Edward Blyth: Creationist or Just Another Misinterpreted Scientist?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Edward Blyth: Creationist or Just Another Misinterpreted Scientist?
Author(s): 
James K Willmot
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
5
Year: 
2009
Date: 
September-October
Page(s): 
36–37
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

In early December 2007, my hometown newspaper, the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier- Journal, published my opinion piece concerning the newly opened creation museum in northern Kentucky. As a former science teacher with a particular interest in the understanding and advancement of science in society, I expressed my concern that this $27-million facility dedicated to the rejection of all science that contradicts a literal interpretation of biblical scripture is exceeding attendance expectations and gaining momentum in its mission to cast doubt on evolutionary biology and the multitude of scientific theories that support it.

I went to the museum and toured it twice during its opening weekend in late May of 2007. While no one can argue with the high quality of the facility and its 103 animatronic dinosaurs, the museum, built by the Christian ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) erroneously claims its biblical interpretations of creation are backed up by scientific facts. What is most disconcerting to me (and the reason I wrote the article) is that the museum has become a de facto science center for the growing Christian home-school movement in the Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky areas, teaching thousands of children that the theory of evolution is incompatible with Christianity and that science can only be validwhen viewed through the lens of Christian scripture.

In my opinion piece, I suggested that Christians seek guidance on the subjects of evolution and cosmology from a Christian organization dedicated to the advancement of modern science (there are several). In response, one of the museum’s founders, Chief Communications Officer Mark Looy, wrote to the Courier- Journal, suggesting that had I visited the museum (which I had), I would have seen that AiG is not anti-science; he charged that I was a member of a cabal of scientists and secularists who have pushed Darwinism on society and stifled dissenting faith-based scientific theories (an oxymoron) on human origins. In addition, he asserted:

Darwin was not the first to fully describe natural selection; it was a creationist, Edward Blyth, 24 years before Origin of Species. Darwin just popularized an already existing idea and tagged it onto his belief about origins.

Looy also said that AiG is not anti-science and that I “conveniently” failed to mention that AiG has seven PhD scientists on staff. Despite AiG’s claims of being a legitimate science organization,it does not practice science since it accepts no scientific evidence that contradicts its core tenets of a six-day creation and a young earth. AiG is practicing religious fundamentalism masquerading as science (http://www.answersingenesis.org/about/faith).


WHAT ABOUT BLYTH?

One of the tactics that creationists use to cast doubt on evolution is to suggest that Darwin undeservedly received the credit for the theory of natural selection and misappropriated the idea from the work of other scientists (see for example http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/was-blyth-the-true-scientist-and-darwin-merely-a-plagiarist-and-charlatan/). This claim is as false as the “science” of creationism itself.As any student of science and history knows, new discoveries in science seldom emerge from a single source. Many of the advancements of science occur when new knowledge, derived from a variety of sources, is blended together to form new theories. Credit for scientific discovery is often a messy business and this was certainly the case with Darwin.

Contrary to Looy’s claim, natural selection was first described not by Blyth (or Darwin for that matter), but by the ancient Greek philosophers Empedocles and Aristotle in the third and fourth centuries BCE. Many scientists and philosophers in the centuries that followed contributed to the understanding of the adaptation of species due to environmental and competition pressures: al-Jahith, Harvey, Paley, Linnaeus, Buffon, Mathus, Lamarck, and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name a few (see http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/history_index_01). Blyth contributed to the pool of knowledge with his insightful observations of bird species (specifically the birds of India) and his analysis of selective breeding practices of domesticated animals in a series of articles in The Magazine of Natural History from 1835 to 1837.

It is true that in his younger years Blyth believed in an “eternal and ever-glorious Being which willed matter into existence” (1837a: 140), as did most of the naturalists of his day. He held that while animal populations changed due to the influences of environmental conditions over geologic time, the human species was created by God as is. He reasoned that because modern humans are able to shape the environment to suit our purposes,we are exempt from the forces of natural selection.

Does not, then, all this intimate that,even as a mundane being, man is no component of that reciprocal system to which all other species appertain? a system which for countless epochs prevailed ere the human race was summoned into being. (1837b: 83)

While Blyth’s writings clearly disagree with young-earth creationists on the age of the earth (“It is needless to add, that a prodigious lapse of time is required here;and,to judge from data which past history of the globe abundantly furnishes, in legible records, wherever we turn our eyes…” [1837a: 140]), he was firmly in their camp when it came to human origins. He wrote the humans were created as “the last act of creation upon this world” by God (1837a: 140). However, there is evidence that Blyth’s thinking on human origins changed, possibly due to the influence of his good friend Charles Darwin.

