Evolution--a Conservative's Apology
APOLOGIES and explanations are useless, yet I wish to begin by saying bluntly and baldly what I shall repeat with variations: that I know I am taking the unpopular side; that it can do no harm, for we have heard nothing but glory to evolution in the highest for the past thirty years; that, though I sometimes play with the subject in the hopeless endeavor to conciliate editors who demand ‘the readable proposition,’ I am quite sincere and serious.
The ancient rhetoricians already observed how much easier it is to hold attention with praise and agreement than with argument and dissent. But some demon impels me to fly in the face of their precepts. I have never but twice had the good fortune to speak on the popular side of any question; once when we were at war, and once at Hull House, when I told an audience of Greeks that trailing clouds of glory did they come from Greece, which was their home. But otherwise all my life I have been defending lost causes, leading forlorn hopes, and protesting against the excesses of contemporary fads and fashions. And now old age steals upon me, still apologizing for the classics in a Greekless age, denouncing pseudo-science to a generation intoxicated with that heady brew, and seeing red everywhere in universities whose instructors are merely dyed a harmless delible pink by their deplorable preference for the New Republic and the Nation to the Saturday Evening Post.
The subject I have chosen this time on which to exercise the spirit of contradiction and paradox, as an unfriendly critic might call it, is evolution — the gospel of evolution. A psychologist could explain this attitude as a reaction from my bringing-up, and an illustration of the modern social and political law anticipated by Plato’s remark that doing anything excessively provokes a revolt to the opposite extreme. I was not brought up on the Main Street of Gopher Prairie or Winesburg, Ohio, or in the Nebraska of Miss Willa Cather. I was not told that it is sinful to play cards or drink beer or dance or smoke cigarettes or exhibit your ankles. I was not compelled to memorize the Catechism. I was not driven to church, Sunday school, and prayer meeting three times in one day. I was not forbidden to read anything but Josephus on Sunday afternoon. I did not attend a sectarian college in Kansas or Nebraska, where Evidences of Christianity replaced philosophy, and the deleterious effects of four per cent of alcohol on the coats of the stomach stood for chemistry and biology.
My experience, then, is precisely the reverse of that of those denunciatory critics and novelists who feel that their most pressing mission is to redeem America from the Puritan virtues, and deliver her from creeds that refuse and restrain. Instead of prescribed Josephus and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, I read Darwin’s Origin of Species aloud to my mother at the age of nine. As John Stuart Mill modestly observes of Plato’s Theœtetus, which his father made him read at six or eight, I am not sure that I understood it all. During the first two years of my course in the old west-side Chicago High School, I was further initiated into forwardlooking thought by Shelley’s Queen Mab and Herbert Spencer, and went about spouting, —
Is nature’s only God,’
and justifying my refusal to attend even a left-wing Unitarian Sunday school by quoting Spencer’s ‘when the unknown cause produces in him a certain belief, he is thereby authorized to profess and act cut that belief. ’ I even learned by heart the definition of evolution: ‘Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, during which the matter passes from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation. ’ For this, thirty years later, I substituted the more portable, pregnant, and ironic formula of Mallock: ‘Evolution is the rational sequence of the unintended. ’ At the close of my high-school course I delivered a commencement oration on the Future of Science, with a peroration from Shelley, ‘Happiness and Science dawn, though late, upon the earth. ’
From the Chicago High School I went, not to Siwash College, but to Harvard, and that hothed of infidelity destroyed my faith — my sweet, innocent, adolescent faith in the genesis of Herbert Spencer, the Origin of Species, and the psalms of Shelley. The Harvard professors, who were even then more intelligent than their failure to educate Henry Adams makes them appear, did their perfunctory best to preserve it by setting me to read Schopenhauer and von Hartmann, and by a course in Spencer’s psychology under Professor James, who was then himself young and still worshiped at Spencer’s shrine. But, as there was then no vigilant scientific and radical censorship such as we shall soon have, I was allowed to find my way to Plato and Berkeley and Matthew Arnold and Ruskin and Mill — and the mischief was done. I was emancipated, and never again could be formularidden by the Lenins of pseudoscientific dogma.
Plato taught me the meaning of reasonable argument, and delivered me from Herbert Spencer by the remark that, when you meet disciples who proclaim that their guru is omniscient, there is always some illusion or hocuspocus involved. Berkeley’s unanswerable logic made me smile at Spencer’s ponderous refutation of him and its naïvely pathetic conclusion: ‘If the idealist should be right, the theory of evolution is a dream.’ And Matthew Arnold’s application of a Homeric quotation to the definition of evolution made it impossible for me ever to contemplate it again without a grin.
These reminiscences are of course neither proof nor evidence of anything. They are merely a preparatory Freudian analysis of some of the infantile fixations that make me write as I do.
