Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/Evolution as Taught in a Theological Seminary

Popular Science Monthly Volume 35 October 1889  (1889) 
Evolution as Taught in a Theological Seminary by Rollo Ogden



AT the time of the last hearing of the case of Prof. Woodrow before the General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church, at Baltimore, many of the Johns Hopkins students embraced the opportunity of a lifetime to listen to the expositions of the doctrine of evolution made by so many of the divines of that gathering. It is said that inextinguishable laughter was excited among these young men by their learning how greatly their incompetent professors had misled them as to what evolution really was and meant. It is not often that a theologian can stop to afford such enlightenment to the inquirer in science; and, when he does, it is an obvious duty for one finding such priceless light hidden under a bushel to discover it to the world.

The bushel, in the case in hand, is the two volumes of "Dogmatic Theology," recently published by Prof. Shedd, of Union Theological Seminary, embodying the lectures which he gives in that institution; and the little candle which would surely cast its beams far in this naughty world if really given a chance to shine, is the exposition and annihilation of the doctrine of evolution as given in the chapter on "Creation," vol. i, pp. 499-515. The professor opens the discussion by admitting that there is a "true evolution." This whets curiosity, until it is explained to be the individual development of an organism from its embryo. This being the only "true" evolution, all other kinds are, of course, false, and accordingly are labeled forthwith "pseudo-evolution," under the burden of which eminently calm and philosophical epithet they have to stagger all through the subsequent pages. A better name, however, could not be devised to fit that caricature of the theory which Dr. Shedd sets himself to explain before refuting. It is probably unwitting caricature; the professor is an unconscious humorist. It is, at any rate, charitable to suppose that he jumbles up several different theories into one through ignorance. It would be hard to excuse, on any other ground, his identifying the views of Darwin with those of Spencer and Haeckel. Chauncey Wright long ago pointed out the great differences between these writers. Whatever may be thought of the general theorizings of the last two, it is clear that their method is not the patiently inductive one of Darwin. They are wide-ranging philosophers and rigid systematizers. Darwin was the most matter-of-fact and plodding naturalist, who dreaded of all things getting his feet off the earth. He felt himself lost once out of sight of facts. His books furnish the best examples of careful induction the world has seen, and it is, of course, for that reason that they have had such immense influence, and that he gave an indestructible life to that cautious working theory of evolution which is to-day the presupposition of all the best work in natural science.

But Prof. Shedd leaves all this out of the account, and knows of no evolution which does not mean the change of a mineral into a vegetable, and of a vegetable into an animal. "Evolution," he says, "is not a mere change of form but of matter." It is true he recurs frequently to Darwin and his specific views, but you can never be sure that he will not fly off to his favorite Haeckel even when apparently farthest from him. This process of mixing up distinct things makes it easy for a disputant, when persecuted in one city, to flee into another, but does not much help one who is after the facts.

This confusion can be forgiven, however, for the sake of the doctor's great lucidity when he comes to state the objections to evolution. Here you always know what he means. We can not follow him all through his enumeration of the difficulties which the theory has to encounter, but will allude to those which are the most novel. The first gun he fires off is formidable enough: "The first objection to the theory of pseudo-evolution is that it is contradicted by the whole course of scientific observation and experiment. It is a theory in the face of facts." That is certainly a serious objection, and one wonders that it had never occurred to any of the scientists who have looked into this matter. It is but another instance of the value of a new point of view. In fact, the thing appears to be mostly intuitive with Prof. Shedd (and, of course, for that reason all the more certain; he stands by the intuitive philosophy), for he advances slight evidence for the statement we have quoted; the gist of what he says being that he never heard of a pigeon being developed out of a cabbage or a piece of quartz, nor of its developing, on the other hand, into a horse. It would be a brazen theory that could hold up its head after such an objection, but the professor seems to fear that evolution needs to be slain at least twice, and so he fires a second fatal shot: "This objection is proved to be true by the failure of the theory to obtain general currency." He means Darwinism now, for all the testimony which he cites bears on that theory. Agassiz is his main tower of strength. The views of a man who died sixteen years ago may be thought to have little to do with what is now "general currency," but that is nothing beside the witness of Haeckel himself. Out of its own mouth Dr. Shedd will judge evolution. He cites a passage from "Creation" in which the German rails at the French for not accepting Darwinism, and says that even among his own countrymen are to be found many doubters. It is scarcely worth mentioning that this book was written twenty-one years ago, only nine years after the appearance of the "Origin of Species," for it is one of Prof. Shedd's first principles that a proof-text is a proof-text, no matter where you find it. Besides, it is exposition, not comment, that we are at just now.

