Category Archives: Human Evolution

July 23, 2004 (a Friday)

The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

On this date, the document “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” was published on the relationship between creation, evolution, and Christian faith by the International Theological Commission (ITC) of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, the ITC was headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Although the function of the ITC is to advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Church, and documents of the ITC are not considered expressions of Church teaching, this document does indicate that Christianity and evolution are certainly compatible:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5 – 4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of Homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution. [Emphasis added; from the statement "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002.]

July 21, 1925 (a Tuesday)

Darrow addressing the jury and courtroom spectators.

On this date, the eighth day of the Scopes Monkey Trial began. Before the jury was called to the courtroom, Darrow addressed Judge Raulston, “I think to save time, we will ask the court to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.” This ensured that the defense could appeal the case to a higher court, which might rule the Butler Act unconstitutional. The defense also waived its right to a final address, which, under Tennessee law, deprived the prosecution of a closing statement. This greatly disappointed Bryan, who was unable to deliver a grandiloquent closing speech he had labored over for weeks [archived here].

John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and sentenced to a fine of $100.  After the verdict was read, Scopes delivered his only statement of the trial, declaring his intent “to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom.”  The trial came to an anticlimactic end.

References:

  • John Thomas Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, and Rhea County Court. The world’s most famous court trial: Tennessee evolution case (Cincinnati: National Book Co., 1925).

July 20, 1925 (a Monday)

William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being questioned by Clarence Darrow (standing at right).

On this date in the Scopes Monkey Trial, assistant defense attorney Arthur Hays rose to summon one more witness – William Jennings Bryan – as an expert on the Bible. Malone, another attorney on the defense team, whispered to John Scopes, “Hell is going to pop now.” Calling Bryan was a highly unusual move, but Bryan agreed with some enthusiasm, stipulating only that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. During his examination, Bryan stated his reason for testifying: “These gentlemen…did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.” Judge Raulston, concerned that the crowd massing to watch this clash of legal titans would prove injurious to the courthouse, ordered that the trial reconvene on the adjacent lawn.

Darrow examined Bryan for almost two hours, all but ignoring the specific case against Scopes while doing his best to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. After initially contending that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. “[S]ome of the Bible is given illustratively,” he observed. “For instance: `Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.” Although Bryan believed the story of a big fish swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, and other miracles, he conceded that the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were not literally twenty-four hour days but were probably periods of time lasting many years.

Fundamentalists in the audience listened with increasing discomfort as their champion questioned Biblical “truths,” and Bryan slowly came to realize that he had stepped into a trap. At one point, the frustrated Bryan said, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow asked, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Bryan responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, “Well, sometimes.” It was an embarrassing and bleak moment in what had been Bryan’s brilliant career.

July 19, 1925 (a Sunday)

Rev. Byrd (left) and Rev. Potter (right), with Byrd's children John and Lillian, in front of the parsonage.

On this date, in the midst of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Rev. Howard Gale Byrd resigned as pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church North in Dayton, Tennessee when members of his congregation objected because a visiting minister, Rev. Charles Francis Potter of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, proposed to preach on the topic of evolution. Potter was adviser on the Bible to Clarence Darrow in his defense of John Scopes. He also gave the opening prayer one morning of the trial.

Raised in a pious evangelical Baptist family, Potter was a precocious boy who by the age of three was able to recite entire Bible passages from memory. Potter accepted a Baptist pastorate in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1908 and another in Mattapan, Massachusetts, in 1910. During Potter’s years as a Baptist preacher he began to question many of the orthodox Christian tenets with which he had been raised. He was increasingly influenced by liberal theological ideas, especially the “higher criticism” of the Bible. In 1914 frustration with Baptist church leaders who questioned his theological views led to his resignation from the Baptist ministry and conversion to Unitarianism.