One further serious caveat I must enter before I take the plunge. No matter what vivacities I may be tempted into, to whatever extremes the spirit of reaction may carry me, nothing that I shall say is intended to have any bearing on the scientific teaching of biological evolution in the laboratory to students properly prepared to understand it in a definite and technical way. I am merely trying to improve the text of Mr. Balfour’s remonstrance with people who ‘have a sort of semiscientific varnish’ and who, he thinks, ‘do nothing but harm by spreading this sham philosophy among the young and ignorant.’ I am aware of the futility of this protest. A few years ago when, at the Leland Stanford commencement in honor of our returned soldiers, I professed in the disconcerted presence of ex-President Jordan a few harmless sentiments about patriotism, Americanism, and the necessities of national defense, a Daughter of the Revolution — the revolution of 1917 — whispered to my wife, to her great glee, ‘ Ain’t he mediæval?’ That will be the mildest comment on the present utterance.
The first and chief thing to observe about evolution and popular culture is that our scientific colleagues are suffering from a fear-complex, which the actual state of public opinion makes a little superfluous. If there were the slightest danger of any serious interference with the scientific teaching and study of biology, my sympathies would be wholly with them, and I should think it injudicious, if not wrong, to treat lightly so vital an issue. But a very little observation of the actual trend of controlling public opinion is enough to dissipate t hese tremors. I do riot know whether the things that our foreign critics repeat after Mr. Mencken and Mr. Darrow about Tennessee and Florida are unqualifiedly true. But there can be no doubt about the situation in the dominant circles of all the leading Northern states. I have been suggesting some of the doubts and queries of this essay in conversation for some years, and hinting that there was possibly something to be said even for the late Mr. Bryan. I have never met one person in university, professional, business, social, or political circles who took the suggestion seriously, or who admitted that this case was no exception to the rule that there are two sides to most questions, and that a considerable popular movement probably has some justification in a real, however confusedly apprehended, problem or grievance.
The two chief reasons for this are plain. First, almost the most skillful and successful campaign of propaganda ever undertaken was that of Huxley and his associates and successors in behalf of Darwin and Darwinism. Huxley’s reprinted polemics are still directly or indirectly the chief source of every able editorial on the folly of fundamentalism and the absurdity of Mr. Bryan, from Maine to California. They all know and continue to quote Huxley’s retort to Bishop Wilberforce to the effect that he would rather be descended from an ape than from an ecclesiastical sophist. Mr. Horatio Bridge’s centenary tribute to Huxley tells the story much more eloquently than I can. And he incidentally illustrates the point to which I am tending by the admission that Huxley’s importance lies in those fields in which he always confessed himself an amateur: that is, in philosophy, theology, and ethics.
It would, of course, be very superficial to attribute the popularity of evolution wholly to propaganda, however skillful. Biology has been widely taught in our colleges, and the evidence from palæontology, embryology, rudimentary organs, homologies of structure and function, and the life story of the little Eohippus and his more or less toed or ungulated descendants, has been brought home roughly but convincingly to an ever-increasing body of students. To this we must add a still more influential cause, the miracles wrought by the applications of science in the world of action in the last fifty or a hundred years, that list of discoveries and inventions which a sense of humor ought to prevent any writer from repeating, because it has been enumerated with almost identical words and comments in thousands of textbooks, popular histories, and commencement addresses.
But, whatever the explanation, the fact of the popularity of evolution is certain. Evolution has a good press, an almost unanimously good press, throughout the Northern states. There is, in fact, no cause that is so immune from criticism to-day, that is so sacred a cow, not only in t he newspaper offices, but in the universities of the North, as evolution with a capital E.
An ambitious young professor may safely assail Christianity or the Constitution of the United States or George Washington or female chastity or marriage or private property or t he defense of your native land or the acceptance by the university of the interest and dividends that pay his salary. He may advocate the complete mongrelization of the population of the Unit ed States. He may teach Marxian economics or Westermarckian ethics. But he must not apologize for Bryan, or hint at the discouragement, not by the police, but even by argument, of the circulation of pornographic fiction and the dogmatic inculcation of a materialistic psychology and cosmogony. That would be intolerance, lack of a sense of proportion, failure in open-mindedness, unfaith in progress. It is not done.
For these reasons I think that my scientific friends are unduly agitated by the antics of a few freak legislators, and that, as I have said, if I were not too old for that, I am t he one to be frightened. The scientific study of biology is in no danger. But the continuance of the Huxley, and too often the Haeckel, type of propaganda, addressed not only to the adult public or to expert students of biology, but to the undergraduate public in its novitiate years, is another matter, and is at least open to friendly and thoughtful discussion.