"If the doctrine be true, it should be supported like that of gravitation by a multitude of undisputed facts and phenomena." The implication is that it is not so supported, and that is pretty tough on the libraries full of books like Müller's "Facts for Darwin." Prof. Shedd takes it very unkindly of Darwin that he never exactly defined a species. Considering that that is one of the things that Darwin said he was perfectly unable to do, and that this very fact led him to believe that there was something mighty queer about species anyhow, it does seem rather hard to bring it up against him now. "Evolution," adds the professor, "conflicts with the certainty of natural science." If it is true, it is the introduction of chance into nature. Anything may happen from anything. This is clear, for the evolutionists themselves say that "variations are accidental." Poor Darwin! after all his pains and endless iteration, there it goes—"accidental." One of the most tiresome things in his books is his constant crying out, "Now, mind you, when I say accidental, I mean according to laws that are not yet discovered." But, after all, here is an order of mind for which he ought to have said it twice as many times.

The embryological argument for evolution attains the high honor of being admitted to be "plausible"; but it is immediately and severely added that this is just the place to apply the maxim, "Judge not by the outward appearance." Naturally, Prof. Shedd is strong on design: "The abundant proof of design in nature overthrows the theory of evolution. This design is executed even in an extreme manner. The mammæ on man's breast and the web-feet of the upland goose show that the plan of structure is carried out with persistence even when in particular circumstances there is no use for the organ itself." If that is hyperborean science, it is dangerously near Hibernian logic, and ought to be called the argument from the usefulness of useless things.

But it is really impossible to keep up the pretense of taking Prof. Shedd's arguments against evolution seriously. Even one who has read in the subject as little as the writer has can not but see that this theologian, in attempting to refute the arguments of the evolutionists, does not know what those arguments are. Take one sentence of his: "If evolution be true, man may evolve into ape as well as ape into man." It would not be possible to construct a single sentence containing a more complete misapprehenion of evolutionary doctrine. Evolution does not assert, it denies that ape evolves into man. Evolution undertakes to show why it is perfectly impossible that man should ever evolve into ape. Prof. Shedd ought to know this, or, if he does not, he ought to refrain from attacking what he does not understand. There is a misprint in one of his pages which is highly significant. He speaks of Darwin's work on "insectivorous animals"! A misprint, of course, yet how characteristically a sign that the author was moving about in a world not realized when he wrote those pages! A scientist reading proof, with a spark of vitality left in him, could no more have passed over that blunder than Prof. Shedd could have passed over a careless expression which might have implied that he believed the mercy of God was of equal rank with his justice. In one case as in the other the thing would have seemed so horrible a mistake that instinct without intellect would have prevented its finally getting printed.

The worst of it is that there is no reason whatever to suspect Dr. Shedd's perfect honesty in all this. When he says that evolution has failed to obtain general currency, he undoubtedly believes it. Evidence to the contrary he either has not read or has not weighed. If he were to see what Romanes says in his latest book, and says wholly in passing, wholly as a matter of course, that there is not living a naturalist of note who is not an evolutionist, he would probably be greatly surprised. If he were to read the evidence gathered a few years ago by the "Independent," and recently by the "Christian Union," going to show that evolution underlies the scientific teaching of all our leading colleges, he would probably be greatly alarmed. I repeat that Prof. Shedd is undoubtedly entirely honest in his ignorance; and I say that that is the worst of it, because it lends the influence of his high character and great learning and unusual ability to the spread of erroneous and disastrous beliefs.

