling, annoying, and dangerous person in the history of mankind:

Objectivity is fool’s gold.

No one is capable of absolute objectivity. Anyone who claims absolute (or near-absolute) objectivity for himself ends up like the exuberant prospector in the movies who, after five years of digging in the hot California sun and going months without a decent meal or shower, confidently presents the local banker with a piece of pyrite.

Objectivity is the prized fool’s gold of all fanatics. They claim it and hold it against all hope. They don’t realize that solid objectivity, like real gold, is rare and, more importantly, elusive. As a result, they tend to claim it facilely and refuse to be shaken from any convictions formed with it.


Such was the case with Dubois. He panned for bones in the Solo River, found some nuggets, and used his objective scientific training to declare them the Missing Link.

Born in 1858, he came of age at a time when European scientists were eager to show that man evolved from apes by connecting Neanderthal skeletons with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The idea inflamed Dubois’s imagination. A man of immense self-esteem, he abandoned his career and dragged his family off to distant Dutch colonies where for five years he endured jungles, dangerous animals, and malaria in his search for the Holy Grail of Darwinism. He finally found it—in a skullcap, a molar, a femur, and the imaginary man he constructed with them.

When he triumphantly returned to Europe with Pithecanthropus and the solution to human origins on a leash, he grew angry when other scientists questioned his methods and, worse, his conclusions. Some questioned whether the bones were from the same person (the femur, after all, was found ten months after and forty feet away from the skullcap). Some thought the skullcap was a gibbon’s. Many disagreed with the spin he put on the bones.

He relentlessly defended his results. When Europe’s leading scientists didn’t fall into line, he became hypersensitive, paranoid, suspicious, and a little pathological. Frustrated by the academic battles over Pithecanthropus, he hid the ape man’s bones from other researchers for over twenty years. In the end, he was a bitter and lonely man. Pithecanthropus had destroyed his family and friendships.

Pithecanthropus himself was a piece of fool’s gold, but Dubois, wedded to the fool’s gold of his objectivity, never saw it.

As for Chesterton’s objections to Pithecanthropus, they’re more reasonable and, from a personality standpoint, more believable.

Chesterton was brilliant, but he never lost sight of his status as a limited creature. He remained humble. Those who, like Dubois, claim absolute objectivity, hold nothing but pyrite. While those who, like Chesterton, hold a measure of objectivity, all the while keeping a sure eye on their own infallibility and subjectivity, hold a diamond.