The Smithsonian Institution’s 1925 Statement on Evolution

Voices for Evolution

Well, you might have seen it coming. In my post about the National Academy of Sciences’s 1923 statement on evolution, approved but never used, I asked, “And what about the Smithsonian’s statement on evolution?” and answered, “Well, as with the NAS statement, [Ellis] Yochelson provided only a sample page; I haven’t seen the full text. If I find it, perhaps I’ll discuss it in a sequel post here at the Science League of America blog.” Thanks to the efforts of NCSE’s archivist Charles Hargrove and his counterparts at the Smithsonian Institution, the full text of the Smithsonian Institution’s 1925 statement on evolution is now posted (PDF) at NCSE’s website.

To remind you, there were three statements about evolution that were formulated by important national scientific organizations in the Scopes era: the National Academy of Sciences’s, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (published in Science in 1923 and reissued by Science News Service in 1925 amid the publicity surrounding the Scopes trial, and now included in NCSE’s Voices for Evolution), and the Smithsonian’s—which, like the National Academy of Sciences’s, was apparently never widely deployed. According to Michele Aldrich, who prepared Yochelson’s paper posthumously, “We don’t know how often it was used,” but it never appeared in print.

Yochelson attributes the Smithsonian statement to two assistant secretaries of the Smithsonian, Charles G. Abbot and Alexander Wetmore. Abbot was a pioneering astrophysicist who headed the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory before becoming the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary in 1918 and Secretary in 1928 (succeeding Charles Doolittle Walcott); he died at the ripe old age of 101. Alexander Wetmore was a biologist who joined the Smithsonian as the superintendent of the National Zoo in 1924, becoming the Assistant Secretary in 1925 and serving as the Secretary between 1945 and 1952 (succeeding Abbot).

The statement, Yochelson says, was attached to a cover letter addressed to someone named E. A. Blythe—“about whom nothing further is  known,” Aldrich comments, “but Ellis probably would have tried to...research him.” The cover letter (shown in Yochelson’s slide) indicates that Blythe was in Hugo, Oklahoma, and a little judicious Googling reveals that E. A. Blythe, originally from Kentucky, was practicing law in Hugo, Oklahoma, from the 1910s onward. As the assistant prosecutor in Choctaw County in the 1940s, he was involved in prosecuting W. D. Lyons for murder; Lyons was represented by the young Thurgood Marshall, who appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Why Blythe was asking the Smithsonian about evolution is anyone’s guess. But what he received in response was a three-page statement. The first page and a half, more or less, sets the stage: introducing the Smithsonian, declaring its religious neutrality and its devotion to the evidence, and so forth. When the topic turns to evolution, the mood changes, strangely, to the subjunctive: “if an inquirer asked of the probability of the truth of the theory of human evolution, the Institution would undoubtedly reply that the opinions of those best qualified unanimously support that theory, and would accompany such answer with a brief summary of the most telling evidence pointing in that way.”

And what is the most telling evidence? The letter offers eleven points (which are numbered, but are presented in running text, not as a list as below):

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
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