Who Was the Occupant? Part 3

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

Still under discussion is the origin of the claim that “we may well suppose” occurs eight hundred times in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. As noted in part 1, 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). But, as I argued in part 2, the identification seems dubious: Allen was a minister, while the Occupant was supposed to be a member of the laity; there’s no apparent reason that Allen wouldn’t have taken credit for the essay; the Occupant’s prose is overwrought, flowery, and allusive while Allen’s prose is generally straightforward and uncomplicated; and while the Occupant labors the idea that evolution is a theory in crisis and abuses the usual quotations to show so, Allen avoids the idea and is reasonably responsible in his use of quotations. Who, then, was the Occupant? Two observations might provide a clue.

The first observation is about the main source of “Evolutionism in the Pulpit,” which turns out to be part II of A. C. Dixon’s essay “Destructive Criticism vs. Christianity: An Expose of Fosterism,” which appeared in Christian Faith and Life in 1910. Dixon (1854–1925), a Baptist pastor in Chicago, was attacking the views of George Burman Foster (1858–1919), a fellow Baptist in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Although Dixon and Foster were both Baptists, they were on opposite sides of the fundamentalism/modernism controversy. In his critique of Foster, Dixon cites as scientists who reject evolution the same figures that the Occupant cites—Rudolf Virchow, Robert Etheridge, Nathaniel Shaler, Lionel Beale, Albert Fleischmann, Ernst Haeckel—in more or less the same order. That of itself wouldn’t clinch Dixon’s essay as influencing the Occupant, since plenty of early antievolutionist authors, like Luther Tracy Townsend, cite the same figures. But Dixon also mentions “a scholarly man, who lives in Geneva,” who described Haeckel’s reaffirmation of his views as “the note of the dying swan”; the Occupant repeats the “dying swan” description and offers Dixon as his authority for it.

The second observation is about the phrase “we may well suppose” in particular. There is one antievolutionist author who was especially fond of accusing evolutionists of overemploying such phrases: the eminent Canadian geologist John William Dawson (1820–1899), arguably one of the last great naturalists to reject evolution. In 1880, Dawson complained of a book by Haeckel that it used such phrases (though not “we may well suppose” specifically) by way of sleight-of-hand. Even better, in his Modern Ideas of Evolution as Related to Revelation and Science (1890), Dawson complained of books by Alfred Russel Wallace and George Romanes “that both take for granted what should be proved; in other words, reason constantly in a narrow circle, and constantly use such formulae as ‘we may well suppose,’ instead of argument.” Summarizing a hypothesis of Wallace’s about the evolution of the bird genus Cinclus by way of example, he adds, “the sole proof of this is the expression, ‘we may well suppose.’” The same passage, complaining in the same way of the same books by Wallace and Romanes, appeared in the article on evolution, written by Dawson, in the Universal Cyclopaedia and Atlas (1908).

So whoever the Occupant was, he probably read Dawson, and he certainly had Dixon’s essay at hand while he was writing “Evolutionism in the Pulpit.” Beyond that, I have to admit that I just don’t know. Looking for prior uses of distinctive phrases is often a fruitful strategy, and there are plenty of distinctive phrases in “Evolutionism in the Pulpit,” but it wasn’t successful in the present case. The same clues that suggested that Allen was not the Occupant reveal a little about the Occupant, I think, but not enough to point toward any particular figure. If the editorial files of the Herald and Presbyter survive, they might contain a name, or even a clue. So might the papers of R. A. Torrey, who was the editor of the volume of The Fundamentals in which “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” appeared and who might have learned of the identity of the Occupant from the staff of the Herald and Presbyter when (or if) he discussed the possibility of reprinting the essay. Or there might be a reference identifying the Occupant somewhere that I haven’t thought to look or that is relatively inaccessible, like uncatalogued archives or family papers. But for now, the identity of the Occupant remains a mystery.

Photograph: Ammodramus via Wikimedia Commons.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.