In a two-part post on “The Two Woodrows” (part 1, part 2), I used Woodrow Wilson’s famous comment “of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised” as a pretext to recount the story of James Woodrow, Wilson’s uncle, a leading Presbyterian theologian of his time whose acceptance of evolution was a cause célèbre in the 1880s. But actually it was a (lengthy) digression. What I really wanted to talk about was the context of the comment. Impressed though Wilson was by his uncle, whom he deemed one of the greatest men he ever met, he wasn’t all that interested in evolution, at least as a scientific view. “The Religion of Woodrow Wilson,” a memoir by Cary T. Grayson, who served as Wilson’s personal physician in the White House, observes, “At no time in his life did he read deeply in natural science.”
True, Wilson liked evolution as a metaphor. In his What About Darwin? (2010)—which, in the words of its Victorian subtitle, presents “all species of opinion from scientists, sages, friends, and enemies who met, read, and discussed the naturalist who changed the world,” and which is my go-to book when I want a quick take on what so-and-so thought about evolution—Thomas F. Glick offers two quotes in which Wilson compares society to a living organism. One doesn’t mention Darwin or evolution—Wilson, asked in private, “Is society an organism?” replied in a whisper, “Yes, but keep it in the dark!” The other is from a 1912 speech in which Wilson said, presumably not in a whisper or in the dark, “Society is an organism, and every government must develop according to its organic forces and instincts...[w]hat we have been witnessing for the last hundred years is the transformation of a Newtonian constitution into a Darwinian constitution.”
So what was the context of Wilson’s comment about organic evolution? You might think that it was elicited by the Scopes trial. But Wilson died on February 3, 1924, whereas the Butler Act, under which Scopes was prosecuted, wasn’t enacted until March 21, 1925. Yet you would be right to think of the Scopes trial in connection with Wilson’s comment, because it appeared in the testimony of Winterton Curtis, a professor of zoology at the University of Missouri, who was one of the expert witnesses prepared to testify for the defense. Or it would have. Judge Raulston, presiding over the trial, decided that the defense expert witnesses would not be allowed to testify. In his history of the trial Summer for the Gods (1997), Edward J. Larson writes, “He clearly wanted to hear the experts but felt pressure from state leaders who, fearing that such testimony would heap further ridicule on Tennessee and its law, pointedly had declared that the trial should be brief.”
For the purpose of creating a record for appellate review, however, the defense experts were allowed to submit written affidavits or read prepared statements into the record: “eight scientists dictated a total of more than 60,000 words of testimony to stenographers,” Larson observes. Arthur Garfield Hays, one of the defense attorneys, was allowed to read selected excerpts in court, but apparently it was not particularly impressive. Anyway, included in Curtis’s testimony was Wilson’s comment:
Washington, D. C.
August 29, 1922
My dear Prof. Curtis:
May it not suffice for me to say, in reply to your letter of August 25th, that, of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.
The comment occurs in the penultimate paragraph of Curtis’s testimony, prefixed by Curtis’s explanation: “Evolution has been generally accepted by the intellectually competent who have taken the trouble to inform themselves with an open mind. The following letter was written in response to a request to state his position, it having been alleged that he was not a believer in organic evolution.”
It was a zinger for Curtis to quote Wilson of all people here. After all, in ascribing intellectual competence and openmindedness to Wilson, Curtis denied those qualities to antievolutionists like the national politician-turned-antievolutionist crusader William Jennings Bryan, the most prominent member of the team prosecuting Scopes for violating the Butler Act. And Wilson is someone who succeeded, as a Democratic candidate for president in 1912 and 1916, where Bryan repeatedly failed, in 1896, 1900, and 1908, as well as someone who was Bryan’s official superior. (Bryan served as Wilson’s secretary of state from 1913 to 1915, when he resigned in protest over Wilson’s handling of the Lusitania crisis. He nevertheless campaigned for Wilson in 1916, as he had in 1912.) Compared with Clarence Darrow’s cross-examination of Bryan during the Scopes trial, of course, it’s not the harshest attack imaginable. But it might have smarted a bit.
Still, what Curtis says about the provenance of Wilson’s opinion is not especially useful. By whom was it alleged that Wilson was not “a believer in organic evolution,” and in what context? Grayson’s “The Religion of Woodrow Wilson” is of no help here, but volume 68 of the Papers of Woodrow Wilson explains in a footnote:
Curtis called attention to the case of one F. E. Dean, a former student of his, who had been dismissed as superintendent of schools at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, by the local school board because he had questioned its decision to prohibit the teaching of evolution. Wilson’s name had come up in the discussion of the case because a minister of the Fort Sumner area had asserted that Wilson did not believe that “man came from the beast.” Curtis asked Wilson to send “some statement” in regard to his opinion of “organic evolution.”
So it isn’t as though Curtis was soliciting Wilson’s opinion just on the off chance that it would be useful eventually. Rather, there was a particular incident in which someone lost a job over the teaching of evolution, three years before the Scopes trial. How very interesting! But the details will have to wait until part 2.