Thomas Henry Huxley

I have a number of lawyers among my friends and family, so I usually try not to indulge in jokes that broadly impugn the legal profession. (What’s that? Well, if you insist. What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish? One is a slimy, scum-sucking, bottom-dwelling scavenger—while the other is a fish.) And in fact, I have a lot of respect for the legal profession, instilled, in part, by interacting with the lawyers—Eric Rothschild, Steve Harvey, Vic Walczak, Richard Katskee, and all their colleagues—who so effectively represented the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. But I am willing to complain about lawyers who abuse their skills in the service of attacking evolution—like Phillip Johnson, Norman Macbeth, or, in the Scopes era, Philip Mauro (1859–1952). Here, from Mauro’s Evolution at the Bar (1922), is a blatant distortion.

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09.21.2016

A 1924 Dodge sedan like Stumpy Reed'sThe idiom “take a back seat” means “to be given a less important role,” and it was employed accordingly in 2005 by the headline writer for The New York Times for Cornelia Dean’s article entitled “Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes.” Quoting NCSE’s founding executive director Eugenie C. Scott among others, Dean convincingly argued that evolution is often downplayed or omitted in public school science classes: “In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.” A few years later, a rigorous national public survey of high school biology teachers would confirm the anecdotal and impressionistic conclusions of Dean’s article. I mention the article now because of a rather more literal case of evolution in the back seat.

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Original woodcut illustration for The Just So story 'The Elephant's Child' by Rudyard Kipling via Wikimedia Commons

I have to admit that I haven’t read anything, ever, by Tom Wolfe, whose new book The Kingdom of Speech (2016) apparently tries, in the words of the headline to Jerry Coyne’s review for the Washington Post, “to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.” And, after reading a few critical reviews of The Kingdom of Speech, I’m not feeling inclined to start reading his work; it hardly sounds like the right stuff. But a passage quoted from the book by a reviewer caught my attention:

Kipling’s intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin’s intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale. Kipling, of course, never pretended to. But Darwin did. The first person to refer to Darwin’s tales as Just So Stories was a Harvard paleontologist and evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, in 1978. Orthodox neo-Darwinists never forgave him. Gould was not a heretic and not even an apostate. He was a simple profane sinner. He had called attention to the fact that Darwin’s Just So Stories required a feat of fiction writing Kipling couldn’t compete with.

The allusion to Kipling is, of course, to his collection Just-So Stories (1902), which began as bedtime stories told to his first-born child Josephine (who died at the early age of six). As the Kipling expert Daniel Karlin explains, “These are stories of origins: ‘How the Whale got his Throat’, ‘How the Camel got his Hump’, ‘How the Rhinoceros got his Skin’—stories that answer the kinds of question children ask, in ways that satisfy their taste for primitive and poetic justice.”

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08.31.2016

John Strong Newberry, via Wikimedia Commons

In chapter five of T. T. Martin’s Hell and the High Schools (1923), which abounds in quotations that supposedly show (in the words of the chapter’s title) “Evolution Repudiated by Great Scientists and Scholars,” there appears a paragraph reading, simply, “Prof. John S. Newberry: ‘It is doubtful if at any time in the world’s history there has been a theory that has gained so great a popularity with such an unsubstantial basis as that of Evolution of man from the lower orders.’” No identification of Newberry or of the publication is provided in the text. The context is not helpful, either—the paragraph is preceded by a quotation from Eduard von Hartmann and followed by a quotation from William Hanna Thomson (whose surname, for a wonder, Martin correctly spells without a p), neither of which is particularly relevant.

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08.18.2016

James A. Garfield, via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, I was careless. I wrote, “In a campaign biography of James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate for president in 1884, for example, [Russell] Conwell refers approvingly to [his following] ‘the paths of exploration and speculation so fearlessly trodden by Darwin, by Huxley, by Tyndall, and by other living scientists of the radical and advanced type.’” Let’s not worry about who Conwell and Blaine were or why I was bothering to discuss them at the Science League of America—you can read the earlier post if you’re interested. The present point is just that those weren’t Conwell’s words: rather, he was quoting Blaine’s eulogy for James A. Garfield (1831–1881; right), the twentieth president of the United States, assassinated in the first year of his presidency. Whoops! But at least it gives me a chance to write about Garfield now.

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08.17.2016

Alexander Graham Bell, via Wikimedia Commons

Missing from Thomas F. Glick’s What About Darwin? (2010) is Alexander Graham Bell (right; 1847–1922), who is usually credited with patenting the first practical telephone. Glick’s book, as I’ve mentioned here before, presents, in the words of its Victorian subtitle, “all species of opinion from scientists, sages, friends, and enemies who met, read, and discussed the naturalist who changed the world.” Reviewing it for Reports of the NCSE, I described it as “simply a delightful book to browse through” in part because there are so many unlikely people to be found in it offering their views on Darwin. But Bell, a prolific inventor, a leader in the eugenics movement, and a mover and shaker in the scientific establishment of his day (he helped to establish the journal Science, for example), was a likely candidate—and yet is not to be found there.

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Charles W. Eliot, via Wikimedia Commons

I return, with cries of delight, to Hell and the High Schools (1923), T. T. Martin’s unforgettably titled indictment of the teaching of evolution. In previous posts, I’ve discussed chapter 5, “Evolution Repudiated by Great Scientists and Scholars,” which consists, as is usual in creationist books of the Scopes era, of a hodgepodge of misquoted, misattributed, and misinterpreted passages, relieved only by the occasional expression of editorial opinion, aimed at disputing the claim that there is a scientific consensus on evolution. (See “Misquoting Murchison” for a discussion of Martin’s treatment of “Sir Roredick Murchison” and “The Three Balfours” for discussion of Martin’s treatment of Francis M. Balfour.) Now, however, I want to examine a passage from chapter 4, “Evolution is Not Science.”

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Snippet from the title page of The Evolution of Man Scientifically Disproved

What a joy is William A. Williams’s The Evolution of Man Scientifically Disproved (1925)! Previously, I’ve discussed its use of a quotation from “Dr. Traas, a famous paleontologist” who supposedly said that the idea that humans descended from any simian species was “certainly the most foolish ever put forth by a man writing on the history of man”; Traas proved to be Oscar Fraas, with a F instead of a T, and he was writing in 1866. I’ve also discussed its use of a quotation from “W. H. Thompson,” who supposedly said that “The Darwinian theory is now rejected by the majority of biologists, as absurdly inadequate”; Thompson proved to be William Hanna Thomson, with no p, and he was talking about natural selection, not evolution in general, and he was doing so in 1911, fourteen years before Williams’s book was published. But recently I noticed a passage in The Evolution of Man Scientifically Disproved that nicely intertwines two threads of contemporary creationist silliness.

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