The start ing point of such an inquiry is a distinction which by this time must be familiar to all who have read or thought about the matter at all, but which in the heat of debate is often ignored even by scientific men as well as by the public to which they appeal. It may be variously described as the distinction between the most helpful working hypothesis of science at any given date and ultimate truth; or the distinction between science as a body of organized critical knowledge in a limited and defined field and its usurpation of the functions of a general philosophy of life and the universe; or, to come closer to the issue and not to mince matters, the distinction between the probability — the certainty, it may be — that our bodies were evolved by the operation of natural and calculable forces from the bodies of animals and the assertion that it is now known, or the prophecy that we shall soon be able to demonstrate, that this process completely accounts for the human mind, and proves not only that mechanism is the most convenient working hypothesis of some kinds of science, but that it is all there is in the universe.
It is necessary to dwell a moment on this distinction, for everything depends upon it. We need to clear our minds not only of cant, but of ambiguity and timidity. There is a great deal of both in the huge recent literature on the reconciliation of science and religion. Both sides have taken to their trenches, and only a few skirmishers venture into the open. The most pertinent comment I know on evolution in the twentieth-century pulpit is the old Victorian limerick: —
Who had a Zulu for a pal.
Said the Zulu, ‘My dear,
Is n’t Genesis queer? ’
Which converted my lord of Natal.
It was a clever answer of the British divine who, when asked his opinion the other day about evolution and fundamentalism, replied that in England the Church had outgrown these controversies, and had come to realize that what mattered was not where man came from, but where he was going. It was a politer form of Carlyle’s summary pronouncement that his concern was not whether monkeys had become men, but how to keep the present generation from becoming monkeys. It was a shrewd evasion, but an evasion it was.
A mechanistic evolution, a materialistic neurology, and a behavioristic psychology, consistently thought out, are quite incompatible with anything that can honestly be called religion. To teach them on the same campus would be, to those who think, a jest, and, to those who feel, a tragedy. The attempts at reconciliation, sincere or insincere, are familiar to us all. Type of many of them is Herbert Spencer’s Unknowable with a capital letter, the sufficiency of which we may plausibly, and the sincerity of which we may pardonably, doubt, after reading his Autobiography. So far as it is sincere, all his rhetoric serves chiefly to illustrate the fundamentalist’s prejudice that the infidel — as the fundamentalist styles him — cannot himself live without the illusion of religion, but will inevitably turn to it when sick or sorry or sentimental. Plato anticipated the fundamentalist with the averment that there was no example of a man who had consistently believed and talked atheistic materialism from youth to old age; experience and life cannot bear it.
I observed a curious illustration of this recently. A great convention of scientific men was presided over by a distinguished physician who for many years has been in his teaching a persistent advocate of the most uncompromising materialism. His philosophy left no slightest loophole for the intrusion of any soul into man or any guiding purpose into the universal machine. At the close of the final banquet he choked with emotion and said from the chair, ‘God bless us all!’ I was profanely reminded of O. Henry’s (I think it was) shrewd observation, ‘Stir the depths of your cook’s soul sufficiently, and she will discourse to you in BulwerLyttonese.’
If space allowed, it would be easy to show that there is no hard-headed scorner of what a British lecturer to American undergraduates recently satirized as ‘the unseen hand that guides’ who does not contradict himself as soon as he forgets controversy and proceed to describe biological structure in teleological terms, and support, as Mr. John Watson does, his personal notions of Utopia, reform, and the good life by the complaint that we are not living as we were intended to live.
But my object is not epigram, cynicism, or satire. As Emerson said in his essay on Experience, I have set my heart on truth in this chapter. And so I am bound to offer something more helpful, more constructive, as the current word is, than satire of others’ inconsistencies. If religion is incompatible with a mechanistic materialism, and if most propagandist teaching of evolution implies, when it does not expressly affirm, mechanism, what is to be done about it? I can only submit the reflections of a layman. The first thing to do is to challenge the materialist’s philosophy on scientific grounds.
I shall waste no time on the standardized evasion, as old as Tyndall, that materialism is an equivocal term of abuse and calls for a new and more spiritual definition of matter. The admirers of Huxley — and I am one — protest that we must not call him a materialist, but an agnostic. But if his teaching and that of Tyndall come to the young and the layman in the epigram, ‘In the beginning was hydrogen,’ what is the difference? We all, including those who take refuge in this argument, know well enough what materialism means in this discussion. It means the denial of all possibility of a controlling purpose in the mechanism of the universe, or a soul in the mechanism of the brain. Now, with many eminent men of science, I believe that the first of these dogmatisms cannot be proved, and, not being wholly an amateur in psychology, I know that the second can be riddled at every turn by sound logic and observation. The materialist in neurology and psychology is not merely teaching bad metaphysics — he demonstrably misrepresents the facts of both neurology and psychology when he presents his doctrine to the public.
