Minnesota on the Death of Darwin: “If one such man arises in a century, that century is fortunate.”


Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

There’s a certain charm about small-town newspapers. In the case of those early publications – long before radio, television, the Internet – this was where a community got its news, entertainment, and gossip. This was Facebook. As an archival historian, let me tell you: there’s always something waiting to be discovered. So, after realizing that April 18 marked the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s death, I thought I’d do a quick Digital Archive search to see how Minnesotans responded.

But, first, I’d like to share something published three months earlier, on January 18, 1882. Now, for those unfamiliar with the evolution-creationism debate, the Nye-Ham debacle was their first exposure to the creationist movement. Far from being a contemporary phenomenon, though, that kind of nonsense proliferated before the ink on The Origin of Species was dry. Fortunately, then as now, there was always someone available to mock the church – before there was PZ Myers there was the small-town editor doing newspaper-vaudeville. One example of this comes from the New Ulm Weekly Review, which published the text of a “sermon” by the fictional Reverence Plato Johnson.

(Now, if you think modern newspapers are radical for even acknowledging evolution exists, understand that articles like this were standard fair – the religious and wealthy being common targets in the Midwest).

Bruddern de drouble wid some folks is dat dere brains is too large. I don’t ‘tend to be pussonal, an’ has no reference whatever to any man in dis ‘sembly; but dere is people in this worl’ who has ‘pression dat dey oughter have created de Lord, an’ dat it was a act of condescenshun on dere parts dat they ‘lowed de Lord to create dem at all …

It’s no wonder this was the land that produced Sinclair Lewis.

Dis Darwin says dat a man is de gran’son ob a monkey, and dat the Bible ain’t go the truff ob de matter at all. You’se all the chillen of baboons, my belubbed. Wat you tink ob dat? How you like your ancestors? In de beginnin’ every one ob you had a long tail – dat was long ‘for you wore trousers – an some ob you got your tails twisted off, an’ some ob you was ‘shamed ob ’em, an’ rubbed ’em off against de trees; an’ at lass de tails got so disgusted dat dey refused to grow. Dat’s what you are, an’ dat’s whar you cum from. Now, den, my idea is dat ebery man oughter speak for himself on dis subjec’. Ef Mr. Darwin was born up in a tree while his mother was stealin’ cocoanuts, it don’t follow that my mudder was up anoder tree doin’ the same tin. Darwin is dead shore dat his ancestors were apes, an’ he oughter know. I ain’t goin’ to contradict it. Ebbery man must look after his own family. As for me, I’se a Bible Christian, an’ was made out ob de dust, an’ don’t take no stock in the monkeys. … De fust chapter ob Gensis am good ’nuff for me, belubbed. Pass de box.

Do you know what’s wrong with people? Their brains are too large! They say we evolved from monkeys? How ignoble! We came from dirt! Now pass the collection plate.

Three months later, when Darwin died from illness, the Library of Congress’ archives reveal a wide spread. Across Minnesota most newspapers reported Darwin’s death, acknowledging his celebrity, and occasionally editorializing that “his theories remain unproven.” Others mourned him alongside two other major nineteenth-century figures who passed around the same time: “Three illustrious men in the realm of poetry, learning and philosophy have recently died, within a few weeks of each other, namely: Longfellow, Darwin, Emerson.” (That same issue also printed the bewildered comments of a reverend from the New York Evangelical Alliance: Evolution “excludes God; it excludes intelligence from everything.”)

At least one newspaper got it right, though, when it published the following letter:

The week past is memorable for the death of a man who has not left his equal behind. It is to the honor of our age that it has proved that nature has not yet lost the power to produce those rare men, not born in every generation, who by their genius change the thought of the world. Charles Darwin was not simply the most distinguished naturalist and philosopher of his age; he was a man who ranks by the side of Copernicus, in astronomy, and Newton, in physics, and Linnaeus, in natural history, and Lavaisier, in chemistry, who revolutionize thought, and whose insight discover new principles of science, which shall guide the researches of generations. If one such man arises in a century, that century is fortunate. To such men as these the world is debtor; men of a genius as true as that of its great singers and teachers, Socrates and Plato and Shakespeare and Goethe. [St. Paul Daily Globe, May 7, 1882]

One-hundred and thirty-two years later, this is still true. Of course, in much the same way we’ve expanded the domain of physics to include that which Newton couldn’t even imagine, so too have we expanded Darwin’s theories to include and account for the full diversity of life. Since Darwin we’ve discovered genetics and mapped the genome; we’ve peered inside the skull to study nature’s imprint on the brain; we’ve uncovered the natural bridge between the social and physical sciences; we’ve gotten a whole lot better at saying, “Maybe I just don’t know – but what if?”

“If one such man [or woman] arises in a century, that century is fortunate.”

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