In 1919 Potter was called to be minister of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, where he served from 1920-25. Under Potter’s stimulating leadership the West Side Unitarian Church became a focal point of liberal thought, activity and interpretation of the scriptures. Potter came to national attention in 1923-24 when he participated in a series of radio debates with the formidable fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Rev. John Roach Straton of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan. The debates at Carnegie Hall stirred public interest in the fundamentalist-modernist doctrinal questions that were circulating at the time. They were soon published in four volumes entitled The Battle Over the Bible, Evolution versus Creation, The Virgin Birth—Fact or Fiction?, and Was Christ Both Man and God?

July 17, 1925 (a Friday)

Judge Raulston delivers a ruling.

On this date, Judge John Raulston ruled in the Scopes Monkey Trial that the defense will not be allowed to present expert testimony on evolution or its consistency with Genesis:

This case is now before the court upon a motion by the [prosecution] to exclude from the consideration of the jury certain expert testimony offered by the defendant, the import of such testimony being an effort to explain the origin of man and life. The state insists that such evidence is wholly irrelevant, incompetent and impertinent to the issues pending, and that it should be excluded. Upon the other hand, the defendant insists that this evidence is highly competent and relevant to the issues involved, and should be admitted. . . . In the final analysis this court, after a most earnest and careful consideration, has reached the conclusions that under the provisions of the act involved in this case, it is made unlawful thereby to teach in the public schools of the state of Tennessee the theory that man descended from a lower order of animals. If the court is correct in this, then the evidence of experts would shed no light on the issues. Therefore, the court is content to sustain the motion of the [prosecution] to exclude the expert testimony.

Darrow was livid and accused Raulston of bias. “I do not understand,” said Darrow, “why every suggestion of the prosecution should meet with an endless waste of time, and a bare suggestion of anything that is perfectly competent on our part should be immediately overruled.” Raulston asked Darrow, “I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the court?” Darrow replied, “Well, your honor has the right to hope.” Raulston responded, “I have the right to do something else” and held Darrow in contempt of court. Darrow later apologized for his remark, prompting a big hand from spectators, and Raulston dropped the contempt citation. Darrow and Raulston shook hands.

After expressing concern that the courtroom floor might collapse from the weight of so many spectators, Raulston transferred the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. There, the defense read into the record, for purpose of appellate review, excerpts from the prepared statements of eight scientists and four experts on religion who had been prepared to testify. The statements of the experts were widely reported by the press, helping Darrow succeed in his efforts to turn the trial into a national biology lesson.

July 16, 1925 (a Thursday)

John Thomas Scopes, June, 1925.

On this date, lawyers for both sides in the Scopes Monkey Trial debated the issue of whether the defense should be allowed to present expert witnesses. Mr. Darrow said:

We expect to show that [the Bible] isn’t in conflict with the theory of evolution. We expect to show what evolution is, and the interpretation of the Bible that prevails with men of intelligence who have studied it. [Metcalf] is an evolutionist who has shown amply that he knows his subject and is competent to speak, and we insist that a jury cannot decide this important question which means the final battle ground between science and religion—according to our friend here—without knowing both what evolution is and the interpretation of the story of creation.

The prosecution argued that such testimony was irrelevant to Scopes’ guilt or innocence under the statue. Assistant prosecutor Hicks said:

[W]hy admit these experts? Why admit them? It is not necessary. Why admit them? They invade the province of the jury…If they want to make a school down here in Tennessee to educate our poor ignorant people, let them establish a school out here; let them bring down their experts. The people of Tennesee do not object to that, but we do object to them making a school house or a teachers’ institute out of this court. Such procedure in Tennessee is unknown.

Dudley Field Malone countered for the defense, arguing in a thundering voice that the prosecution’s position was borne of the same ignorance “which made it possible for theologians…to bring Old Galilee to trial.” He concluded by saying:

There is never a duel with the truth. The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it. The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the force of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable, eternal and immortal and needs no human agency to support it. We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America. We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We meet it, where is the fear? We defy it, we ask your honor to admit the evidence as a matter of correct law, as a matter of sound procedure and as a matter of justice to the defense in this case.

