Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Correspondence

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Editor Popular Science Monthly.

SIR: The article by Major Powell, which appeared in your July number, calls for a few words of comment. It was written apparently as an indirect reply to our own paper in the April issue. But it contains little more than a restatement of some elementary truths in geology, which, however new they may be made to appear by the art of the writer, are really somewhat ancient, and form a part of the stock of every tyro in the science.

To this, however, no one can properly object. Major Powell is entitled to write whatever he chooses. But bad logic and misrepresentation of authorities are not legitimate argument, and in a few points where the distinguished head of the United States Geological Survey touches upon topics which we referred to in the former article we may be allowed to criticise his statements.

In the first place, the major is in error in misconstruing our words into an attack on the United States Geological Survey. No fair construction of the language will support this charge. Our chief purpose was to expose and condemn the tone and spirit of the reviewers whose assaults we criticised, and especially the language in which one of them had seen fit to express his opinions. For this latter words too strong could hardly be found. What sentiments have been awakened by it in the minds of geologists, both in America and abroad, we can imagine. They must be both amused and amazed to see a member of the Geological Survey of a great and enlightened country so far forgetting the dignity and responsibility of his office as to indulge in invective and vituperation against a fellow-worker in the scientific field.[1]

Major Powell's paper is in striking contrast to that of his subordinate in being perfectly courteous. We could expect nothing else from him. Had all the critics of Prof. Wright been equally dignified and gentlemanly there would have been no ground for objection.

We confess, however, to a feeling of regret that the director stopped short of any remark indicating disapproval of the language that had been used by a member of his staff. We can not bring ourselves to believe that he sanctions it, but his silence lends it at least an indirect support. We think that a word of this kind would have done the Survey a greater service than any attempt to defend it where it was not attacked, or any discourse on the harmony and courtesy which have, he tells us, characterized its discussions up to date.

Major Powell makes but little direct allusion to us, though his paper was evidently called out by our article. He contents himself with the general assertion, or rather implication, that "every paragraph is based on error." Such sweeping charges are easily made, and are often as erroneous as easy. Not a single error is adduced, and the inference from this omission is not difficult. At all events, it will be soon enough to defend the paragraphs when they are definitely attacked.

Meanwhile, we propose to investigate a few passages of Major Powell's article, in order to see if the critic is himself above reproach, and to discover if any erroneousness lurks concealed within his own paragraphs. Space will not allow more than this. But unless his arguments are better than those of his comrades and subordinates, he will be but a poor ally to aid them in their cause.

Major Powell refers to the Nampa image. Now, it was and is no part of our plan to defend this "find." It is no bantling of ours. We leave it to the tender mercies of others more competent. We merely pointed out in the former paper the fallacy of the arguments used by the writer to whom we referred in his attack upon it and on Prof. Wright. Though Major Powell has failed, probably for the very best of reasons, to give the exact details for which we called, yet his words sufficiently prove the inacuracy of the story, as given in the American Archæologist and in the Literary Northwest. It is a pity also that Major Powell has allowed himself to misrepresent the evidence for want of reference to the original documents in the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. His language leads the reader to infer that he was not even aware of their existence, inasmuch as he says that his greatest surprise on reading Prof. Wright's second book was to find that the image bad fallen into his hands and was used as an argument in favor of the antiquity of man. This was two years after the original publication by Prof. Wright, and his arguments were by this time familiar to all students of American archæology. But let this pa?s. Major Powell writes on another page of a human skeleton alleged to have been found in a bluff excavated by the Mississippi River in the loess that borders its channel. He says:

"The loess is a formation contemporaneous with the glacial formation of the north. The discovery of a human skeleton in this situation was believed to prove that man dwelt in the valley of the Mississippi during the loess-forming period. The discovery seemed of so much importance that the site was visited by Sir C. Lyell, who, on examination, at once affirmed that the skeleton was not found in the loess itself, but in the 'overplacement,' or modified loess—that is, in the talus of the bluff—and all geologists and archæologists have accepted the decision."

We fear that this circumstantial story on examination will prove to be similar to some other evidence that has been brought forward in the current discussion, and it is with no little surprise that we see so prominent a geologist advancing arguments so weak and testimony so garbled. But we will for a moment waive this objection. Assuming that Sir C. Lyell did express the opinion here maintained by Major Powell, we may be allowed respectfully to remark in passing that if that geologist was able so easily and so long ago as 1846 to distinguish between the bluff and the "overplacement," it is a little late to claim the criteria of this distinction as a discovery of any geologist or any body of geologists in the present day. This is a discovery of the already discovered, an appropriation of the "finds" of other men, equal to any of the wonderful deeds related in the travels of the renowned Captain Brazier. Sir Charles must have been born too soon—at least forty years ahead of his time. The geological world of America has only just come up to him.

