Who Was the Occupant? Part 2

Pew in Little Church, in Keystone, Nebraska. Photograph: Ammodramus via Wikimedia Commons.

Under discussion is the origin of the claim that “we may well suppose” occurs eight hundred times in Darwin’s two principal works, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. As I noted in part 1, the claim is bogus: in fact, the phrase appears only once in all of Darwin’s published works, and even then he’s quoting Charles Lyell. And it’s plainly bogus: the phrase would have to appear about twice every three pages for the claim to be true, which would make it a conspicuous verbal tic. Widely repeated, including by William Jennings Bryan, the claim seems to have originated with “Evolutionism in the Pulpit,” by the pseudonymous “An Occupant of the Pew,” originally published in the November 22, 1911, issue of the Herald and Presbyter and subsequently republished in The Fundamentals. David N. Livingstone, in his Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (1987), suggests that the Occupant may have been Frank (or Frank Emmet, or F. E.) Allen (1884–1977), the author of Evolution in the Balances (1926): he based his judgment on “the content of the material and its original place of publication” of the book, which reprinted the author’s essays from various publications, including the Herald and Presbyter. But I’m dubious.

The biographical facts suggest two obstacles—neither decisive but both suggestive—to Livingstone’s identification of the Occupant. The first is that Allen was ordained and installed as a pastor (in Lake Reno, Minnesota) on April 28, 1911, so he was not a Christian layman (as The Fundamentals describe him) when “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” was originally published. But of course he might have submitted it to the Herald and Presbyter before his ordination, or the editors of the Herald and Presbyter might have erred, or he might have misrepresented his status for effect—after all, the point of the essay is to complain that ministers who accept evolution are setting a bad example for their flocks. The second is that if Allen wrote “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” in 1911, it would be odd for him not to take credit for it when it was selected for republication in The Fundamentals, especially when his publisher could have boasted about it to promote his 1926 book. It is not as though he turned his back on his antievolutionism, which was routinely mentioned in his obituaries. But of course there might have been something about the 1911 essay, which was published when he was only twenty-seven, that he decided was unworthy.

A comparison of “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” and Evolution in the Balances also suggests that Allen wasn’t the Occupant. The language of the former is overwrought, flowery, and allusive. Here’s a representative sentence: “Among the surprises that await the layman who would inform himself on this subject is the fact that much that was advanced by the leaders, including Mr. Darwin himself, in [s]upport of the evolutionary hypothesis was merely tentative: It was only the smaller fry, the minnows and gudgeons, that were cocksure of its truth, and who gorged the unwholesome food.” (The business about “minnows and gudgeons” quotes the poem “The Progress of Errour” [sic] by William Cowper [1731–1800], remembered for the phrase “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform.”) The language of the latter is generally straightforward, except in the last chapter, where Allen perorates about the importance of Jesus and the Bible. Here’s a representative sentence from the introduction: “Even though the acceptance of the theory of evolution is so general, there have never been lacking scientists who accept it, except as considered from the standpoint of development with a given species or family.”

The content of the two also suggests that the Occupant and Allen are not the same. The overall message of “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” is that “on the testimony of the great majority of the ablest of its one-time leading advocates, the evolutionary theory is in articulo mortis” (i.e., at the point of death). The usual suspects—Rudolf Virchow, Robert Etheridge, Nathaniel Shaler, Lionel Beale, Albert Fleischmann, Ernst Haeckel—are cited, although (as is familiar) the citations are often out-of-date, dubious, or irrelevant. Remarkably, Evolution in the Balances cites none of these figures in arguing that evolution is teetering on the brink; overall Allen is relatively responsible in his use of quotations from scientists. (And he is silent about Darwin’s supposed obsessive use of the phrase “we may well suppose”!) Instead, acknowledging that evolution enjoys a wide acceptance among scientists, he tries to explain the fact away in terms of “the hypnotizing effect of a theory.” Of course, Allen’s style and approach might have changed over fifteen years, but it seems unlikely. So who was the Occupant? That is a question that will be addressed—but not answered—in part 3

Photograph: Ammodramus via Wikimedia Commons.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.