In 1867, thirty years after Blyth’s articles first appeared in The Magazine of Natural History, a very different Edward Blyth emerged in correspondence with Darwin. Blyth wrote Darwin at least 57 letters between 1855 and 1869. I have read all of Blyth’s known letters to Darwin (some of these are posted at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/ and others are located at the Darwin Collection at Cambridge University). In a letter dated February 19, 1867, Blyth suggested to Darwin that humans descended from primates similar to gibbons (1867). Part of this letter follows:

The marked resemblance in facial expression of the Orangutan to the human Malay of its native region, as that of the Gorilla to the Negro, is most striking, & what does this mean? Unless a divergence of the anthropoid type prior to the specialization of the human peculiarities, which however would imply a parallel series of at least two primary lines of human descent which seems hardly probable; & moreover we must bear in mind the singular facial resemblance of the Lagothrix Humboldtii (a platyrrhine form) to the negro, wherein the resemblance can hardly be other than accidental. The accompanying diagram will illustrate what I suggest (rather than maintain); & about Hylobates or Gibbons, I am not sure that I place it right, for, upon the whole, the Gibbons approximate Chimpanzee more than they do the Orang-utan, notwithstanding geographical position. Aryan I believe to be improved Turánian or Mongol —

Blyth’s beliefs on human origins were obviously influenced by the widespread racism of mid–19thcentury Western culture. But this particular letter shows clearly that Blyth has accepted an evolutionary relationship between humans and other primates that would clearly be unacceptable to Answers in Genesis — or most young-earth creationists. If AiG is going to claim Blyth as a “creation” scientist robbed of credit for the theory of natural selection because he was creationist,they should also inform their devotees that Blyth changed his thinking in later years and suggested that all humans evolved from primate ancestors.Something tells me Chief Communications Officer Looy will not be jumping up and down to put this on AiG’s website.

Why did Blyth’s thinking on human origins change? Judging from his published articles and his letters to Darwin, one can only conclude that his exposure to 30 years of scientific inquiry and evidence lead him to reshape his perspective on human origins (he was never a young-earth creationist) into one that recognized that transmutation of species was the logical extension of the theory of natural selection. In fact, it is this theory, descent with modification over “countless epochs”, creating totally different species, including mankind, that Darwin originated and popularized, with the already described theory of natural selection gaining additional acceptance due to Darwin’s brilliant insights and writings.

AiG’s Looy states,“Blyth, though, did not believe that natural selection could be a mechanism to produce new genetic information in creatures that could,over time,turn molecules into men.” Of course not; “genetic information” would have made no sense as a biological concept to Blyth or any of his contemporaries (and it is a muddled pseudoscientific concept promoted by anti-evolutionists like Looy to make it seem as though genetic change is a barrier to, rather than the engine for, evolutionary change). However, Blyth’s own writing, in his later years, clearly shows that he accepts that humans emerged from primate ancestors.

A fellow Louisvillian, Muhammed Ali, once said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” Were he alive today, Edward Blyth would probably agree with Ali, and tell AiG and other evolution obstructionists to quit quote-mining his earliest works to claim he opposed evolution. Unfortunately, Blyth is unable to prevent his considerable body of work from being misused by AiG.

What is particularly insidious is that creationists’ chief tool for supporting their absolutist doctrine is to misinterpret the enormous collection of evidence supporting evolution and mislead their audiences. It is a practice that I am sure would be appalling to Edward Blyth, a credible scientist whose thinking “evolved” over the years due to Darwin’s great idea. I suggest that Edward Blyth would have strongly supported the advancement of science and reason in society and firmly condemned the pseudoscience promoted by institutions such as the Answers in Genesis museum.


References

Blyth E. 1837a. Psychological distinctions between man and other animals — part 4. The Magazine of Natural History 10: 131–41.

Blyth E. 1837b. Psychological distinctions between man and other animals — part 3. The Magazine of Natural History 10: 77–85.

Blyth E. 1867. Letter 5405 — Blyth,Edward to Darwin, CR, 19 Feb, 1867, Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge University. Available on-line at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwinletters/calendar/entry-5405.html. Last accessed November 11, 2009.

About the Author(s): 

James K Willmot is a former middle school science teacher and environmental laboratory director.


AUTHOR’S ADDRESS
James K Willmot
7249 Fox Harbor Rd
Prospect KY 40059

jimwillmot@bellsouth.net


[A version of this article previously appeared on-line on May 19, 2008, at Butterflies & Wheels.]