Swans Commentary » swans.com February 27, 2012  



The Life And Controversies Of Henry Fairfield Osborn
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - February 27, 2012)   Having been raised as a Presbyterian, Henry Fairfield Osborn was a self-described evolutionary theist. (1) Thus in opposition to Christian fundamentalists, who took a pessimistic approach to the future of humanity, Osborn believed that "the human race was moving in a basically progressive and upwardly mobile fashion." For the fundamentalists such optimism was not only incompatible with their apocalyptic visions for the future, but also contradicted their literal reading of Genesis. (2) Osborn consequently lent his support to liberal and modernist Christian campaigns to oppose attempts to ban the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools (attempts that led to five states passing laws banning the teaching of evolution). (3)

The most significant legal campaign against this fundamentalist offensive took place in the state of Tennessee and is known as the "Scopes monkey trial" -- a trial that set out to oppose the anti-evolution law that had been passed in 1923. Legal opposition in this case had initially been set in motion by the American Civil Liberties Union of New York, and in 1925 efforts to overturn the Tennessee law were centered around the trial of local public school teacher John Scopes, who was being prosecuted for teaching evolutionary theory. Scopes had been "a student of University of Kentucky geologist Arthur Miller, who himself had been a student of Osborn's"; therefore, it was appropriate that Osborn became involved in this test case, giving Scopes "advice as well as money to help tide him over." (4) However, for his own reasons Osborn failed to testify on behalf of Scopes. Instead, in 1925, he penned a rebuttal to the prosecution counselor William Jennings Bryan (who was a three-time Democratic candidate for president) in the form of a short book entitled The Earth Speaks to Bryan (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925); while the following year Osborn published Evolution and Religion in Education: Polemics of the Fundamentalist Controversy of 1922 to 1926 (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926).

Here one should note that Osborn's final decision to not participate in the trial seems to have been influenced by a combination of three factors. For a start the trial had attracted the vocal support of all manner of atheists and political radicals, which for obvious reasons "annoyed Osborn, and some of the other scientists involved." Secondly, and very much related, it is likely that Osborn would have been none too keen to become "publicly associated with the radical, socialist, anti-eugenics, agnostic [Clarence] Darrow" who was acting as the Scopes defense lawyer. Finally, with doubts rising over the authenticity of the allegedly human fossil remains found in America in 1922, which were widely known as Nebraska Man (Hesperopithecus), Osborn may have been reluctant to become involved in the trial. This is "because he feared if he introduced Hesperopithecus into the proceedings, and it turned out to be something other than a human ancestor, it would backfire and ruin the case for the defense and become a disastrous public setback." As luck would have it Osborn was proved prescient with his latter concern, as the results of a further Osborn-backed expedition (launched in mid-1925) demonstrated that Nebraska Man was in fact an extinct peccary. (5)

Either way, "Ironically," Regal concludes, Osborn actually "helped the fundamentalist cause (which he opposed) by inadvertently seeming to give the stamp of approval to their anti-evolution, anti-ape position." This Osborn did in 1926 by finally making a public statement with regards his long-held belief that humans were unrelated to apes. (6) This controversial statement from one of the world's leading scientific authorities -- and his ongoing defence of his statement -- meant that: "A public battle erupted, pitting him against virtually the entire paleontological and anthropological establishment." Adding insult to injury it so happened that Osborn's "primary protagonist" in this drama was none other than "his own right-hand man" at the American Museum, William K. Gregory. (7)

Nevertheless, in the face of all the controversies that rocked Osborn's life he remained committed to a eugenic future, which would be built upon the allegedly superior race plasm of the Nordics -- a spurious claim that Osborn maintained was supported by his Central Asia hypothesis (first proposed in 1900). But to demonstrate to the world the scientific truth of his hypothesis, Osborn needed to obtain physical evidence in the form of human fossils from Central Asia. Such a far-flung and dangerous expedition to ascertain such proofs was not for a desk-bound researcher like Osborn, but soon became the dream come true for one of his museum's resident explorers, Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960).

Roy Chapman Andrews had "longed" to find the evidence to prove Osborn's hypothesis correct, and in 1915 Osborn agreed to support Andrews's proposal to undertake an initial reconnaissance mission to Asia. With the commencement of World War I, however, the proposed expedition stalled, and it was only in 1920 that the project began to move forward again. More ready than ever, Andrews left nothing to chance, and he laid out plans for a "multifaceted, interdisciplinary scientific" expedition the like of which the world had never seen before. Osborn then sent Andrews to speak to J.P. Morgan about obtaining funding, who in turn "listened intently [to Andrews proposal] and then wrote out a check for fifty thousand dollars as his official contribution, and a second fifty thousand on the side." Over the course of the next year, Andrews proceeded to wine and dine New York's leading robber barons, successfully securing "donations from philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller Jr, Childs Frick, president of the First National Bank, George Baker, Sidney Colgate and E.H. Gray of US Steel." (8)

