Discussing Darwin in In His Image (1922), the published version of his 1921 Sprunt Lectures at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, William Jennings Bryan complained, “His works are full of words indicating uncertainty. The phrase ‘we may well suppose,’ occurs over eight hundred times in his two principal works”—presumably the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man. Bryan’s estimate was in error, however. Searching Darwin Online for the phrase “we may well suppose” yields three hits, two of which are to a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Lyell—Darwin Online isn’t limited to Darwin!—and one of which is to Darwin’s “Observations on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy” (1839). There, in a footnote, Darwin quotes a personal communication from Lyell about a certain fossil bed in Norway, ending, “we may well suppose the percolation of water during antecedent ages of indefinite extent to have destroyed all signs of fossils in the more ancient and elevated patches of loam found more than 500 feet high in the adjacent hilly country.” Darwin himself seems never to have used the phrase in his own voice, at least in print.
Of course, that’s not to deny that Darwin’s works contain words indicating uncertainty. “Suppose” appears on fifty-one pages of the first edition of the Origin and on thirty-four pages of the first edition of the Descent, for example, while “perhaps” appears on seventy and ninety-five pages, respectively, while “imagine” appears on only five pages of each book. (If you want to see for yourself, use the Advanced search feature on Darwin Online, inserting the word in which you’re interested in the Full Text box and the identifier F373 for the first edition of Origin or F937 for the first edition of the Descent, both volumes, before you press Search.) The proper response to these facts is to shrug. As a reviewer of In His Image observed in The Christian Advocate, “Because Darwin and other scientific men, in the truly scientific spirit, recognize their beliefs as only more or less probable, and claim for them no absolute certitude, Mr. Bryan considers that their opinions are of no consequence at all.” He might have added that if Darwin had claimed certainty, then Bryan would have accused him of dogmatism—it’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy that, however cheap, is still prevalent among creationists today.
I’m interested, though, in the origin of the claim that “we may well suppose” occurs eight hundred times in Darwin’s two principal works. Bryan, uncharacteristically, offers a source: “(See Herald & Presbyter, November 22, 1914.)” But don’t dash off to your local library to demand the 1914 volume of the Herald and Presbyter, because the citation is wrong: you want the 1911 volume—I suspect a scribal error mistaking a one for a four. I can be confident here, because “Evolutionism in the Pulpit,” which appeared in The Fundamentals (1910–1915) but was originally published in the November 22, 1911, issue of the Herald and Presbyter, contains the sentence “Even when allowance is made for the well-known eagerness of many scientists to do away with all dualism, which was Mr. Darwin’s aim, it was still remarkable that men of trained intellect should have so promptly accepted at face value his two principal works, in which the expression, ‘we may well suppose,’ occurs over eight hundred times, as a basis for the argument.” And indeed, it seems to be the original source of the claim; at least I have not been able to find any earlier source for any such claim.
Who was the claimant? Well, golly, it’s funny that you should ask. If you look at the names of the authors of the ninety articles collected in The Fundamentals, only one is not a proper name (in every sense of the term): “An Occupant of the Pew,” the author of “Evolutionism in the Pulpit,” otherwise identified only by the editors only as “a Christian layman.” The only historian who seems to have ventured a guess about the identity of the Occupant is David N. Livingstone who, in his Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (1987), suggests that it may have been Frank (or Frank Emmet, or F. E.) Allen (1884–1977), a Reformed Presbyterian minister in Winnipeg and the author of Evolution in the Balances (1926). Livingstone’s guess is apparently based on nothing more than the fact that Evolution in the Balances reprinted the author’s essays on evolution from various publications, which included the Herald and Presbyter. Ronald L. Numbers in The Creationists (1992) and Michael Lienesch in In the Beginning (2007) repeat Livingstone’s suggestion, albeit without any indication that they investigated for themselves. Having investigated for myself, I’m dubious. To learn why, you’ll have to wait for part 2.
Photograph: Ammodramus via Wikimedia Commons.