This is too technical a point for detailed elaboration here. But I repeat, with evidence to back me, that every neurologist or psychologist who teaches or insinuates materialism misrepresents the facts both of neurology and of psychology. As Mr. John Watson, the most conspicuous contemporary materialist, naïvely avows of his own book, ‘Scientific nonessentials . . . are sacrificed in order to present t he outline of the main theme in a manner agreeable to the nonscientific mind.’ The practical meaning of this is that diagrams are put into textbooks that do not represent the facts either of neurology or of psychology, but only serve to illustrate and create a presumption in favor of materialistic hypotheses.
The author sometimes does, and sometimes does not, accompany his distortions with a perfunctory and disregarded warning that his diagrams and illustrations are merely schematic conveniences or prophecies. But he does manipulate and rearrange his facts as inevitably as any popular expositor of Einstein and relativity. The excuse is the same in both cases: the public and the students would not, without this gentle soliciting of the facts, apprehend the higher and more essential scientific truth of the theory. It is the old theological casuistry and ‘economy’ of truth in a new guise. If this lay opinion of mine has, as it in fact does have, the support not only of many philosophers, but of a by no means inconsiderable representation of the most eminent men of science, it ought to be taught and inculcated in t he college at least as insistently and fervently as virtual materialism is now taught, with at most a perfunctory disclaimer. It is not. On the contrary, evolution attempts to annex all the hinterland of history and the humanities.
An eminent professor of psychology and education testified at Dayton that evolution is indispensable also to the teaching of the mental, moral, and historical sciences. It would have been about as reasonable for me to go there and test ify that evolution is not needed in the teaching of the biological sciences. There is no evidence t hat evolution is indispensable or helpful to the study of history, literature, language, art, and philosophy. If there is, will someone put one example in a letter and send it to me. In F. S. Marvin’s Science and Civilisation there is a chapter on the influence of Darwinism on thought and life. I went through it pencil in hand, and the two following vague truisms are the best that I could find. On page 204 he says, ‘There is included in Darwinism a vindication of the general idea of evolution that the present is the child of the past and the parent of the future. That was indeed an old idea, but Darwin made it current intellectual coin.’ It certainly was an old idea. It is simply the historical method. But what has technical, biological evolution to do with it? Darwin only made it a fashion and a fad, and too often an evasion of honest critical work. Secondly, he says, on page 211, ‘ We should have liked to show that Darwinism was the leaven that made psychology a new science, — comparative, genetic, and concrete, — but that in itself is a long story.’ They always say that, but never produce even one definite, significant, concrete, new psychological truth that Darwinism or the biological method has established.
As a test take Professor Herrick’s lucid and well-written book, Brains of Rats and Men. There is not one sentence in it that contributes anything new to the mental, moral, literary, linguistic, and historical sciences. If we think that there is, it will be because we get interested in the entirely different or, to us, new subject of neurology, or because we have never read either Plato’s Theætetus or the psychological chapters of Malebranche’s Recherche de la vérité, or Descartes as interpreted by Huxley, or the older English associationists, or because we are thrilled by the magnificent concession of the final sentence, ‘ Men are bigger and better than rats.’
Professor Herrick, unlike many other scientific men, gives ample warning that his diagrams are merely schematic. Yet they evidently create in him as well as in his students the illusion of an explanation. And the only thing that really arouses his enthusiasm is the reiterated insistence on mechanism and the repudiation of anything mystic or purposeful. To scientific men, frightened by the Dayton trial, these dogmas have become a cult, almost a fanaticism. And they think t hey have proved the value of their results for the mental and moral sciences when what they have really found is at the most a confirmation of their own speculations. The value of evolution for them is that it proves evolution. The value of neurological psychology is that it demonstrates the existence of a neurological psychology. The value of the evidence for mechanism is that it proves mechanism. And they do not know what we mean when we keep asking for the slightest evidence of any other values apart from the, in their own place, inestimable values for biology and medicine.
Their arguments move in a circle. They call the hypothetical reconstruction of the skeleton of the Neanderthaler and of the psychology and religion of the cave men mental and moral science, and then cite them as examples of the contribution of such speculations to those sciences. Their syllogisms all have four terms. They coolly substitute evolution for the critical historical method, which, of course, is indispensable, and then infer that the teaching of biological evolution is equally essential to the study of all the humanities. Or, when they say ‘historical method,’ they mean the prehistorical method which, from the point of view of any sober criticism, is its opposite, and which, too long or prematurely pursued, actually unfits its votaries and victims for the critical study of history and literature, because it establishes an ineradicable habit of unverifiable hypothesis and a priori deduction.