Unfortunately, much to Osborn's dismay, the Central Asiatic Expeditions (which were known to the public as the Third Asiatic Expedition) were never able to locate the definitive proof of human origins that would vindicate his ideas. But while the initial forays returned empty-handed, the expedition eventually hit a partial archaeological jackpot "fill[ing] the museum's coffers with an unprecedented collection of fossil animals" that demonstrated that Central Asia "seemed to have been a center of radiation for an entire world of organisms." Amidst the media frenzy that followed, Osborn's exploits became known all over the world, and while his expedition did eventually discover evidence of past human life in Central Asia, it was of the relatively recent Neolithic Man, not of the ancient Pleistocene Man he sought. Then in 1927 with the start of the Civil War in China, Andrews' work faced major difficulties with the country thrown "deep into anarchy." Consequently, within the space of three years the entire Central Asiatic Expedition was terminated, and "While it was not his intention to do so, in trying to prove that Central Asia was the home of the human race, Osborn [had] finally helped show that it was not." (9)

Osborn's life work, so it seemed, was being undermined at every turn, such that...

... by the end of the 1920s Henry Fairfield Osborn's own paranoia had grown to the point where he believed that there was 'a conspiracy ... against the Nordic and racial theory' being promoted by those who dismissed it. But it was more than just paranoia. Osborn's theory was unraveling. Beyond immigration and eugenics, other events and ideas had appeared to thwart his beliefs. The 1920s saw an increasing assault upon his ideas. The more threatened his hypothesis became, the more desperate he became to protect it, and himself. To do so he would turn to convoluted explanations and even flirt with the century's greatest evil. (p.162)

Initially though, upon learning from his old friend Madison Grant (in 1930) of his work on a sequel to his earlier racist hate tract, The Passing of the Great Race, Osborn "warned him against 'depreciating other races' while trumpeting the Nordics." Ignoring this friendly advice, Grant's ensuing book, The Conquest of a Continent: Of the Expansion of Races in America (Charles Scribners' Sons, 1933) turned out to be "one long rant against non-Nordics" and "covered much of the same territory as in The Passing of the Great Race, but with greater emphasis on the elimination of the unfit." (10) (One should note that Grant's abhorrent behavior was duly rewarded by the ruling class, and from 1928 until 1937 he served as the president of the Boone and Crockett Club.) Yet despite Osborn's concern with Grant's authoritarian approach, Osborn "dutifully put together a flattering introduction for his old friend." (11) Grant's editor, however, did not think the introduction was suitable, and in a personal correspondence to Grant...

...agreed that Osborn's introduction was not worthy of being included. In the end it was, but as a compromise to keep from offending supporters, not as an act of respect for the man without whose help Grant would have been just another rich lawyer ranting over race questions to his rich club friends. Unaware of the backstabbing, Osborn continued to be a friendly supporter of Grant until the end. (pp.182-3)

As one might expect, Grant's work did much to further inspire Nazi ideology, and Adolf Hitler himself referred to The Passing of the Great Race as his "bible." And so although Osborn's own work "was not embraced by the Nazi hierarchy" -- with the Nazi's rise to power in 1933 -- Osborn was adamant that the Nazis were a "positive force" in Germany. In his own twisted way, "He saw, not a criminal regime with evil intent, but a beaten Nordic people using their race plasm and scientific advancements to overcome great obstacles." (12) Consequently, it is fitting that Osborn should have been rewarded for his fascist idealism, as shortly after retiring from the presidency of the American Museum he became the first American to accept an honorary doctorate from Hitler during the Nazi era.

After going to Germany [in August 1934] to receive the award in person, Osborn toured the Fatherland. Impressed by what he saw, he said prophetically that observing the youth of Germany was "to realize that the world will have much to deal with in the not too distant future" because of them. The following November the journal Natur Und Volk celebrated Osborn's work on evolution, the Nordic race, and eugenics. The article ended with a long quote from Osborn himself in which he returned the praise for German society. He said that Germany was misunderstood by the world and that he would personally do his best "to correct unfavorable impressions that now prevail." (p.186)

Henry Fairfield Osborn died in November 1935, and while his "reconciliationist view of science and religion" are now a relic of the distant past, and his Central Asia hypothesis was already "out of favor in the 1930s" (and was positively "ancient history" by the 1950s and 1960s), his eugenic concerns did not fade so easily. (13) In fact, Osborn's eugenic ideas persist today as an integral part of the ruling class' war against humanity, even if those same beliefs now go by a different name; while Osborn's ongoing worries about the detrimental impacts of immigration still likewise remain a propaganda mainstay of capitalist states. One can only hope that this article, by surmising Osborn's noxious commitment to capitalism, will serve to help more people better understand exactly how the ruling class operates to stifle humane evolution, so that the mass of humanity are in a better position to build a better, cooperative future, free from capitalism.


