“As Fixed as the Sphynx”

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bonaparte Before the Sphinx

I wouldn’t say that Evolution—A Menace (1922) struck me, in general, as a tremendously innovative book. Written by John William Porter (1863–1937), the Baptist minister who spearheaded the effort to ban the teaching of evolution in Kentucky in the early 1920s, the titles of its eight chapters adequately indicate its contents: "Evolution Defined by Evolutionists," "Evolution Contradicts and Subverts Revelation," "Evolution Falsely Explains Origin of Life," "Evolutionary Origin of Species Untrue and Unscientific," "Evolution Advocates the Law of the Jungle," "Evolution Fails to Explain Facts of History," "Evolution Resurrects Bogus 'Missing Links',” and "Evolution—The Tree and Its Fruits." And the usual crowd of scientists, scholars, and whackadoodles is assembled to testify to the scientific bankruptcy of evolution, including (to name only cases of misleading quotations that I’ve discussed before) John Tyndall, Charles Lyell, Ernst Haeckel, and “Mr. Ethridge [sic] of the British Museum.”

But in chapter four, “Evolutionary Origin of Species Untrue and Unscientific,” there appears a less than familiar name, “Prof. C. C. Everett, of Harvard,” to whom Porter attributes the following: “As he looks upon it, it is as fixed as the sphynx, that slumbers on Egyptian sands. All this story of transmutation and activity is a dream.” What is “it”? It’s hard to say. The previous paragraph is criticizing a textbook’s treatment of horse evolution, but it’s clear that the horse isn’t what’s as fixed as the sphinx. The paragraph containing the quotation from Everett begins with it, and continues, “Every well informed evolutionist knows that his doctrine is unproved and unprovable”—alluding, of course, to Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1862 description of “all the grand hypotheses of the palaeontologist respecting the general succession of life on the globe”—“but having forsaken the Bible, he dreads to discredit his scholarship by frankly admitting his mistake.” No sign of a referent for “it” in sight.

Would it help to know who Charles Carroll Everett was? Born in Maine in 1829, he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1850 and taught languages there from 1853 to 1857. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1859 and served as a Unitarian pastor in Bangor, Maine, for the following decade. In 1869, he became the Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard University, and served as dean of Harvard Divinity School from 1878 onward. He wrote a number of books with titles that you might expect from a divinity professor: Fichte’s Science of Knowledge (1884), Ethics for Young People (1891), Religions Before Christianity (1892), Gospel of Paul (1893), and Science of Thought (1899) among them. He died in 1900. (He was, by the way, the first cousin once removed of Edward Everett [1794–1865], the American statesman and former president of Harvard University who was the featured orator at the dedication ceremony of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Somebody else gave a speech there too, I understand.)

The sphinx passage is taken from Everett’s Poetry, Comedy, and Duty (1888), where it appears in a subsection entitled “The Imagination,” of a section entitled “Poetry.” Prompted by Tyndall’s essay “The Scientific Use of the Imagination” (1870), Everett is discussing, in approving terms, the role that the imagination plays in science. “As we look over the world to-day,” he explains, “we find nowhere the imagination more active and eager than in the realms of science.” Of “the theory of development”—by which he means evolution—he says, “this theory, whether it be true or false, is as really a creation of the mind as the Fables of Aesop, in which the monkey and the fox talk together.” He grants that the theory and the fables are not on all fours—“The fable may be more fanciful, the theory may be more imaginative”—but as creations of the mind, they are not founded in direct observational experience. In a purple passage, he describes the impossibility of viewing “the great movement while in process of accomplishment.”

Everett then summarizes, “All, as he [a generic man] looks upon it, is as fixed as the Sphinx that slumbers on the Egyptian sands. All this story of transformation is a dream.” So that answers, more or less, the question of what “it” is: “all,” which in context means all the living world. Initially while I was reading Evolution—A Menace, I thought that Porter was the first creationist to quote the passage from Everett, but I was wrong: he was preceded by Luther Tracy Townsend in Collapse of Evolution (1905) and William Bell Riley in The Finality of the Higher Criticism; or, The Theory of Evolution and False Theology (1909—what a title!). Both Townsend and Riley quoted the whole of Everett’s sentence (and moreover used “sphinx” rather than Porter’s “sphynx”—which was either a simple mistake or old-fashioned, since the Oxford English Dictionary records “sphynx” as continuing, but dwindling, into the eighteenth century), so the confusion about the referent of “it” wouldn’t have arisen.

Even if the passage from Everett is correctly quoted, is it in fact expressing a scientific doubt about evolution? After all, Everett was a professor of divinity, not a scientist, a fact not explicitly acknowledged by Porter or Riley. Townsend scrupulously describes Everett as “better drilled in literature than science,” but tries to recover his relevance by saying that he “is such a careful observer and extensive reader that his late words may be allowed considerable weight.” That seems a little desperate: Everett’s judgment about evolution wasn’t based on observation or reading. In any case, it would have been better for Townsend to emulate Everett’s carefulness. For the very next sentence in Everett’s book after “All this story of transformation and activity is a dream” is “In saying this I would not be understood as implying doubt as to the truth of the system,” that is, of evolution. That’s the “would” of resolve, but obviously the mere resolution wasn’t enough to deter Townsend, Riley, and Porter from misrepresenting Everett as doubting evolution.