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Others Call It God

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928
Creation by Evolution. Edited by Frances Mason. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $5.00. American Inquisitors. By Walter Lippmann. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.25.

Sixty-nine years is not a long time as history reckons, a generation is but as a day in the sight of a biologist, but the two generations which have passed since the publication of the “Origin of Species” are so close-packed with change that they cover the greater part of a social transformation which has given us a new world. We have grown used to thanking God that we are not as our grandfathers. It came with something like a shock to thinking people to realize that our progress was not so great as we had thought; that for all our telephones and radios, our motor cars and aeroplanes, there were still in this country a large number of otherwise intelligent people who had not yet taken to heart the ideas of Darwin; that a man might drive a car and still not “believe in” evolution. We flattered ourselves that on this side of the water we had escaped permanently the bitter struggles which marked the reception of the “Origin” in England. We prided ourselves on our up-to-date schools, where the pupils received an education new, or at least fresh-painted, with no ancient moss reminiscent of a pre-scientific age. Then appeared Mr. Bryan calling the faithful to arms, and peace vanished overnight. The war was on.

Like all wars it is purely, defensive on both sides. Each assures us that he is only holding the cat’s tail, that it is the cat who is pulling it. If you are a follower of the late Mr. Bryan, the struggle is a defense of religion against the unprovoked attacks of “science falsely so-called”; if you are an evolutionist, the forces of bigotry and superstition have assailed the seekers after truth in the name of a degraded travesty of religion. A complete war, with “atrocities,” propaganda, and the rest; and the first battle was the Battle of Dayton.

In that the two books under consideration owe their origin to that battle they are properly the subject of a single review. But though thus descended from a common ancestor they belong to widely divergent species. Against the common background of Dayton they must therefore be considered separately.

“Creation by Evolution” is, I take it, a contribution to what the evolutionist would call a “campaign of education” and what the fundamentalist would call “propaganda.” The subtitle describes it as “a consensus of present day knowledge, as set forth by leading authorities in nontechnical language that all may understand.” How far does it live up to this description?

Of the eminence of the authorities there can be no question. The roster of names in the table of contents reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” in biology and geology. Of the unanimity of opinion of these distinguished men there can be likewise no question. Indeed one has to go very far down the scale among scientific men of all descriptions before finding one who will not assent to the central proposition of the book; namely, that there is no way of explaining the phenomena of living organisms other than by assuming their descent and divergence from simpler types. As to the third claim of the subtitle, it is obviously exaggerated, for there is no such thing as “language that all may understand.” Even as such things go in this imperfect world the presentation is not ideal; one can find here language a good deal more technical than necessary and passages where the presentation is far from simple. But with due allowance for exaggeration on this head we may take the description as accurate. Here are twenty-six short essays, each by, a master in his field who approaches the subject from the facts familiar to him, and all these different minds arrive at the same conclusion: Evolution is a fact.

From an artistic point of view, this unanimity is depressing. Each essay, considered separately, would make an acceptable article in any magazine, but our authors suffer from being crowded in this museum fashion. One has the feeling of looking at a collection of birds’ eggs, or walking past a mile or so of Rubens in the Louvre; the similarities are so much more insistent on the consciousness than the differences. I cannot escape the feeling that all differences of opinion have been ruthlessly eliminated in the interest of harmony, a harmony of the party platform kind; there is such a curious lack of personality in the different essays. There are faint indications that the writers would not agree on all points, but there is obviously a well-bred intention to compose these differences, in order to present a united front to the common enemy.

