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Dr. Etheridge, Fossilologist, Part 3

I’m still discussing a well-known but ill-sourced quotation from a “Dr. Etheridge, Fossilologist of the British Museum,” according to which, “Nine-tenths of the talk of evolutionists is sheer nonsense, not founded on observation and wholly unsupported by fact. This museum is full of proofs of the utter falsity of their views.” In part 1, after remarking on its ubiquity in Scopes-era antievolutionism, I explained why Ronald L. Numbers ascribes it, in The Creationists (1992), to Robert Etheridge Jr. But in part 2, I then explained why Numbers, relying on a 1922 letter from the director of the British Museum, was mistaken: the director apparently confused Robert Etheridge Jr. with his father Robert Etheridge. It wasn’t a difficult mistake to make, owing to the similarity in names and the fact that both paleontologists worked at the British Museum, but not for at least twenty years before the letter was composed.

Now, according to Charles Force Deems’s A Scotch Verdict in re Evolution (1885), the quotation appeared in a letter dated August 2, 1885, from George E. Post, which was published in something called the Evangelist. With help from NCSE’s archivist Charles Hargrove, I found the letter: it’s in the New York Evangelist for September 10, 1885, p. 4. The letter was sent to the newspaper not by Post but by a “former colleague” (unnamed) of his. After a long editorial paragraph identifying Post (“a man of science in the true sense” at the “Medical College of Beirut”), explaining his visit to the British Museum, and describing his conversation with Etheridge, there appears:

London, Aug. 2, 1885

“Yesterday I was in the Natural History department of the British Museum. I had business touching some fossils which I found in the Lattakia Miocene and Pliocene clay-beds, about which I wrote an article that appeared in ‘Nature’ last year. Mr. Etheridge, F.R.S., kindly examined and named them. I was anxious to hear what a first-rate working scientist, with perhaps the largest opportunity for induction in the world, would say on Darwinian evolution. So, after he had shown me all the wonders of the establishment, I asked him whether, after all, this was not the working out of mind and Providence. He turned to me with a clear, honest look into my eyes, and replied: ‘In all this great Museum there is not a particle of evidence of transmutation of species. Nine-tenths of the talk of Evolutionists is sheer nonsense, not founded on observation, and wholly unsupported by fact. Men adopt a theory and then strain their facts to support it. I read all their books, but they made no impression on my belief in the stability of species. Moreover, the talk of the great antiquity of man is of the same value. There is no such thing as a fossil man. Men are ready to regard you as a fool if you do not go with them in all their vagaries. But this Museum is full of proofs of the utter falsity of their views.’

“I have condensed very much, but you may spread this out over twenty minutes, and imagine what a comfort it was to hear it. I do not propose to surrender yet even to theistic evolution, which seems to me at best a bad name for God’s creation.”

The date and the first paragraph appear in more or less the same form in Deems’s book, with minor variations in capitalization and emphasis: Deems sets “utter falsity of their views” in small capitals, for example. The second paragraph, which makes it clear that the quotation from Etheridge in the first paragraph is a paraphrase, not verbatim, is omitted, however, and it’s at least rare—and perhaps unknown—for it to be acknowledged in the creationist literature that the words are not a verbatim quote from Etheridge.

George E. Post was a real person, at least, born in 1839, died in 1909; a doctor, minister, and dentist by training who was professor of surgery, medicine, and physiology in the medical school of the Syrian Protestant College of Beirut (now the American University of Beirut) for most of his career. According to Lytton John Musselman, a botanist at Old Dominion University who maintains a website about Post, he was “a pioneer scientist of the Middle East” who, “[i]n addition to contributions in archeology, architecture, botany, medicine, and natural history…authored one of the earliest floras of the Middle East in both Arabic and English.” Moreover, although Musselman doesn’t seem to cite it, a letter from Post appeared in the August 21, 1884, issue of Nature, under the title “On a Deposit of Marine Shells in the Alluvium of the Lattakia Plain, in Syria.” So far, then, the letter in the Evangelist seems plausible.

Furthermore, in “The Botanical Activities of George Edward Post (1838–1909)” (2006), Musselman writes, “Also in common with most botanical contemporaries, Post was not a Darwinian. In his copy of Boissier’s Flora orientalis (1867), he underlined the author’s statement that he did not accept the Darwinian theory,” adding, “Post took a much more public stand against evolution in a crisis that threatened the future of the Syrian Protestant College in 1882 known as the Lewis Affair.” In the Lewis Affair, he explains, one of Post’s colleagues, Edwin Rufus Lewis, expressed admiration of Darwin during a commencement address. The Syrian Protestant College was founded by a United States missionary organization, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and its conservative backers were not happy to hear of Lewis’s views. Lewis was eventually dismissed. In the tumult, Musselman says, “Post sided strongly with the anti-Darwin party.”

So although I have not been able to locate anything under Post’s own byline that reports on his conversation with Etheridge, and although I have not been able to identify Post’s colleague who forwarded his letter to the editors of the Evangelist, it seems to be consistent with Post’s sentiments and style. Musselman notes that he routinely corresponded with the herbarium of the British Museum. And to judge from the obituary notices, it seems likely that public enquiries about fossils to the British Museum were typically routed to Etheridge on account of his extensive knowledge; if Post consulted the museum in the course of writing his letter to Nature, as the letter in the Evangelist suggests, then he certainly might have become acquainted with Etheridge through correspondence and then visited him in person while in London. As for how plausible it is that Etheridge was accurately reported by Post, that will be the topic of part 4.