Glenn Branch's picture

Bryan’s Quartet, Part 1

William Jennings Bryan (1902)

There are probably better motivations for reading William Jennings Bryan’s In His Image (1922) than wanting to avoid unpacking boxes, but needs must when the devil drives. The book contains Bryan’s James Sprunt Lectures, delivered in 1921 at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Perhaps because of their origin in lectures, they’re quick and easy to read, although I wonder a bit about the sentence “I eat radishes in the morning; I eat radishes at noon; I eat radishes at night; I eat radishes between meals; I like radishes.” Was it for such rhetoric that Bryan was dubbed the Boy Orator of the Platte? (Yet it’s true that he liked radishes; on his lecture tours he habitually brought with him a package of the raw roots for purposes of snackage.) Anyhow, it was in chapter 4, “The Origin of Man,” that I started to concentrate. There Bryan makes a conspicuous error about the word “hypothesis,” saying that it is “a synonym used by scientists for the word guess; it is more dignified in sound and more imposing to the sight, but it has the same meaning.” He then adds, “If Darwin had described his doctrine as a guess instead of calling it an hypothesis, it would not have lived a year.” Appended is a footnote citing a quartet of scientists, presumably intended to confirm Bryan’s assertion.

The first scientist is “Dr. Etheridge, Fossi[l]ologist of the British Museum,” who, according to Bryan, says, “Nine-tenths of the talk of Evolutionists is sheer nonsense, not founded on observation and wholly unsupported by facts. This museum is full of proofs of the utter falsity of their views.” As constant readers will recall, I discussed the legendary and not tremendously credible quotation that Bryan invokes here in a four-part post (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Etheridge, interestingly, turns out to be not Robert Etheridge Jr., as Ronald L. Numbers suggests in The Creationists (1992), but rather his father (1818–1903), and the quotation traces, ultimately, to George E. Post, a professor at the Syrian Protestant College of Beirut as well as a pioneering botanist of the Near East. Although the quotation from Etheridge always appears in quotation marks, the exact words were not Etheridge’s but Post’s, supposedly summarizing a conversation with Etheridge in 1885. I concluded that it was possible but not so plausible that Etheridge secretly rejected “transmutation of species” during the bulk of his career, only unbending, at the age of 66, to divulge his antievolutionary views to a visitor. Even if he did, of course, the fact that he never formally argued for such views suggests how seriously they should be taken.

The third scientist is “Prof. Fleischmann, of Erlangen,” quoted as saying “The Darwinian theory has in the realms of Nature not a single fact to confirm it. It is not the result of scientific research, but purely the product of the imagination.” The scientist quoted here is Albert Fleischmann (1862–1942). According to Lynn K. Nyhart’s Biology Takes Form (1995), “Fleischmann conducted much of his early research within the evolutionary-morphological tradition...By the time of his appointment [at the Bavarian University in Erlangen in 1896], however, his efforts to unite comparative anatomical and developmental research into a broader synthesis had led him to express doubts about what he called the ‘Darwin-Haeckel’ hypothesis of descent.” Nyhart adds that Fleischmann’s opposition to Darwin’s theory produced “two tomes devoted to its refutation”—Die Descendenztheorie (1901) and Die Darwinsche Theorie (1903)—but no innovative alternative approaches: “for the rest of his career he pursued a program of doggedly descriptive research in comparative vertebrate embryology.” In 1907, the Stanford entomologist Vernon L. Kellogg described him as “the only biologist of recognized position ... who publicly declared a disbelief in the theory of descent.”

My German is not wonderful, but skimming through Die Descendenztheorie and Die Darwinsche Theorie, I failed to find a passage auf Deutsche that matched the passage quoted in English by Bryan. Closest, from the latter book, was “Wenn die Kombination der abstrakten Begriffe in dieser Theorie nicht durch die Beobachtung als zwingend erwiesen werden kann, dann ist sie eben keine naturwissenschaftliche Theorie, sondern leere Phantasterei und gehört statt auf den Katheder in die Rumpelkammer der Wissenschaft!” (emphasis in original), which I render as, “If the combination of abstract concepts in this theory cannot be shown as compelling through observation, then it is just not a scientific theory, but rather empty fantasy, instead heard from the lectern in the junk room of knowledge!” Bryan was probably quoting, or quoting someone quoting, “Are the Days of Darwinism Numbered?” from the January 23, 1904, issue of The Literary Digest, which cited a number of German anti-Darwinists, including Fleischmann: “The Darwinian theory of descent has not a single fact to confirm it in the realm of nature. It is not the result of scientific research but purely the product of the imagination.” This seems to be the first appearance of the quotation in the Anglophone literature.

The fourth scientist cited, but not quoted, is William Bateson (1861–1926). In his 1921 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to Bryan, Bateson “says that science has faith in evolution but doubts as to the origin of species.” As I mentioned while I was searching for F. E. Dean—a teacher forced to resign from his post in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in 1922, over the teaching of evolution—Bateson’s talk “Evolutionary Faith and Modern Doubts” was a succès de scandale, for he proclaimed that he had become “agnostic as to the actual mode and processes of evolution.” Bateson was thereafter widely heralded as a scientist who doubted evolution, including by Dean’s critics in Fort Sumner, so when Dean’s former professor Winterton Curtis asked Bateson to comment, Bateson responded, “I have looked through my Toronto address again. I see nothing in it which can be construed as expressing doubt as to the main fact of evolution.” Still, Bryan’s summary, even the phrase “faith in evolution,” is fair: Bateson, after all, wrote in his Toronto address, “Meanwhile, though our faith in evolution stands unshaken, we have no acceptable account of the origin of ‘species.’” And what about the second scientist in Bryan’s quartet? That will be the task for part 2.