I shall be completely misapprehended if it is supposed that I am disparaging these subjects as specialties in their own field. It is their premature intrusion in education, and the more or less avowed and conscious attempt to annex and dominate everything else, that I deprecate.
But, to return to mechanistic evolution, what has all this to do with religion? Why, this. The explicit repudiation of materialism is the minimum foundation of faith on which anything deserving the name of religion can be built. If we are not wholly Tennyson’s ‘cunning casts in clay’ or Plato’s ‘puppets pulled by strings,’ if there is something — we know not what — more in us, there may be something — we know not what — more in the universe and in our destiny. If not, not. This is not a return to Herbert Spencer’s perhaps insincere Unknowable. It is the affirmation that we know that systematic materialism is as unscientific as it is unphilosophical, and that this leaves the door open for hope and faith and Platonic fancies — yes, and for any harmless theological and historical symbolism that does not shock the moral sense, interfere with real science, or foster the persecution of opinion. This will seem to the fundamentalist a very slight basis for religion, and to the hard-headed rationalist a dangerous concession to superstition. But it sufficed for Plato and the long line of liberal Platonizing theologians from Plato to Shaftesbury, and from Shaftesbury down to and including that Victorian liberal, John Stuart Mill, in his posthumous essays on Religion. Happy, perhaps, are those who have more. But with less there can be no religion at all. And all religious perorations in the books of cosmogonical, biological, and psychological materialists are to be taken in a Pickwickian sense. When they tell us that God is simply transmuted love, or, better yet, that God is a tear of love shed in secret over human suffering, or when they perorate about the things ‘out there,’ and write hymns to the God of energy with a capital E, and the omniscience, omnipotence, and holiness of truth with a capital T, the most charitable supposition is that the depths of the cook’s soul are stirred.
But are we not overlooking ethical religion? That only, and not even natural religion, is the religion that Matthew Arnold so convincingly expresses for himself and for many of the finest minds of his generation and ours. It is the cult that the ethical-culture societies endeavor to establish as a recognized form of institutional religion. There is no doubt that ‘morality touched with emotion’ — sufficiently touched, impressively touched — is now a religion for some minds. But it is more than doubtful whether it can ever appeal to enough minds to take its place among historical religions, and it has yet to be proved how much of its efficacy it will retain for the second generation away from Christianity.
An exquisite writer and imperfectly Americanized retired Harvard professor, reverting to type, complains that even so scientific a mind as William James had come out into the open, but that the vast shadow of the temple still stood between him and the sun — the sun of unrighteousness, it would seem. Nietzsche, ridiculing the British, says in terms, ‘They have got rid of the Christian God and now think themselves obliged to cling firmer than ever to Christian morality.’
As I have said, the future only will show how a generation that has never known even the refuge of the shadow of the temple will endure the glare upon life and the universe of the pitiless publicity of science. It will save space and wasteful argument to quote Tennyson once more: —
Take the charm ‘For ever’ from them, and they crumble into dust.
Some materialists who have shut their idealism up in a thought-proof compartment may regard that as a deplorably low and selfish view.
Huxley himself waxes very eloquent in denunciation of Saint Paul’s ‘If the dead rise not, let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die.’ And the appeal to materialists to repudiate this thought in the preface to Ruskin’s Crown of Wild Olive is one of the most glorious passages in English prose. The idea, indeed, that the spiritual and moral life is not dependent on such hopes is, like most ideas, as old as Plato. But still older are the words of the Homeric Achilles, ‘Oh, Odysseus, gild me not my death. I had liefer be the poorest serf, the man with the hoe that tills another’s field in the sunlight above, than lord and king over all the sapless dead. ’ The question is not whether a Huxley or a Ruskin could whistle moral idealism to keep his courage up, but whether the real feelings of ordinary humanity are not more nearly expressed by Homer, Saint Paul, and Tennyson.
Burke repeats the warnings of Cicero and George Washington against throwing off that religion which has hitherto been the one great source of civilization among us. He is fearful lest, since ‘the mind will not endure a void, some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take the place of it.’
The post-war young anarchy of which we are all talking, and which Mr. Philip Gibbs’s so-named recent novel vividly portrays, may have many causes. It is the standardized tactics of liberal and radical journalists and fictionists to laugh down the suggestion that the influence of the Darwins, the Nietzsches, the Anatole Frances, the Remy de Gourmonts, and their American followers has anything to do with it. ‘Look at Russia,’ ‘Remember the Greek Sophists,’ are comic clichés of the satire of senility in all radical literature to-day. These satirists rarely offer evidence. But with time and the proper occasion I could produce abundant proof of the direct filiation between the ethical nihilism of presentday talk, and sometimes practice, and the literature of materialistic evolution, Wester marc kian anthropology, Marxian revolt, and the popular expositions, the textbooks, and the erotic and revolutionary fiction that make it accessible to the most birdwitted minds. Neither the victims of this inculcation nor the few ‘reactionaries’ who deplore it realize how allpervasive, insistent, and dominant the propaganda of moral anarchism by writing and speech has become. The fashion of speech obsesses even those who cannot possibly intend to approve the doctrine. Mrs. Wharton herself in a late novel has caught the infection and says that moral scruples may be moral cowardice. Possibly, as a matter of ultimate psychology. But these are not the things whereby we may edify the released minds of an emancipated generation.
