Failing to Make Hay of Mass Extinctions

Title page of The Pleistocene of North America...

When I was discussing the origin of the claim that “we may well suppose” occurs eight hundred times in Darwin’s two principal works a while back, I obtained a copy of Frank Allen’s Evolution in the Balances (1926), because David N. Livingstone, in his Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (1987), suggested that Allen might have been the author of “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” (1911), which, published under the pseudonym “An Occupant of the Pew,” seems to have been the source. I was unconvinced by the suggestion for a number of reasons (rehearsed in part 2 of “Who Was the Occupant?”), among them the fact that Allen, unlike the Occupant, was relatively responsible in his use of quotations from scientists. Where the Occupant cited the usual suspects—Rudolf Virchow, Robert Etheridge, Nathaniel Shaler, Lionel Beale, Albert Fleischmann, Ernst Haeckel—in arguing that evolution is teetering on the brink, Allen commendably refrained, instead acknowledging that evolution is widely accepted among scientists.

But Allen could be sloppy. In a chapter on Evolution in the Balances on “The Testimony of the Dinosaurs, Fishes, and Invertebrates,” he offers four reasons for thinking that the fossil record of dinosaurs conflicts with evolution. First is their size: “If evolution is gradual and more highly developed forms are constantly coming into being, we should find larger living dinosaurs than those which are found in fossils.” Second is natural selection: “If creatures which survive depend on natural selection, the dinosaurs, the largest and most powerful of all known creatures, ought to outlive all others. … In place of remaining supreme in the earth, as they should by the theory of natural selection, they have been entirely cut off; their race is known only in fossil history.” Third is their contemporaries. Allen argues both that fossil dinosaurs are associated with fossil plants that are modern and that there is evidence that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans, citing Native American petroglyphs in Arizona.

There wasn’t, among these three reasons, anything that struck me as especially interesting, although it might be amusing to itemize the various misconceptions implicit in the first and second. The fourth reason, as stated, isn’t particularly interesting either. Allen quotes the paleontologist William Diller Matthew (1871–1930) as saying that the extinction of dinosaurs was “nearly, if not quite, simultaneous the world over” and the paleontologist Richard Swann Lull (1867–1957) as describing it as “[o]ne of the most inexplicable of events.” “There must,” Allen triumphantly concludes, “have been some great catastrophe which destroyed them in all the continents at the same time.” So far so good. But the next paragraph begins: “The fossil remains indicate that along with them there perished great ground sloths [Steve Bowden will be pleased], mastodons, rhinoceroses, camels, many species of horses, several tapirs, numerous kinds of giant pigs, extinct bisons, the giant beaver[,] and the sabertooth tiger.’”

That single quotation mark after “tiger” isn’t a typo on my part. The sentence, or part of it, was a quotation, as a footnote in Evolution in the Balances, to The Pleistocene of North America and Its Vertebrated Animals, indicates. That sounds like a sober scientific volume, though: could it have claimed, as Allen seems to suggest, that these mammal fossils are thought to be of the same date as dinosaur fossils? No. The original sentence, from Oliver P. Hay’s The Pleistocene of North America and its Vertebrated Animals from the States East of the Mississippi River and from the Canadian Provinces East of Longitude 95° (1923), simply reads: “In order to realize more vividly the variety of Pleistocene forms, we have only to recall the animals then present, now absent, namely, the great ground-sloths, the glyptodons, the numerous species of horses, tapirs, numerous peccaries, camels, the extinct relatives of the musk-oxen, extinct bisons, elephants, mastodons of three or four genera, the giant beaver, and the saber-tooth tigers.”

So there should have been a quotation mark following “perished” in Allen’s sentence. Certainly Oliver Perry Hay (1846–1930) wouldn’t have agreed that the Pleistocene mammals died in the end-Cretaceous extinction. Hay was a paleontologist at the Carnegie Institute for Science, so he knew the evidence, and he resigned from a post at Butler University in 1892 owing to his advocacy of evolution, so he wouldn’t have been inclined to resist the evidence. But I suspect that Allen wasn’t consulting Hay’s dense and technical volume. Instead, I think that he was consulting the self-educated Seventh-Day Adventist geologist George McCready Price (1870–1963)—whom he lauds as “well qualified for writing on the subject of geology”—and in particular his The Phantom of Organic Evolution (1924). Allen regarded geology as “the most important branch of science in the study of evolution,” explaining, “we go there for the major part of our information to disprove” Darwin’s theories, and he took Price as his geological mentor.

In The Phantom of Organic Evolution, Price quotes the same passages from Lull and Matthew. (He attributes the latter instead to Henry Fairfield Osborn [1857–1935]: in fact, both paleontologists seem to have used the phrase—perhaps not surprisingly, since they were colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History.) And he provides a similar list, not in quotation marks but credited to Hay’s The Pleistocene of North America and its Vertebrated Animals, of extinct Pleistocene mammals. Price hints that Hay thought that these mammals perished abruptly in a mass extinction, which is dishonest: early in the book, Hay cites evidence that the extinct Pleistocene mammal species perished “gradually and not at one epoch.” But Price stops short of attributing to Hay his own view, that the Pleistocene mammals and the Mesozoic dinosaurs perished abruptly in the same extinction event. Allen, however, appears to have sloppily confused Price’s view and Hay’s view, resulting in the misrepresentation in Evolution in the Balances.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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