Narrowly considered, it is in reality a conspicuous and crowning testimony to the place which evolution has taken in the thought of the world, that Prof. Shedd should have, at last, taken up the cudgels against it. It is like exerting influence back into the seventeenth century. It is a doctrine of the nineteenth century, making such a din, cutting up so much of the inherited theology by the roots, that Turretin looks out uneasily from his grave to see what the row is all about. Such a remark is in the line of what the professor considers the highest compliment. He prefers to be known as scholastic. A student who listened to a year's lectures from him, a decade ago, reported that but two books written in this century were referred to—and, as one of these was Hodge's "Theology," that, as the student admitted, reduced the number to one. The writer heard the late President Sturtevant, of Illinois College, narrate an experience of his own with Prof. Shedd, which, as the story was told in general company, may be referred to without any violation of confidence. It was many years ago that he and Prof. Shedd went in company from Andover to Boston, each intending to preach in a Boston pulpit on the following Sunday. They returned on the same train, Monday morning.

"I don't know how it was with you, professor," said President Sturtevant, "but, for myself, I certainly felt like laying unusual stress on evangelical doctrine yesterday, preaching in Boston where so many loose theories are afloat." And Prof, Shedd replied: "I really don't know anything about that. I never read books of that class. All these infidel arguments were so much better put by the writers of the seventeenth century." To have pierced through such an armor is a great achievement, and the counterattack of the professor is in reality, as has been said, a supreme proof of the immense influence now gained by evolutionary doctrine—a sort of rueful cry, "Thou hast conquered, O Evolution!"

Such complete failure to understand the great contribution to knowledge and speculation made by the theory of evolution can not but have a most deplorable influence when found in one occupying so prominent a chair of instruction in so prominent an institution. A fair proportion of Prof. Shedd's students come from colleges where they have been taught to regard evolution as one of the settled things. They must come out from their lectures in Union Seminary either dazed or indignant. Others, of course, who have either taken a short cut to the ministry, or have had their only education in some ecclesiastically controlled school where they have met no competent teacher of natural science, take in all that they are told on this, as on other subjects, and go out to swell the number of ministers who know nothing of the revolution wrought in human thought in the past thirty years. They are the men who do all they can (of course unwittingly) to make Christian belief an impossibility to a large class of intelligent and educated, young men. One of that class came to his pastor, not long ago, and said: "I was at the meeting of the Benighted Presbytery last week, and they were talking about evolution as a very dangerous thing, and finally passed a resolution condemning it. I thought that everybody accepted evolution." That young Presbyterian was a graduate of Harvard, and learned of Prof. Gray (who, by the way, is a Balaam whom Prof. Shedd in delightful innocence summons to curse evolution) to reconcile evolution with theistic and even Christian belief, and was not unnaturally surprised at running up against a chunk of the last century.

It would be wholly unfair to give the impression that such treatment of evolution as Prof. Shedd's is the regular thing in our theological seminaries. In a few of them there is a frank acceptance of the main positions of evolutionary teaching; in many of them there is a growing care not to antagonize evolution as flatly as was once customary, and to lay down theological propositions which would not be entirely swept away if it should turn out that evolution should finally have to be admitted to be established. Archbishop Whately used to say that the attitude of the clergy to new scientific doctrines was marked by three definite stages: "At first they say, 'It is ridiculous'; then they affirm, 'It is contradicted by the Bible'; at last they declare, 'We always believed it.'" All these stages are represented in the teaching of the seminaries—to which one Union should be assigned may be inferred from what has gone before. It will certainly not be Prof. Shedd's fault if the institution which he serves does not prove to be the one to come to mind as the best illustration of Horace Bushnell's remark: "Some theological seminaries are not only behind the age, but behind all ages."