Cover of The Dante Club

The evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s simply not the case that I select my leisure reading with a keen eye to the possibility of developing a theme for a blog post from it. And yet here I am again, with a copy of Matthew Pearl’s historical novel The Dante Club (2003) at hand. Set in Boston, Massachusetts, and its environs after the close of the Civil War, The Dante Club takes a historical episode of which I was ignorant—the controversial translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with the aid of a circle of friends, including James Russell Lowell (later one of Darwin’s pallbearers)—and interweaves it with a fictional mystery involving the gruesome murders of a number of prominent Bostonians in ways reminiscent of the punishments accorded to the sinners in the Inferno. Honestly, I had no idea when I removed the book from the shelf at the library that it would afford any fodder for the Science League of America.

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A. Franklin Shull, via the University of Michigan

The question that I was addressing in part 1—and before that in “Whence Fact, Theory, and Path?”—concerned a familiar threefold distinction between evolution as fact, evolution as theory, and evolution as path. The question is easy enough to state: Who thought of it first? But the answer is hard to discover. In part that’s because there are so many ways of expressing the point: a writer might talk about the “path” or the “course” or the “route” of evolution on the one hand, or about the “theory” or the “causes” or the “process” of evolution on the other hand. In part that’s because so many of those ways could be used not to express the point: a writer who is discussing “the theory of evolution” isn’t necessarily restricted to discussing only the causes or the processes of evolution. So far, the earliest articulation of the distinction I’ve discussed occurs in Principles of Animal Biology (1920), by A. Franklin Shull (above), which might have influenced Winterton Curtis’s use of it in his testimony for the Scopes trial in 1925.

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