It was a powerful speech. Anti-evolution lawmaker John Washington Butler (who authored the statute Scopes was charged with violating) called it “the finest speech of the century.” Members of the press gave Malone a standing ovation and most courtroom spectators joined in the sustained applause.

July 15, 1925 (a Wednesday)

Drugstore owner Fred Robinson and his family with chimp Joe Mendi (second from left) sipping a Coca-Cola.

On this date, the prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial presented its case against the defendant, calling to the stand Rhea County School Superintendent Walter White, two of John Scopes’ students (Howard Morgan and Harry Shelton), and Fred Robinson, who was a drug store owner and head of the school board. When the time came for cross-examination, Darrow went on the offensive. White conceded that the textbook Scopes was accused of using – Hunter’s Civic Biology- was the official biology textbook of the state of Tennessee. The students admitted that learning Darwin’s theory of evolution from their football coach had in no way damaged their faith or their character. Robinson testified that he himself sold copies of the offending textbook in his drugstore where John Scopes had been arrested.

Towards the end of the day, the defense called its first witness, zoology professor Maynard Metcalf, to explain evolution and to prove that even devout Christians accepted evolution; he was not only an evolutionary biologist from Johns Hopkins University but also a Sunday school teacher at his congregational church. The prosecution argued that Metcalf’s scientific testimony was irrelevant, but Judge Raulston had not yet made up his mind so he excused the jurors while Metcalf was initially questioned.

As court ended that day, Bryan handed Darrow a small wooden monkey, a tiny memento of the trial.

July 14, 1925 (a Tuesday)

A trained chimpanzee named Joe Mendi performs for a group of school children outside the home of Mrs. F. Robinson.

On this date, lawyers in the Scopes Monkey Trial argued over whether it is appropriate for Judge Raulston to begin each court session with a prayer. Darrow stated, “I understand from the court himself that he has sometimes opened the court with prayer and sometimes not, and we took no exceptions on the first day, but seeing this is persisted in every session, and the nature of this case being one where it is claimed by the state that there is a conflict between science and religion, above all other cases there should be no part taken outside of the evidence in this case and no attempt by means of prayer or in any other way to influence the deliberation and consideration of the jury of the facts in this case.” Nevertheless, the judge overruled the objection.

An angry Judge Raulston appointed a committee to investigate who leaked to reporters the story that he would not grant the defense’s motion to quash the indictment on constitutional grounds.

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in *The Hornet*, a satirical magazine on 22 March 1871.

Outside the courtroom, two chimpanzees and a strange appearing man who was called “the missing link” were brought today to Dayton and attracted large crowds. One of the chimpanzees — named Joe Mendi — wore a plaid suit, a brown fedora, and white spats, and entertained Dayton’s citizens by monkeying around on the courthouse lawn. Apparently, the stunt was designed to “prove” that it was not man who evolved from the anthropoid, but the anthropoid which devolved from man. Mr. Bryan’s eyes sparkled as he gazed at the chimpanzee. “Wonderful!” he said. “Wonderful!” The so-called missing link was Jo Viens, formerly of Burlington, Vermont where, it was said, he was once mascot for the Burlington Fire Department. He was 51 years old, of short stature with a receding forehead and a protruding jaw like that of a simian, and had a peculiar shuffling walk which was said to be like that of an anthropoid. Mr. Nye asserted he was an example of how men “may go down now even as he [mankind] went down ages ago into the anthropoid.”

July 13, 1925 (a Monday)

The judge (right) and jury.

On this date, the defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial argued that the indictment of John Scopes should be thrown out for violating either the United States or Tennessee constitutions. This was the heart of the defense strategy; the goal was not to obtain the acquittal of Scopes, but to have a higher court – preferably the U.S. Supreme Court – declare laws forbidding the teaching of evolution to be unconstitutional. As expected, Judge Raulston denied the defense motion.

