Glenn Branch's picture

Bryan’s Quartet, Part 2

William Jennings Bryan (1902)

Recall, from part 1, that I’m discussing four scientists cited in a footnote in William Jennings Bryan’s In His Image (1922), evidently to support Bryan’s assertion, “If Darwin had described his doctrine as a guess instead of calling it an hypothesis, it would not have lived a year.” Three of them were reasonably familiar to me. The fourth was “Prof. Beale, of King’s College, London,” who, according to Bryan, says: “In support of all naturalistic conjectures concerning man’s origin, there is not at this time a shadow of scientific evidence.” In The Creationists (1992), Ronald L. Numbers mentions that Beale is cited in “one of the earliest—and most frequently cribbed—lists” of scientists who reject evolution, that of Luther T. Townsend’s Collapse of Evolution (1905). Townsend gushes that Beale “stands today with Lord Kelvin at the head of English scientists, and in his special field, that of biology, is with one exception, perhaps, without a peer in any country of the world.” He then quotes three sentences from Beale, including the one quoted by Bryan, and identifies them as coming from a June 1903 address to the Victoria Institute of London. But I’ve never seen any discussion of the quotation, either in Numbers or in on-line resources such as the Talk.Origins Archive’s Quote Mine Project, or of Beale himself.

Bryan identifies Beale as “of King’s College, London,” and that’s true in excelsis: Beale entered King’s College School, London, at the tender age of nine, and was associated with King’s College for the rest of his life. He studied chemistry and zoology at the University of London, worked in the Anatomical Museum at Oxford, and as a health inspector, and then earned a medical degree from the University of London. In 1853, he became professor of physiology at King’s College: among the rival candidates for the post was Thomas Henry Huxley. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857. In 1876, he became physician to King’s College Hospital and was promoted to professor of medicine, holding both positions until his retirement in 1896. (He retained honorary and emeritus status, though, so he was still “of King’s College, London” in 1903.) He was a pioneer in the clinical use of the microscope: according to the Dictionary of National Biography, “Beale undoubtedly did more than any other medical scientist of his generation to diffuse the new techniques and approaches of laboratory medicine, especially microscopy, to English-speaking audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.” In his later life, he wrote against the germ theory of disease and for vitalism—not faring well on either score.

Beale was certainly a respectable scientist of his age, if not, as Townsend claims, on a par with Kelvin. (Kelvin’s DNB entry runs over 7500 words, while Beale’s runs about 2000 words.) And he indeed said what Bryan and Townsend said he said—well, more or less. In his address to the Victoria Institute of London, published as “On the Unseen Life of Our World and of Living Growth” (Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute [1903]), he contends:

Man is man from the earliest period of his existence as a structureless germ; and there is no proof or evidence, that man has descended from, or is or was, in any way specially related to, any other organism in living nature, through evolution or any other process, and that in support of all such conjectures concerning man’s origin, there is not at this time a shadow of scientific evidence.

Bryan’s quotation will be recognized as adapted from the last twenty words of this sentence of Beale’s. Townsend took similar liberties: the three sentences he attributes to Beale are to be found, in more or less recognizable form, scattered through Beale’s article. They’re sloppy, but neither Bryan nor Townsend introduced any real distortions of Beale’s meaning in their renditions of what he said, although the purpose of his talk wasn’t to argue for that claim.

The purpose of Beale’s article (as he explains) was “to make clear what I believe to be the truth as regards to the absolute distinction between all living and non-living; and…to prove the distinction of all life from non-life”; he acknowledges that he only managed to “express my very strong conviction than man is absolutely separate from all the lower animals” and hopes to be able to discuss the reasons for that conviction on a later occasion. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that Beale’s antipathy toward evolution was of long standing. In 1860, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, after William Draper gave his paper “On the Intellectual Development of Europe, considered with Reference to the Views of Mr. Darwin and others, that the Progression of Organisms is determined by Law,” Beale (in the words of the report in The Athenaeum) “pointed out some of the difficulties with which the Darwinian theory had to deal, more especially those vital tendencies of allied species which seemed independent of all external agents.” (Before that, Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle, now Admiral FitzRoy, expressed his regret that the Origin was published.) This was the same meeting featuring the legendary encounter of Huxley and Wilberforce.

The Victoria Institute wasn’t quite so scientific a venue. It was established in 1865 to combat the pernicious effects of books like Darwin’s Origin, Colenso’s writings on the Pentateuch, and Essays and Reviews (1860), a work containing seven essays espousing theological liberalism. A document entitled “Scientia Scientarum” (i.e., the science of sciences) published in the inaugural issue of the institute’s Transactions explained:

If science and Scripture are at issue, plainly one of them is wrong—untrue…it is perfectly clear that men must naturally range themselves either upon the side of Scripture or of science…They cannot believe equally in both. They must hold to one or the other…Those who rather distrust the deductions of science than the statements of Scripture are invited to join the new Society.

Unsurprisingly, as Numbers explains in The Creationists, “Though not officially opposed to evolution, during the last decades of the nineteenth century [the Institute] attracted a number of scientists skeptical of Darwinism.” So it is not as though Beale was speaking to a disinterested scientific audience in giving his talk to the Victoria Institute. In part 3, I will return to talking about Bryan’s quartet in general, but I’ll try to be systematic about it.