We have admitted for argument’s sake that ethical religion, so called, may furnish a working code for a few minds of the quality of Matthew Arnold and Mr. Felix Adler. We have argued that natural religion, so called, and the repudiation of materialism may supply the sanctions of religion for many more to whom so-called orthodoxy has become impossible. Can we wonder that Bryan, whom I use merely as a type, felt that the old fixed faiths and the Bible, literally or symbolically understood, — but more safely literally, — provide the only sure anchorage? There may be, then, in spite of the unanimity of the denunciatory chorus of science and the intelligentsia, something to be said for Bryan after all. Might it not even be made to appear to a sufficiently informed and open-minded judgment that, if the option is forced upon us, even Bryan is a safer teacher than Nietzsche or Anatole France or Strindberg or Remy de Gourmont or Mr. H. L. Mencken or Mr. Clarence Darrow?
For t he most vociferous advocates of the causes Bryan denounced do not wish to preserve anything that the world has hitherto called morality. ‘The herd-morality,’ says Nietzsche, ‘is good for cows, women, and Englishmen.’ ‘C’est beau, un beau crime,’ says Anatole France, whom the academic audience of a great university admires so fanatically that a year or two ago they froze out a cultivated French lecturer who dared to hint a few courteously expressed reserves.
The criticism of evolution in Bryan’s book is crude. But it is not more illogical or unfair than most attacks by laymen on things which they distrust but do not fully understand. It is not more unfair or ignorant than Voltaire and Ingersoll on the Bible, than most of the assailants of the classics, than Mr. H. G. Wells’s history of the Roman Empire or the Renaissance, than recent radical historians’ story of the formation of the Constitution of the United States, than any scientific man’s account of the science and the philosophy of the ancients and the philosophy of Plato.
Bryan was a controversialist attacking evolution generally because he believed that its generalized propaganda, as an all-embracing dogma, is
dangerous to education, morals, and religion. He was probably as well aware as are his critics of the distinction between the agreement of biologists on the broad fact that some kind of evolution has occurred and their at present hopeless uncertainty as to the precise methods and processes by which it came to pass. ‘Like all the great propagandists, he met prejudice with prejudice,’ writes the most recent American apologist for Thomas Paine. Let those who are without sin cast the first stone at Bryan.
To consider one typical detail, his remarks upon the eye and upon the difficulty of believing that the too easily worked logic of the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest and natural selection really accounts for so complicated a coördination are expressed in language that would appeal to his audiences. He makes fun of natural and sexual selection, ridicules the development of just two eyes from the pigment, and asks why the light waves quit playing when just two eyes were finished. But the reasoning of the passage as a whole does not differ appreciably from that of Bergson’s Creative Evolution on the same subject. Those who denounce Bryan as an American moron should explain that it is only the charm of his beautiful style that saves the French philosopher and academician from a like condemnation.
An English expositor of Bergson says that nothing less than a controlling design can explain the fact that the eye of the vertebrate and that of a mollusc, such as the common pecten, have developed retina, cornea, lens, independently. I have no opinion as to the final verdict of science on these nice questions. But I am confident that there is nothing in Mr. Bryan’s writing more outrageous than a statement which I cull from Remy de Gourmont. ‘Discontinuous light,’ says this oracle of the intelligentsia, ‘created the eye precisely as the drop of water creates a hole in the granite.’ Ce n’est pas plus difficile que ça! Obviously Remy de Gourmont cared no more for the patient exactitudes and suspensions of judgment of real science than did Epicurus, Lucretius, and Mr. Bryan himself. He and his kind are interested only in the affirmation of antireligious dogma as Bryan was in his own fundamentalist propaganda.