Notably, it was today that Clarence Darrow made the following famous statement during the trial:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

July 10, 1925 (a Friday)

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the trial.

On this date, the famous Scopes Monkey Trial began in Dayton, Tennessee with jury selection in the Rhea County Court House.

On 21 March 1925, Tennessee Governor Austin Peay had signed the Butler Act, making it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.” In May, the American Civil Liberties Union had announced that it was willing to offer its services to any teacher who challenged the constitutionality of the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute.

Local town leaders, realizing that a controversial trial would bring attention to Dayton and that the resulting publicity might thereby economically benefit the town, had recruited a local high school teacher, John Scopes, to stand trial under the Act. The 24-year-old Scopes was in his first job after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1924. He taught algebra and physics, served as athletic coach, and occasionally substituted in biology classes at the Rhea County High School. The indictment identified the date of his teaching evolution as “the 24th day of April.”

Clarence Darrow, known as one of the best lawyers of his era, led the defense while William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President and a populist, led the prosecution. The stage was set for one of the most famous trials in American history. For many Americans, this event marked the beginning of a re-examination of long-held religious beliefs and a growing acceptance of evolution and its implications for the place of humans on the planet.

More photos are available here.

June 13, 1863 (a Saturday)

On this date, “Darwin Among the Machines” appeared as the heading of an article published in The Press newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand. Written by Samuel Butler but signed Cellarius, the article raised the possibility that machines were a kind of “mechanical life” undergoing constant evolution, and that eventually machines might supplant humans as the dominant species:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.

(…)

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

The article ended by urging that “war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race.” This article, along with later writings by Butler on “machine evolution”, was arguably satirical in intent, although he may have been using these fanciful writings to explore some real philosophical issues like the question of whether biological life and evolution can be explained in purely mechanical terms.

An artificial intelligence with attitude.

Butler developed this and subsequent articles into The Book of the Machines, which consisted of three chapters in his novel entitled Erewhon, published anonymously in 1872. The Erewhonian society envisioned by Butler was one that had long ago undergone a revolution in which most mechanical inventions had been destroyed, and the narrator of the story finds a book detailing the reasons for this revolution, which he translates for the reader.

Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by a kind of Darwinian selection. Although many dismissed this as a joke, Butler wrote in the preface to the second edition of Erewhon that he had no intention of satirizing Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin; but I must own that I have myself to thank for the misconception, for I felt sure that my intention would be missed, but preferred not to weaken the chapters by explanation, and knew very well that Mr. Darwin’s theory would take no harm. The only question in my mind was how far I could afford to be misrepresented as laughing at that for which I have the most profound admiration.

As Alan Turing (1951) observed, “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. … At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control, in the way that is mentioned in Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’”. Turing shared Butler’s view that the consequences of such greater-than-human intelligence will be profound, and conceivably dire for humanity as we know it.

References:

May 7, 1925 (a Thursday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, the highly orchestrated arrest (but not detention) of John T. Scopes took place. The Tennessee legislature had earlier passed the Butler Act, which declared:

… that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

As a reaction to this, the American Civil Liberties Union had offered to defend anyone who so dared to teach evolution in Tennessee. Some local business owners in Dayton thought that their town might be able to get some easy publicity if they were able to come up with someone who they could say violated the Butler Act. Scopes had volunteered, and ultimately he was charged with teaching evolution to a high school class.

May 4, 1925 (a Monday)

George Rappleyea in June 1925

On this date, George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at Fred Robinson’s drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map. Listening to Rappalyea, the others – including School Superintendent Walter White – became convinced that publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their town, whose population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890′s to 1,800 in 1925. Thus, the “Robinson’s drugstore conspiracy” to put Dayton, Tennessee on the map was put into motion.