Even from the standpoint of campaign tactics, I believe this course to be mistaken, that the open formation of modern warfare is more effective than the Greek phalanx. It is true that the opposition is united, but ignorance cannot be fought with the weapons of ignorance, and the scientist appears to no advantage in this mass defense of a creed. Another curious adoption of the weapons of the opposition is indicated in the phrase “leading authorities” in the subtitle. I am not so foolish as to deny to authority a place in scientific belief, but its place is among scientists, and they can claim no priestly role among the multitude. The mutual trust of scientific workers has no equal among any other body of men. This trust is rationally founded on experience, but this experience is not shared by the common man. He cannot be expected to honor a draft by a stranger. Confidence must be won. At bottom the question is one of values, and it is because the common man profoundly distrusts the scientist’s whole scheme of values, because he can feel no assurance that the ends which science seeks are the ends which he holds dear, that science is, and must be, without authority for him.

This, i take it, is the view of Mr. Walter Lippmann. “American Inquisitors” is, to use a phrase of William James, a “golden little book,” compact of wisdom and sanity. For Mr. Lippmann is a more thoroughgoing evolutionist than those militants who would close ranks and grapple with the foe, a truer devotee of science than those who wear her uniform. Keenly aware that while a war may begin by both sides being right, it always ends by both sides being wrong, he seeks no facile solution of the question raised at Dayton in terms of right and wrong, no verdict in favor of one side or the other, but understanding of a social phenomenon. The trial of young Scopes at Dayton, and the trial of McAndrew at Chicago are only episodes, advertised by the press because of their dramatic character, in a struggle which is wide-spread and deep-seated. There are no single names with which to denote the contestants in this struggle: reason must march in company with moral anarchy as well as social progress, religion and social stability must ally themselves with prejudice and intolerance.

There have been mistakes on both sides, but the heaviest responsibility rests with us, the men of science. For while the right to be morally indignant is to be counted, I suppose, among the “unalienable rights” of human beings it has no place in science. Science never sees red. Mr. Lippmann does not accuse. Deftly and patiently he dissects the problem, mainly by the use of the Socratic dialogue, which is handled with a skill that is artistically delightful. Every militant evolutionist should read “American Inquisitors”—and let him blush who can.

For the gravamen of the charge that can be laid against us men of science is that we have been false to our own standards. We have been so concerned with our efforts to see things as they are that we have failed to see men as they, are. We have substituted for the real world of men a make-believe world to fit our wishes. For the common man who was revealed at Dayton, we have substituted a fiction; we have rated him intellectually too high, and morally too low. We have acted on the absurd hypothesis that the facts of science which we have so hardly won could be made really accessible to the average intelligence, knowing in our heart of hearts how little we could give. Even with a selected group like college students it is hard enough to make men understand the meaning of our propositions, let alone the evidence. Let us grant that we are bound to make the attempt; our efforts must be based on an act of faith. This faith may be beautiful, it may be glorious, but it is none the less “believing what you know ain’t so,” But if our hopes have on this side been too high, we have made too low an estimate of the motives by which men live, and for this there is less excuse, for here even the facts are against us. Our bid for popular confidence and support has been based on the material benefits of science. We have appealed to man’s appetite for ease, his fear of pain, and have ignored the latent heroisms, the inarticulate poetry of the multitude, for lack of which civilization would crumble to ultimate dust. We have failed to see that the ideal of the full dinner-pail is no substitute for the first answer in the Shorter Catechism. If we are to lift the men below us to those serene heights of reason which we see above the clouds it must be not as tradesmen with wares to sell, but as fellowmen who have found a way.

And while we teach we must be prepared to learn, for we have more to learn than we can ever teach. This parvenu Reason is a newcomer on the stage of evolution; all through the ages organic nature has moved from life to fuller life without its aid. Is reason already so surefooted that she is prepared to take over the whole business of human living? Let us grant the “right” of scientific men to pursue their aims untrammeled, is that right valid against an earthquake? Social stability is a first requisite even for the progress of human reason. Is it not at least conceivable that the demands of science are incompatible with this ultimate limitation, and that on this point the instinctive reactions of unreasoning man are a surer guide than the logic of a group, however enlightened? Mr. Lippmann merely raises the question.

The author of “American Inquisitors” has taken a place in the small company of “creditor authors.” The number of those who, like myself, are already in his debt, must be large. I foresee that it will not diminish.


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