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1.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.xviii. Regal writes that in many ways Osborn's life can be seen as the "drama of a man struggling to reconcile science and religion, of a man who realized that his most dearly held beliefs and certainties were slipping away, and who desperately tried to save them."

"In his Social Darwinism in American Thought (1955), Richard Hofstader argues that Liberal Protestants of the later nineteenth century used science and evolution to construct an alternative naturalistic Calvinism. In this view man's adversarial relation to God was replaced by a similar relationship to nature." (p.xvi)  (back)

2.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.159. Osborn's "rejection of fundamentalist attacks, along with his rejection of fossil humans and apes as human ancestors [which he only made public in 1927],...and his efforts in the name of eugenics and immigration legislation, can be seen as an effort to keep downward, degenerate concepts away from the upwardly striving human race."(p.159) Regal refers to Paul Boyer's book When Time Shall Be No More (Harvard University Press, 1992) for a more detailed explanation of why fundamentalists rejected Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.  (back)

3.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.155. Regal writes that the two most recent histories of the Scopes Trial are: Edward Larson, Summer For the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 1997), and Paul Conkin, When All The Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals (Rowan and Littlefield, 1998).

In a chapter entitled "William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign," Stephen Jay Gould in his book Bully For Brontosaurus: Further Reflections in Natural History (Penguin Books, 1992) discusses Bryan's involvement in the 1925 Scopes Trial. Gould refers to Bryan as "America's greatest populist reformer" (p.417), and his essay helps explain why Bryan's campaign against the teaching of evolution in schools, although not without it's own obvious problems, actually meshed well with his challenges to ruling class ideologies that were wedded to militarism and biological determinism. Furthermore, Gould highlighted the fact that the book that John Scopes had used to teach evolution in Tennessee -- A Civic Biology, by George William Hunter (1914) -- had also emphasized the utility of one of Henry Fairfield Osborn's most favored means for dealing with the feebleminded (in Hunter's words "parasites") among the working class, the practice of negative eugenics. (p.429)  (back)

4.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.160.  (back)

5.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.162, p.149.  (back)

6.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p. xvii. As a major part of his efforts to reconcile his religious and scientific lifeworlds, "Osborn developed a resistance to the idea that humans and primates shared their origins or a close biological relationship. He openly banished the primates and fossil humans from direct human ancestry in the mid-1920s. To him they seemed degenerate evolutionary dead ends, not fit to be part of the progressive human line or its optimistic history." (p.xvii)  (back)

7.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p. 170.  (back)

8.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.138, p.138. Regal cites three books that document the story of the Central Asiatic Expeditions: Edwin Colbert, The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries (Dover, 1984); Douglas Preston, Dinosaurs in the Attic (St Martin's Press, 1986); and Charles Gallenkamp, Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions (Viking, 2001). For other Western expeditions in Central Asia, Regal refers to Kenneth Wimmel, The Alluring Target: in Search of the Secrets of Central Asia (Trackless Sands Press, 1996), and Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Counterpoint, 1999).

"Besides Andrews there were others in Asia looking for the remains of fossil humans. Davidson Black (1884-1934) was briefly associated with Andrews and his team in 1921. Black became interested in human origins while he was studying comparative anatomy with the famous British anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith (one of the Piltdown doubters) in 1914." With the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation, in the late 1920s, Black falsely took the credit for discovering the human fossils that were popularly known as Peking Man. "Even though the finds were made in China and not Central Asia, they reinforced Andrews's and Osborn's belief that older specimens would be found in their area. Andrews claimed that Black's discoveries confirmed 'the soundness of the theory of the Central Asiatic origins of primates and man suggested first by Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1900.'" (p.146) For a further details, see Jia Lanpo and Huang Weiwen, The Story of Peking Man: From Archeology to Mystery (Oxford University Press, 1990); and Sigrid Schmalzer, The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China (University of Chicago Press, 2008).  (back)

9.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.176, p.177, p.144, p.1.  (back)

10.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.181.  (back)

11.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.182. Osborn "confided to his diary that while he liked the ideas of Grant's book, he felt they were 'often poorly expressed.'" (p.182)  (back)

12.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.186, p.185, p.186. "Nazi statements about youth education, rebuilding the country along moral lines, and an insistence that the future lay in applying biological principles to society was something Osborn had been advocating for America all along. He told Harry Laughlin that 'my recent trip to Germany, Austria, and Italy and my continuous observation in the United States convince me that of all the modem social movements, eugenics is far the most important.'" (pp.186-7) As a direct result of such remarks, Osborn's right-hand man, William K. Gregory, resigned from the Galton Society. "He could no longer belong to the organization because of the 'tendency of a number of our members to take sides with the Hitler government.'" (p.187)  (back)

13.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.195. "The discoveries of Louis Leakey and his family all but proved that the first humans and their ancestors had been African and not Asian." (p.195)  (back)


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Published February 27, 2012