The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore. As Scopes later described the meeting, Rappalyea said, “John, we’ve been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.” Scopes agreed. “That’s right,” he said, pulling a copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology – the state-approved textbook – from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks). “You’ve been teaching ‘em this book?” Rappalyea asked. Scopes replied that while filling in for the regular biology teacher during an illness, he had assigned readings on evolution from the book for review purposes. “Then you’ve been violating the law,” Rappalyea concluded. “Would you be willing to stand for a test case?” he asked. Scopes agreed. He later explained his decision: “The best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.”

May 4, 1825 (a Wednesday)

T. H. Huxley

On this date, the English physician and biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was born in Ealing (then a village in Middlesex).  He received his medical degree from Charing Cross School of Medicine, becoming a physiologist, and was awarded many other honorary degrees. Huxley spent his youth exploring science, especially zoology and anatomy, lecturing on natural history, and writing for scientific publications.

Huxley earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” when he debated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in Oxford in 1860. When Wilberforce asked him which side of his family contained the ape, Huxley famously replied that he would prefer to descend from an ape than a human being who used his intellect “for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into grave scientific discussion.” Thereafter, Huxley devoted his time to the defense of science over religion.

Darwin danced around human evolution in On the Origin of Species in 1859, not addressing the topic until 1871 in The Descent of Man. Yet Huxley wrote about human and primate paleontology in Man’s Place in Nature in 1863. He examined the similarities between humans and apes and noted that greater anatomical differences separate gorillas and chimpanzees from the lower apes than separate gorillas from people. He also mused:

Is [the philosopher or poet] bound to howl and grovel on all fours because . . . he was once an egg, which no ordinary power of discrimination could distinguish from that of a Dog? . . . Is mother-love vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it?

Huxley coined the term “agnostic” (although George Jacob Holyoake also claimed that honor). Huxley defined agnosticism as a method, “the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle . . . the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him.” Huxley elaborated: “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without any other consideration. And negatively, in matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable” (from his essay Agnosticism).  In his Essays on Controversial Questions (1889), he wrote:

Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.

Huxley was president of the Royal Society of London, and was elected to the London School Board in 1870, where he championed a number of common-sense reforms.  His other essays included Agnosticism and Christianity (1889).  Huxley, appropriately, received the Darwin Medal in 1894.

March 22, 1785 (a Tuesday)

Adam Sedgwick

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist Adam Sedgwick was born. He was one of the founders of modern geology. Sedgwick was the first scientist to apply the name Cambrian to the geologic period of time, now dated at 570 to 505 million years ago. Twentieth-century research has uncovered so many excellent fossils in Cambrian sediments, especially the Burgess Shale in Canada, that this geologic period is sometimes referred to as the “Cambrian Explosion.”

Sedgwick attended Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he took holy orders in 1817. In 1818, he became Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, despite the fact that he had no formal training in geology. His lectures at Cambridge were immensely popular; he was a spellbinding lecturer, and – breaking with the traditions of his time – his lectures were open to women, whom Sedgwick thought could make great contributions to natural history. He kept giving his famous lectures until 1871.

After passing his examinations for the Bachelor of Arts degree in January 1831, Charles Darwin began attending Sedgwick’s geology lectures, which he found fascinating. During the summer of 1831, Darwin was Sedwick’s field assistant in north Wales, and Darwin got a “crash course” in field geology from Sedgwick. This was an experience that proved valuable to Darwin over the next five years, on his round-the-world voyage on H.M.S. Beagle. During this voyage, Darwin sent geological specimens and reports to Sedgwick, who wrote approvingly to Darwin’s family:

He is doing admirably in S. America & has already sent home a Collection above all praise. – It was the best thing in the world for him that he went out on the Voyage of Discovery. . .

However, after reading The Origin of Species, Sedgwick candidly wrote to Darwin on November 24, 1859:

If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that. . . I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous– You have deserted– after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth– the true method of induction. . .

