The Smithsonian Institution’s 1925 Statement on Evolution

Voices for Evolution

Well, you might have seen it coming. In my post about the National Academy of Sciences’s 1923 statement on evolution, approved but never used, I asked, “And what about the Smithsonian’s statement on evolution?” and answered, “Well, as with the NAS statement, [Ellis] Yochelson provided only a sample page; I haven’t seen the full text. If I find it, perhaps I’ll discuss it in a sequel post here at the Science League of America blog.” Thanks to the efforts of NCSE’s archivist Charles Hargrove and his counterparts at the Smithsonian Institution, the full text of the Smithsonian Institution’s 1925 statement on evolution is now posted (PDF) at NCSE’s website.

To remind you, there were three statements about evolution that were formulated by important national scientific organizations in the Scopes era: the National Academy of Sciences’s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (published in Science in 1923 and reissued by Science News Service in 1925 amid the publicity surrounding the Scopes trial, and now included in NCSE’s Voices for Evolution), and the Smithsonian’s—which, like the National Academy of Sciences’s, was apparently never widely deployed. According to Michele Aldrich, who prepared Yochelson’s paper posthumously, “We don’t know how often it was used,” but it never appeared in print.

Yochelson attributes the Smithsonian statement to two assistant secretaries of the Smithsonian, Charles G. Abbot and Alexander Wetmore. Abbot was a pioneering astrophysicist who headed the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory before becoming the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary in 1918 and Secretary in 1928 (succeeding Charles Doolittle Walcott); he died at the ripe old age of 101. Alexander Wetmore was a biologist who joined the Smithsonian as the superintendent of the National Zoo in 1924, becoming the Assistant Secretary in 1925 and serving as the Secretary between 1945 and 1952 (succeeding Abbot).

The statement, Yochelson says, was attached to a cover letter addressed to someone named E. A. Blythe—“about whom nothing further is  known,” Aldrich comments, “but Ellis probably would have tried to...research him.” The cover letter (shown in Yochelson’s slide) indicates that Blythe was in Hugo, Oklahoma, and a little judicious Googling reveals that E. A. Blythe, originally from Kentucky, was practicing law in Hugo, Oklahoma, from the 1910s onward. As the assistant prosecutor in Choctaw County in the 1940s, he was involved in prosecuting W. D. Lyons for murder; Lyons was represented by the young Thurgood Marshall, who appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Why Blythe was asking the Smithsonian about evolution is anyone’s guess. But what he received in response was a three-page statement. The first page and a half, more or less, sets the stage: introducing the Smithsonian, declaring its religious neutrality and its devotion to the evidence, and so forth. When the topic turns to evolution, the mood changes, strangely, to the subjunctive: “if an inquirer asked of the probability of the truth of the theory of human evolution, the Institution would undoubtedly reply that the opinions of those best qualified unanimously support that theory, and would accompany such answer with a brief summary of the most telling evidence pointing in that way.”

And what is the most telling evidence? The letter offers eleven points (which are numbered, but are presented in running text, not as a list as below):

  1. The unquestioned fact that every human individual passes through a wide-ranging change in growth from the embryonic cell to the adult.
  2. That at various stages of such development the human being is equipped with organs, more or less rudimentary, which are similar to functional ones of other animals.
  3. A study of man’s culture in all parts of the world shows a development in his capacity from the savage to the highest civilization.
  4. Prehistoric remains indicate that this progress started even further down in the scale than is expressed in the activities of existing savage tribes.
  5. Anthropological measurements show a progress in man’s brain capacity, which, measured from the earliest human fossils, is almost as great as from the highest apes to man.
  6. Not only the brain capacity but other skeletal features show closely related changes of structure between the earliest fossil human remains and the present equally suggestive of development from a lower order of being; and the skeleton of man is similar, bone for bone, to the skeletons of the higher mammals.
  7. Not only man, but every order of life shows similar evidences of development both of the individual and of the race.
  8. The fossil evidence in plants and animals is recovered from strata of upturned rocks which correspond with depths of many miles. When laid in orderly succession from the lowest to the highest strata, a progressive change from the simple to the complex, and from the lowest to the highest orders is on the whole apparent. In this orderly fossil array, man, the highest creature of all, occurs in the highest, and therefore the most recent strata.
  9. The enormously thick depositions of sedimentary rocks involved in this orderly array, must correspond, according to average rates of action of natural forces, to immensely long periods. These appear to be reckoned in hundreds of millions of years. This evidence allows of adequate time for the action of organic evolution.
  10. This time scale is reinforced by the recent discovery of radio-activity, which is a process neither to be accelerated nor retarded by any means at command, so that degradation products of radio-activity give us a clock which apparently has ticked off approximately a billion years since the earth was fit for life.
  11. The evidences of evolution in organic life are paralleled by evidences of evolution in the stars, so that we must regard evolution as a universal process to which man is no exception.

    If forced to guess, I’d guess that the zoologist Wetmore wrote items 1–7 and the astrophysicist Abbot wrote items 8–10, given their specialities.

    The Smithsonian’s statement, compared to the AAAS’s or the National Academy’s, is quite specific, and for that reason, it doesn’t stand the test of time that well. The idea that evolution is intrinsically progressive, particularly conspicuous in item 8 (“man, the highest creature of all”), was popular, of course—but as Darwin advised himself, “Never use the words higher and lower.” The idea that evolution is a universal process of which biological and stellar evolution are varieties, in item 11, is less pernicious, I suppose, but it’s hard to see why it’s supposed to be useful. The reference in item 10 to radioactivity is quite forward-looking, though. (Abbot founded a radiation biology laboratory in 1929.)

    Still timely, however, is the ending of the Smithsonian’s statement. Again oddly couched in the subjunctive mood, it reads:

    If our correspondent asked the further question of whether a belief in organic evolution, including that of man, is not exclusive and destructive of religious belief, the Institution would reply that a very large number of eminent scientific men in all departments sincerely and logically profess both, and that this number includes many in the Smithsonian Institution.

    Although it’s not cited, James H. Leuba’s The Belief in God and Immortality (1916, second edition 1921) could have been the source for the “very large number” claim.

    Today, I should add, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a detailed and useful statement on evolution, with a summary:

    All living beings have developed over time from ancestors through a series of changes. That life has evolved over long periods of time, with all forms of life related to one another, is a scientifically well-established fact. Along with researchers throughout the world, scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History have contributed significantly to understanding the patterns and processes of evolution in humans and other species of animals and plants.

    As one of the world’s leading research museums, the National Museum of Natural History has the responsibility to share with the public the latest research on the process of evolution. It is not the Museum’s responsibility or intent to determine how visitors relate this information to their own religious or personal views.

    This is followed by a series of paragraphs on the meaning of “theory,” the explanatory power of evolution, human evolution, and the prospect for further work.