Technical problems are beyond the range of the present writer, and perhaps of some of his readers. But all literate mankind has or will claim the right to an opinion on the great decisions that determine our attitude toward life and education. Mr. Bryan and his followers were seriously alarmed by certain apparent consequences of the unqualified and undiscriminating propaganda of evolution in secondary and collegiate education. Shall we tax ourselves to damn our children, is the way they postered it. Nietzsche, Bryan said, carried Darwinism to its logical conclusion. Radical weeklies and lecturers try to laugh that down by pointing to the alleged saintly character of Darwin and the higher spiritual interpretations that can be read into the gospel of the Superman and the Blond Beast. But for practical purposes Bryan was right. The general theory of evolution, said John Fiske long ago, is rapidly causing us to modify our opinions on all subjects whatever. He does not except morals, and his successors apply the principle by preference to them. Darwin has certainly destroyed the last of their ‘ideological prejudices.’ ‘We shall not get infanticide and the permission of suicide nor cheap and easy divorce till Jesus Christ’s ghost has been laid,’ writes one of them.
But, before turning in conclusion to a few words about this problem, I cannot forbear, in taking leave of Bryan, observing that his style, the naïveté of his logic and rhetoric, are from the point of view of the absolute reason little, if any, more absurd than those of his opponents. Perhaps none of us are qualified to judge our fellows from the point of view of the absolute reason; let us substitute such approximate designations of what is meant as common sense, relevancy, and literary good taste. I will not undertake the too easy demonstration that Mr. Bernard Shaw’s preface to Back to Methuselah is far sillier and, for all its flashes of epigram, more muddle-headed than anything in Bryan.
I feel the greatest respect, nay, awe, for the leaders of American science. But they are human, and the pontifical authority and the immunity from criticism which their achievements have won for their most reckless pronouncements outside of their own specialties cannot be good for fallible human nature. And my ignorance is not likely to say anything as unfair as the abuse which they have showered, not only on Mr. Bryan, but on Professor Louis T. More’s thoughtful and carefully reasoned volume, The Dogma of Evolution. If their scientific activities were really threatened, no reasonable controversialist would risk weakening their hands in any way. But when they come forth as authorities on religion, metaphysics, literature, education, criticism of life, Biblical and Homeric criticism, and the history of Greek philosophy, they invite the friendly tap on the knuckles that may recall them to their sober selves.
Those who venture into the twilight zone between science and pseudoscience make still wilder work. With no satiric intention, but merely as a warning, I add a few typical examples of the kind of things they say when they let themselves go: —
‘The ultimate question, therefore, is, Has evolution been a mistake?’
‘The dog that barked at a feather moving on the lawn had the ethical idea that it was wrong for such a thing to move there. Many of our ethical ideas to-day are just as foolish.’
‘Kant’s cosmological argument is a fallacy. The heavens do not declare the glory of God, but the life of such a man as Charles Darwin is in truth a standing proof of the existence of God.’
‘The religious sense tends to heighten the deeper we study the biological sciences.’
‘When a vibration wave passing over a sensory nerve is gradually brought to a stop by the resistance of its synapse . . . its slowness passes through an infinity phase. I ask you to entertain the suggestion that the infinity phase of slowness is the common stuff of all sensations.’
The Middle West holds the record with three gems that on the stretched forefinger of all time deserve to sparkle forever. One linguistic, but not by a linguist: Our language is highly systematized; it has discarded useless inflections, and is therefore a superior medium of expression to the Greek. One on the history of philosophy, but not by a historian of philosophy: Among the Greeks the leading proponent of the evolution theory was, — you will never guess, — it was Aristotle, who taught that the world has existed from all eternity precisely as it is. One astronomical, but not by an astronomer: The old saying that an irreverent astronomer is mad can apply with equal force to the physicist; he comes to feel that his own intelligence is the supreme achievement of evolution. Perhaps Bryan was almost justified in his coarse vernacular question, Can you beat it?
Having no better ’ole — I mean no more suitable pigeonhole — for them, I class with these naïve exuberances of the rhetoric of science all exaltations and exultations and sentimentalities in contemplation of the evolutionary idea. This category includes all expressed preferences for a simian to some other ancestry, from Huxley’s famous retort to Bishop Wilberforce to the bathos about the heroic little monkey in the peroration of Darwin’s Descent of Man.
It applies doubly to all the false logic that praises the amphioxus for having raised himself so high, and bids us rejoice that we have gone so far and may go so much further yet. Darwin began it with his ‘Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale.’ Clifford attained the very summit of this absurdity with his ‘If I have evolved myself out of something like the amphioxus, it is clear to me that I have become better by the changed.’ And now it is a commonplace of the rhetoric of popular lectures on evolution. Who, pray, is ‘I ’ in that sentence ? Are we talking Pythagorean metempsychosis and the myth of the tenth book of Plato’s Republic? If undergraduates can be stirred with the rhetoric of such jumbles of gush, fallacy, false sentiment, and question-begging moralizing, would they not be more profitably employed in studying the elements of logic, and Longinus’s warnings about the rhetoric of the frigid or false sublime style, before they attempt to master the evidence for evolution?