Sedgwick was opposed to Charles Lyell’s models of slow, gradual geological change and a more or less steady-state Earth. Instead, he followed Cuvier’s idea of multiple “catastrophes” that had destroyed much of Earth’s life. But Sedgwick did not object to evolution, or “development” as such theories were called then, in the broad sense – to the fact that the life on Earth had changed over time. Nor was he a “young-Earth” creationist – he thought that the Earth must be extremely old. Nevertheless, Sedgwick believed in the Divine creation of life over long periods of time, by “a power I cannot imitate or comprehend — but in which I believe, by a legitimate conclusion of sound reason drawn from the laws of harmonies of nature.” His problem was with the amoral and materialistic nature of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection, which Sedgwick thought was degrading to humanity’s spiritual aspirations. His letter of November 24 went on to state:

This view of nature you have stated admirably; tho’ admitted by all naturalists & denied by no one of common sense. We all admit development as a fact of history; but how came it about? Here, in language, & still more in logic, we are point blank at issue– There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does thro’ final cause, link material to moral. . . You have ignored this link; &, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it–& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.

Despite their differences, the two stayed friends until Sedgwick’s death in 1873.

March 21, 1925 (a Saturday)

On this date, Tennessee Governor Peay signed into law the Butler Act, “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory” in all public schools and universities and making it unlawful in public schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This set the stage for the Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee during the subsequent summer.

The author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, had introduced the bill into the state House of Representatives on January 25, 1925. Ironically, he later was reported to have said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan’s lecture “Is the Bible True?” as well as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided evolution was dangerous. During the trial, Butler told reporters, “I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee.”

February 24, 1871 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published in two volumes. The word “evolution” appeared for the first time in any of his works. This first issue was of 2,500 copies.

February 9, 1619 (a Saturday)

Portrait of Giulio Cesare Vanini, modeled by Ettore Ferrari, for the base of the monument to Giordano Bruno, in Campo dei Fiori square in Rome, Italy. Photo by Giovanni DallOrto.

On this date in Rome under the authority of Pope Clement VIII, the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini, or, as he styled himself in his works, Giulio Cesare, had his tongue cut out and was strangled at the stake; his body then was burned to ashes. Like Giordano Bruno, though considered intellectually inferior to him, he was  part of the movement to break with the dogmas of scholasticism and the authority of Aristotle, and made a courageous contribution to the foundations of a new philosophy.Vanini resembles Bruno, not only in his wandering life and in his death, but also in his unorthodox religious ideas.  What is remarkable about Vanini is that he was the first person to theorize the evolution of mankind — the first since the ancient Greeks of the Miletus School around 800 B.C.E. Anaximander had posited that life began in the sea. Vanini should have gone down in history as a wonderful hero and tribute to human ingenuity, as the man who enlightened two thousand years of ignorance.

Author Lynne Schultz states:

For Vanini, natural law was the divine. He rejected the idea of an immortal soul and was one of the first thinkers to view nature as (an entity) governed by natural laws. He also suggested that humans evolved from apes.

Born in 1585, Vanini studied theology and became an ordained priest. He went on to travel Europe promoting freedom of thought, rationalism, opposition to dogma, and opposition to the Catholic Church. After traveling Europe he returned to Italy, but was forced to flee for his life to avoid the Inquisition and charges of atheism. In an attempt to clear his name and satisfy the authorities he published a book of opposition to atheism in 1615, entitled Amphitheatrum Aeternae Providentiae Divino-Magicum, that ostensibly affirmed his belief in God. This was the first book he had ever published.

Once his name was cleared by this book, however, Vanini published another book in 1616, entitled De admirandis naturae reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis (Of the marvelous secrets of the queen and goddess of the mortal ones, nature), that made it clear his first book was a parody of religious belief and was not really reflective of his true views. This second book, which held that divinity could not be rationally conceived outside of Nature, triggered his condemnation and savage execution in Toulouse at age 34, just 19 years after Bruno’s martyrdom.

Vanini displayed incredible courage to the end — he pushed back a priest assisting the torturer and exclaimed “I’ll die as a philosopher!” Described as a charismatic man with verve, irreverence, and charm, who “collected patrons like flies around honey,” many mourned his death.

