I recently received a copy of Theodore Graebner’s Essays on Evolution (1925). A Lutheran theologian who spent the bulk of his career at the Lutheran Synod of Missouri’s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, Graebner (1876–1950) was a prolific author on a number of topics. On the topic of evolution he produced no fewer than three books. In addition to Essays on Evolution he also wrote Evolution: An Investigation and a Criticism (1921)—which, as Ronald Numbers comments in The Creationists (1992), he “erroneously regarded as ‘the first scientific work printed in America against the evolution theory’”—and God and the Cosmos: A Critical Analysis of Atheism (1932). I obtained a copy of Essays on Evolution for the purpose of identifying the source of a misquotation of a letter of Darwin’s, which I’ll discuss in a later post. For now, I want to talk about a fascinating tidbit that I discovered in a footnote of Graebner’s book. (So often the juiciest morsels are hidden in the footnotes!)
Chapter 9 of Essays on Evolution is entitled “How Old Is Man?” Originally printed in Theological Quarterly (a publication of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri) in 1916, it was prompted by a piece of the same title appearing in the February 1916 issue of National Geographic written by no less a figure than former president Theodore Roosevelt. A keen naturalist and a published ornithologist, Roosevelt admired Darwin (whose work he was reading at the precocious age of ten), and he wasn’t shy about telling the world, as Josh Rosenau mentioned here previously. In Roosevelt’s Life-Histories of African Game Animals (coauthored with Edmund Heller, 1914), for example, he credited Darwin with the accomplishment of “convincing practically all men of trained intelligence that the animal world, including man, has developed by evolution, not by an infinity of special creations,” adding, “The law of evolution is as fundamental to our understanding of life as the law of gravitation to our understanding of the inanimate universe.”
In his National Geographic article, Roosevelt was similarly not shy about affirming his acceptance of evolution. The article addressed human prehistory, beginning with the beginning of the Tertiary (now called the Paleogene) period, sixty-six million years ago. With the demise of the (non-avian) dinosaurs, Roosevelt wrote, the mammals “developed along many different lines, including that of the primates, from which came the monkeys and anthropoid apes and finally the half-human predecessors of man himself.” He proceeded through the course of human evolution, relying heavily on his close friend Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Men of the Old Stone Age (1915), which gave “the first full, clear, and critical presentation and interpretation of all that has been discovered and soundly determined since Darwin wrote that one of his masterpieces which especially dealt with man.” Actually, Osborn’s account of human prehistory was idiosyncratic, but his success as a popularizer ensured that his views were influential with the public.
In criticizing Roosevelt’s article, Graebner focused on the assertion that Osborn’s views represent “the unquestioned and unanimous agreement of scholarship,” and accordingly assembled a mass of quotations from and references to scientists with differing views by way of refutation. But, he conceded, “in one point Mr. Roosevelt is in agreement with the consensus of modern theorizers on the antiquity of man: all hold that man is the product of an evolution extending over eons of prehistoric time.” In order to challenge that consensus, he focused on the passage in which Roosevelt wrote that the mammals “developed along many different lines, including that of the primates, from which came the monkeys and anthropoid apes and finally the half-human predecessors of man himself.” In passing, Graebner made heavy weather of Roosevelt’s use of “primate” here, claiming that it implied that monkeys, apes, and humans are not themselves primates, contrary to what was then and what is now standard taxonomical practice.
“Mr. Roosevelt’s employment of the term ‘Primates’ is so very unusual,” Graebner explained, “that we took occasion to make inquiry by letter.” And Roosevelt answered him! Here’s the reply, as contained in Essays on Evolution (and Theological Quarterly):
MY DEAR SIR:—
That sentence seems to me to be clear. At any rate, what I meant was that one of the original mammalian lines was that of the Primates, which originally consisted of low lemuroid forms. From the original stem the monkeys broke off at some date when the anthropoid apes and the predecessors of man were still part of the same stem. Then this second stem divided, the anthropoid apes splitting from the branch which led to the half-human predecessors of man. In other words, I regard these half-human predecessors of man as descendants not from the anthropoid apes, but both as descended from remote ancestors, who had split off from the monkeys; all, of course, tracking back to the early Primates. Of course, the order of Primates includes all of them alike. If you turn to Professor Osborn’s book, you will see the matter gone over in some detail.
The letter was dated May 8, according to Graebner: presumably May 8, 1916. Roosevelt’s response to the inquiry “clears up the reference,” Graebner conceded, although I’m inclined to agree with Roosevelt that the sentence was clear as it stood.
Roosevelt is not the only president to have endorsed evolution, of course. I discussed Woodrow Wilson’s 1922 comment “like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution” at length in part 1 of “Searching for F. E. Dean,” for example, and about the same time I noticed that the geologically trained Herbert Hoover, in a foreword to a volume on America and the New Era (1920), wrote, “After centuries of trial and error, the human race, the survivor of aeons of biological evolution, has developed divers social institutions to meet its needs.” Even the famously laconic Calvin Coolidge, in a letter to his father in 1894, gushed that Darwin was among “those great men that were born in 1809,” describing him as “the great expounder of evolution, a scientist equal to Newton.” (Thanks to Thomas F. Glick’s What about Darwin?  for the quotation.) But I wonder if there are any presidents besides Roosevelt to have conducted a personal correspondence about evolution with a creationist!