Friday, November 15, 2013

The Earth Speaks to Bryan

During the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925 Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society, wrote The Earth Speaks to Bryan. It was slim addition to his awe-inspiring canon of published material. Over his scholarly career, the prolific Osborn published over 1,000 items, including books, articles in both popular magazines and scholarly journals, reviews, introductions, prefaces, lectures, addresses, etc. As a professor at Columbia University, president of the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the foremost experts on evolution and paleontology Osborn possessed the scientific authority to speak definitely on the topic. He had the best education money could afford the scion of an elite New York family, and he had studied in England with the disciples of Charles Darwin. You can read his observations of these notable men of science in his memoir, Impressions of Great Naturalists (1924). After obtaining his doctorate in 1880 he taught at Princeton University before moving to Columbia. In 1906 he declined his childhood friend’s, President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer to be secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Begging Congress for money was not his style and leaving his comfortable Hudson River estate for the swampy national capital was not to his taste. Over the next twenty years Osborn ascended to the very pinnacle of scientific authority in the United States. Among other things he discovered and named a new species of dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Attacking William Jennings Bryan came naturally to Osborn, a conservative Republican who viewed the Great Commoner’s version of populism as dangerous demagoguery and a genuine threat to the socio-economic order. Citing the book of Job, Osborn asked that the Earth be allowed to speak for itself, thus the title of his exposition. The story the Earth told went much further back than 4,000 years, and Osborn chastised Bryan for not allowing Scopes to speak this truth. Osborn provided a detailed (and very dry) discussion of geological evidence and of tooth and toe fossils over time to demonstrate that the planet had to be much older than the literal interpretation of the Bible implied and that that species evolved in form. If the Bible was not literal science, however, Osborn still maintained it was rightly the foundation of morality. Nor did he view evolution as antithetical to the existence of God. Instead, he argued that God used evolution as His mechanism to bring about change. We might call this “intelligent design” today, but it was common among the first generation of evolutionists to make this argument. They saw no contradiction between a liberal interpretation of Christianity and Darwin’s theory. Oddly, Osborn put the locus of man’s evolution in Central Asia, where he had travelled in the 1920s to collect specimens, not Africa. But this is where the ugly side of Osborn’s evolutionary theory rears its disgusting head. Like most of the men of science in his generation, he allowed evolution to underwrite a very nasty form of racism. There are more than a few specimens of this thought in his vast canon of writings, including the preface for his friend Madison Grant’s “scientific” racist diatribe, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). In addition, Osborn supported the display of an African pygmy named Ota Benga with the chimpanzees at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and created the Hall of Man display at the American Museum of Natural History to connect his racial and scientific views of human evolution to development.

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