Grant that the biological evolution of our bodies has been proved by science and that the mature mind has got to face the facts — why, in the name of common sense and the clearance of the mind from cant, should anyone inculcate this gospel on youth as glad tidings of great joy? Has anybody ever really answered the poet’s protest?
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things.
Or, as a witty novelist recently put it, ‘Bad beginning for people. But why speak of it? Do collie dogs have Darwins to prove that they were once hyenas?’
A few months ago a charming woman, her face all aglow with enthusiasm, asked me if I had seen the glorious news in the morning paper. They had actually found, in South America this time, a parietal or occipital bone of a missing link. (Please don’t tell me that ‘missing link’ is unscientific — I have read that protest fifty times, but, like many unscientific expressions, it is a convenient, indispensable shorthand.) The exultant lady reminded me of a story which Professor Osborn will pardon me for stealing and sophistically wresting to my own purposes. He asked — I admit that he was jesting — the Archbishop of York if he knew why York was famous, and, when His Grace supposed it was for the beauty of the cathedral, solemnly rebuked him with the correction that it is because the oldest and smallest tooth in the world, the Microlestes, is treasured there. It was not, as the poor sentimental Victorian supposed, because man with ‘splendid purpose in his eyes’ had ‘ rolled the psalm to wintry skies ’ and ‘ built him fanes of fruitless prayer.’
I did not dash the lady’s enthusiasm with argument, for she is the wife of a biologist, and it is the kind of wifely sympathy with her husband’s specialty that a Greek professor’s wife might, but I fear would n’t, exhibit if he settled hoti’s or hote’s business in Homer or discovered a shade of meaning in the enclitic de unobserved by the Germans, though I can’t for the life of me see why that should not be quite as exciting as the triumphant proclamation that ‘the age of the armored merostome arthropods is also thrust back to midCambrian times by the discovery of several genera of aglaspidæ.’
But, seriously, why should anyone rejoice at a little more technical confirmation of the conjecture, as old as Anaximander and Empedocles and Ecclesiastes, that we are born as the animals and have one destiny with theirs, or at some new evidence to prove the opinion that puzzled Socrates in Plato’s Phædo — that life and sensation originate in a sort of fermentation of the elements of the Urschleim, and combinations of sensations account for all the fine ideas of the moralists and the metaphysicians? Or, if the editor of the Atlantic objects to a quotation from those obsolete classics that ‘still linger’ in Chicago, take the idea with all modern improvements in Professor J. Arthur Thomson’s Science and Religion: ‘By a process of natural synthesis . . . from some colloidal, carbonaceous slime activated by ferments.’
To waft us home the message of despair?
What part has our ephemeral consciousness in the strivings of the worm to be man as it mounts through all the spires of form, or in that future of the best or worst that must make haste to get itself evolved before the earth plunges into the sun or dries up like the moon?
Are we merely whistling, so to speak, to keep our courage up? The sincere believer in a creative, an emergent, an ortho genetic, a holistic, a divinely guided evolution may do this, and console himself with the poet’s fancy that the emergent evolutionist
With a glimpse of a height that is higher.
But why should those who shut the door in the face of even this tenuous hope be glad? What ground for rejoicing is there in the philosophy of those who persistently admonish undergraduates that any doctrine but uncompromising mechanism is adverse to the progress of science, and that there must be no implication of any break between man and the animals in either biology or psychology? If that teaching is true, the only logical position is despair or forgetfulness of both past and future in the present, or the silent disdain of the French philosophic poet: —
Et ne répondons plus que par un froid silence, Au silence éternel de la divinité.
I threatened an excursus on the teaching of evolution in the college. I have left myself no space for that, and it does n’t matter. The sixty-fourth volume of the Proceedings of the National Educational Association boasts that in the year 1925 the grand total of its printed matter about education was 129,867,256 pages. Why should I swell the tide? The gist of my counsel to those who propose not to teach biology in the laboratory, but to lecture on evolution in general to the general body of undergraduates, can be pilulously compressed into a word. It is Punch’s advice to those about to commit matrimony: Don’t! Full soon their souls shall have their earthly freight — and their minds are already sufficiently unsettled. Or, if you must lecture, I can fall back on the precedent of my master Plato. In his Laws, writing in the rambling fashion of old age on morals and music and government and atheistic science and deleterious literature and religion and education, he pulls himself up and asks, ‘But if the books now in vogue are objectionable, what shall we teach?’ And he answers with a perhaps perceptible droop of the left eyelid: ‘Well, on a survey of what I myself have written thus far, it seems to me good stuff and salubrious doctrine.’
I need not underline the application. If you will look for trouble by lecturing to freshmen on evolution, tell them more fully, more interestingly, more critically, more scientifically, something like what I have been trying to say in my amateurish and ignorant fashion.