Searching for F. E. Dean, Part 2

William Bateson

In part 1, I began with Woodrow Wilson’s famous comment “of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.” Although it wasn’t offered in reaction to the Scopes trial, Wilson having died over a year before the Butler Act was enacted, it was mentioned in Winterton Curtis’s unheard testimony in the Scopes trial. Curtis solicited Wilson’s opinion in 1922, because a former student of his, F. E. Dean, lost his job as the superintendent of schools in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, after he complained about the local school board’s decision to prohibit the teaching of evolution. In the ensuing controversy, a local minister apparently claimed that Wilson doubted evolution, and Curtis, wanting to defuse the appeal to authority, wrote to the former president to ask. Thus he was ready to deploy the comment during the Scopes trial.

In the age of Google, you might think that it would be child’s play to type “F. E. Dean New Mexico” into a search engine and be inundated with reams of data about Curtis’s student. Not so. The problem is in part that “F. E.” is taken as matching “Fe,” as in “Santa Fe,” as in the state capital of New Mexico, and in part that “Dean” is a fairly common noun. Thus the top hit for that search is to a page about the dean of the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College—no doubt a man of sterling character, but not exactly whom I sought. So you have to be subtle. I won’t bore with you the details of my search. Cutting to the chase, the most accessible source of information on the incident in which Dean lost his job is “Bateson’s Two Toronto Addresses, 1921: 2. Evolutionary Faith,” a paper by A. G. Cock, published in the Journal of Heredity in 1989. Bateson? Toronto? Journal of Heredity? What have they to do with Dean, Fort Sumner, and evolution?

Well, William Bateson (above) was a pioneering geneticist—he is in fact credited with coining the word “genetics”—who helped to disseminate Mendel’s work after its turn-of-the-century rediscovery. By December 1921 (five years before his death), he was sufficiently eminent to be asked to give a plenary address to the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in Toronto. His talk, “Evolutionary Faith and Modern Doubts,” was something of a succès de scandale, for he flamboyantly proclaimed that he had become “agnostic as to the actual mode and processes of evolution.” Cock writes that Bateson’s address “evoked a good deal of controversy at two levels, scientific and popular. He would have not only welcomed but expected controversy among his peers. ... [But] religious fundamentalists seized upon Bateson, misrepresenting him as an ally in their campaign against evolution as a scientific theory.”

Here’s a sample of such a misrepresentation of Bateson by a religious fundamentalist, taken from Philip Mauro’s Evolution at the Bar, published in 1922, hot on the heels of the address to the AAAS:

When, therefore, we hear, as is common enough nowadays, assertions made by unbelieving theologians and others, to the effect that “science” has shown this or that statement of Scripture to be erroneous, let is be remembered that we can bring the testimony of the most eminent men of science to prove those assertions false. ... We will only mention additionally a statement made in a very recent address (February 1922) by Prof. Wm. Bateson, the distinguished English biologist, a scientist of the first rank, who, speaking in Toronto, Canada, is reported to have said: “It is impossible for scientists to agree with Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. No explanation whatever has been offered to account for the fact that, after forty years, no evidence has been discovered to verify his genesis of species.” (Emphasis in original.)

A Phillip Johnson avant la lettre, Mauro was a lawyer-turned-evangelist; he contributed to The Fundamentals. (He’s sometimes credited with preparing the brief for the prosecution in the Scopes trial, but I haven’t been able to verify that.)

Claims that Bateson, a distinguished biologist, rejected evolution were thus circulating in 1922, in time for them to play a role in the controversy over the forced resignation of F. E. Dean. According to Cock, “Curtis tried to rally wider support for Dean by soliciting letters from former President Woodrow Wilson and from Bateson, both of whom had been cited (as fundamentalist allies!) by one of Dean’s opponents in the Fort Sumner Leader.” Curtis thriftily included not only Wilson’s but also Bateson’s letter in his testimony in the Scopes case, redacting Dean’s name:

The papers you have sent me relating to the case of Mr. -------- give a curious case of life under democracy. ...

I have looked through my Toronto address again. I see nothing in it which can be construed as expressing doubt as to the main fact of evolution. ...

The campaign against the teaching of evolution is a terrible example of the way in which truth can be perverted by the ignorant.

You can find the whole letter on p. 259 of The World’s Most Famous Court Trial (1925), which contains a complete transcript of the Scopes trial. But there’s not much else you can find about the correspondence. Cock summarizes the events of the incident, relying on material in the Bateson archive—a memorandum attached to Curtis’s letter to Bateson and the front page of three issues of the Fort Sumner Leader (the local newspaper) sent by Curtis. He doesn’t quote from any of it, perhaps because of copyright restrictions—in 1989, all of that material would have still been under U.S. copyright.

Cock’s summary of the incident, occupying the last seven paragraphs of his article, is clear and plausible. The school board passed the resolution; Dean acknowledged its passage but asked state officials whether it was legally binding; the state officials said that it was not; the whole matter was leaked to the press; the school board demanded his resignation on the grounds of his “insincerity”; he decided to cut his losses and resigned. But I wanted to know more—especially since I wanted to be able to evaluate Cock’s claim (in the abstract of his paper) that “Dean deserves to be remembered, along with John T. Scopes, as an early hero of the continuing fight for the right to teach evolution in U.S. schools.” In particular, I wanted to see the material on which Cock’s summary of the incident was based, i.e., the memorandum and the articles from the Fort Sumner Leader. In part 3, then, I will retell the history of the forced resignation of F. E. Dean.

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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