References:

  • Richard Corfield, Architects of Eternity: The New Science of Fossils (London, UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).

February 6, 1913 (a Thursday)

Laetoli Site (Feb 2006)

On this date, the English archaeologist and paleoanthropologist Mary Douglas Leakey was born. She made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach. After Louis’ death in 1972, she enjoyed her most spectacular find: three trails of fossilised hominid footprints 3.6 million years old, which she discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania (1978-9). They incontrovertibly demonstrated that ancestors of Homo sapiens were walking upright at a much earlier period than previously believed.

February 4, 1893 (a Saturday)

Raymond Dart with the Taung skull.

On this date, the South African physical anthropologist and paleontologist Raymond Arthur Dart was born in Australia. His discoveries of fossil hominins led to significant insights into the evolutionary origins of human beings.

In 1924, working with students in the Taung limestone works in Bechuanaland, Dart was rewarded with a most interesting find. It seemed at first to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. He recognized it as the remains of a transitional form in the evolution from ape to man. Dart had found the “Taung child”, only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus, “australis” meaning south and “pithecus” meaning ape. At a time when Asia was believed to have been the cradle of mankind, Dart’s discovery substantiated Charles Darwin’s prediction that such ancestral hominin forms would be found in Africa.

Dart’s claim that a creature with an ape-sized brain could have dental and postural characteristics approaching those of humans initially met with hostile skepticism because his theory entailed the principle of mosaic evolution, or the development of some characteristics in advance of others. His claim also differed sharply from the mosaicist position of Elliot Smith, who held that hominization began with an enlarged cranial capacity. Nevertheless, Dart lived to see his theories corroborated by further discoveries of Australopithecus remains at Makapansgat in South Africa in the late 1940s and by the subsequent discoveries of Louis Leakey, which firmly established Africa as the site of mankind’s earliest origins.

February 3, 1925 (a Tuesday)

First fossil skull of Australopithecus.

On this date, a report of a fossil closely related to humans, found by Raymond Dart in 1924, was published in a newspaper. The Star of Johannesburg, South Africa announced the find, instead of the professional journal Nature, when the editors of the journal changed their mind. With his students, Dart had made the discovery in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley of Bechuanaland. When an endocranial cast was found, at first it seemed to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. He had discovered the remains of what came to be known informally as the “Taung child“, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus,” australis” meaning south and “pithecus” meaning ape. His theory is now generally accepted, but was originally very controversial.

January 28, 1858 (a Thursday)

Eugene Dubois

On this date, the Dutch surgeon, anthropologist, anatomist, and paleontologist Eugene Dubois was born. Dubois vowed to prove Darwin right by finding “the missing link”, the evolutionary connection between apes and modern humans. In October of 1891, while digging into fossil-rich ash and river sediments on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, he found skeletal remains of what he later named Pithecanthropus erectus. The name meant “ape-human which stood upright.” Now known as Homo erectus or informally as “Java Man”, it is considered to be the direct ancestor of modern humans. Dubois was the first person to ever deliberately search for fossils of human ancestors. Only a handful of fossil humans had already been discovered, all Neandertals, and those were by chance.

The Homo erectus skullcap (Trinil 2, holotype) discovered by Dubois.

Early African Homo erectus fossils (sometimes called Homo ergaster) are the oldest known early humans to have possessed modern human-like body proportions with relatively elongated legs and shorter arms compared to the size of the torso. These features are considered adaptations to a life lived on the ground, indicating the loss of earlier tree-climbing adaptations, with the ability to walk and possibly run long distances.

The most complete fossil individual of this species is known as the “Turkana Boy” — a well-preserved skeleton (though minus almost all the hand and foot bones), dated around 1.6 million years old. Microscopic study of the teeth indicates that he grew up at a growth rate similar to that of a great ape. There is fossil evidence that this species cared for old and weak individuals. The appearance of Homo erectus in the fossil record is often associated with the earliest handaxes, the first major innovation in stone tool technology.

Generally considered to have been the first species to have expanded beyond Africa, Homo erectus is considered a highly variable species, spread over two continents (it’s not certain whether it reached Europe), and possibly the longest lived early human species — about nine times as long as our own species, Homo sapiens, has been around.

January 18, 1823 (a Saturday)

William Buckland

William Buckland

William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and an ordained priest in the Church of England, had been contacted by the Talbot family of Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, England, who had reported finding “bones of elephants” on 27 December 1822. Descending into Paviland Cave (or Goat’s Hole Cave) on today’s date, Buckland discovered one of the best-known prehistoric burials in Britain – the notoriously misnamed “Red Lady of Paviland.”

In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender and age of the skeleton had changed with a new and better, but still erroneous, story.

Found at Paviland

Buckland, a devout Christian, believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. He believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and ivory jewelry. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate that the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch. He later wrote in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood):

[I found the skeleton] enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle…which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12mm] around the surface of the bones… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods…[also]…some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.

The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21, who lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP). It remains the first human fossil found and identified soon after its discovery and the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom.

Buckland is also famous for being the first person to discover, name, and scientifically describe a fossilized creature that came to be recognized as what Richard Owen was to call a dinosaur. Buckland’s name for the animal was Megalosaurus, Greek for “great lizard”. Though he was not the first person to find a Megalosaurus bone (Robert Plot discovered a fossilized femur of one as far back as 1676), Buckland was the first to realize that these fossils belonged to an unknown class of huge reptiles. According to his calculations, the animal must have exceeded forty feet in length and weighed as much as a large elephant. Some people think his 1824 paper to the Geological Society of London (“Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield”) inaugurated the modern study of dinosaurs.

Buckland’s interest in dinosaur remains included more than bones. He also carried out a large amount of research into fossilized dinosaur feces. At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 6 February 1829, Buckland described them and introduced the term coprolites (from the Greek words “kopros”, meaning dung, and “lithos”, meaning stone). His paper, “On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, states that they have “undergone no process of rolling, but retain their natural form, as if they had fallen from the animal into soft mud, and there been preserved,” later comparing them to “oblong pebbles or kidney-potatoes.”

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

Interestingly, Buckland was very eccentric. He caused such a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles that The Times of London felt he should restrain his enthusiasm “in the presence of ladies”. He always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals. Monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig).

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist — an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did — from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham, and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (there had been a fire at the London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles.

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him “martyr’s blood” dripping from the rafters — Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it.

Buckland’s eccentricities earned him a famous description by Charles Darwin, who wrote: “though very good-humoured and good-natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science.”

References:

December 23, 1924 (a Tuesday)

First fossil skull of Australopithecus.

On this date, Raymond Dart completed his work removing the first fossil skull of Australopithecus from its matrix of rock. Being one of the “missing links” in man’s evolution, Dart had taken exquisite care during 73 days to separate skull and stone, at work in his laboratory in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dart with his students made the find in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley of Bechuanaland. When an endocranial cast was found, at first it seemed to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. Dart had discovered the Taung child, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus. (Australis means “south” and pithecus means “ape”).

December 19, 1944 (a Tuesday)

Richard E. Leakey

On this date, the Kenyan physical anthropologist and paleontologist Richard E. Leakey was born. Leakey, second of three sons of noted anthropologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, decided at an early age that he wanted nothing to do with paleoanthropology and started a expedition business. In 1964, he led an expedition to a fossil site which sparked his interest in paleontology. Since then he has been responsible for extensive fossil finds of human ancestral forms in East Africa, including a Homo habilis skull found in 1972, and a Homo erectus skull found in 1975. His discoveries showed that man’s ancestors used tools, which shows intelligence, and lived in eastern Africa at least 3 million years ago – almost doubling the previously accepted age of human origins.