But returning to our main line, we can not even at this point allow Major Powell's argument to rest. A regard for logic compels us to tax him with carelessness and inaccuracy, if not with misrepresentation, in his references to Sir Charles Lyell. He refers as above to that author's Second Visit to the United States. How correctly this is done a comparison of his words with the following extracts will show.

Lyell writes, in the Antiquity of Man (p. 203):

"Mingled with the bones of mastodon, megalonyx, equus, and others, the pelvic bone of a man was obtained. It appeared to be in the same state of preservation and was of the same black color as the others, and was believed to have come like them from a depth of about thirty feet from the surface."

"In my Second Visit to America in 1846 I suggested, as a possible explanation of this association of a human bone with remains of a mastodon and megalonyx, that the former may possibly have been derived from the vegetable soil at the top of the cliff, whereas the remains of the extinct mammalia were dislodged from a lower position, and both may have fallen into the same heap or talus at the bottom of the ravine. Had the bone belonged to any recent mammifer other than man, such a theory would never have been resorted to."

Lyell's very words in the original work read thus: "I could not ascertain that the human pelvis had been actually dug out in the presence of a geologist or any practiced observer, and its position unequivocally ascertained. Like most of the other fossils, it was, I believe, picked up in the bed of the stream, which would simply imply that it had been washed out of the cliffs. But the evidence of the antiquity of the bone depends entirely on the part of the precipice from which it was derived. It was stained black, as if buried in a peaty or vegetable soil, and may have been dislodged from some old Indian grave near its top, in which case it may have been only five, ten, or twenty centuries old; whereas if it was really found in situ at the base of the precipice, its age would more probably exceed a hundred thousand years."—(Second Visit, chap, xxxi.)

The wide discrepancy between the language of Lyell and its interpretation by Major Powell is obvious. There is absolutely no justification for the assertion that Lyell "at once assigned the bone to the talus." He evidently resorted to this possible explanation to avoid what was in 1846 a yet more formidable difficulty—the admission of the great antiquity of man. Lyell's so-called evidence must therefore be thrown out of court. His decision on the point is purely fictitious, and the statement that "all geologists and archæologists have accepted it" is merely a fiction based on a fiction.

But the criticism must not in justice end even here. It is not fair in so rapidly advancing a science as geology to quote the words even of a leader published nearly fifty years ago, without any intimation that he afterward changed his opinion. Lyell was a man who grew with the times in which he lived. The palæoliths from the gravels at Amiens were cardinal evidence to him, and supported as they then were by similar though less conclusive testimony from other places, they worked his conversion to the doctrine of the great antiquity of the human race, a belief in which he never afterward wavered. His belief found a place in his writings. He revised or even recanted his former opinions wherever he thought them erroneous, and his great work, The Antiquity of Man, is at once a monument of his candor and of his progress. Had Major Powell taken the trouble to consult this volume, with which we must suppose that he is familiar, he would scarcely have dared so completely to misrepresent its author as he has done. He has laid himself open to at least the charge of gross carelessness in citation of testimony, and his paragraph is "manifestly founded on errors" for which it is hard to find any plausible excuse.

Lyell writes in the chapter already quoted, when referring to this fossil (which, by the way, was not, as Major Powell says, a human skeleton, but merely a broken pelvic bone):

"After visiting the spot in 1846, I described the geological position of the bones and discussed their probable age with a stronger bias, I must confess, to the antecedent improbability of the contemporaneous entombment of man and the mastodon than any geologist would now be justified in entertaining" (p. '200). "My reluctance in 1846 to regard the fossil human bone as of post-pliocene date arose in part from the reflection that the ancient loess of Natchez is anterior in time to the whole modern delta of the Mississippi .... If I was right in calculating that this delta has required more than one hundred thousand years for its growth, it would follow, if the claims of the Natchez man to have coexisted with the mastodon are admitted, that North America was peopled more than a thousand centuries ago by the human race. But even were that true we could not presume, reasoning from ascertained geological data, that the Natchez bone was anterior in date to the antique flint hatchets of St. Acheul .... Changes of level as great as that here implied have actually occurred in Europe during the human epoch, and may therefore have happened in America ... . Should future researches, therefore, confirm the opinion that the Natchez man coexisted with the mastodon, it would not enhance the value of the geological evidence in favor of man's antiquity, but merely render the delta of the Mississippi available as a chronometer."

The principles of exegesis which allow the extraction from these words of an affirmation that the bone was not found in the loess but in the "overplacement" are decidedly original and may be valuable in a case of urgent need. They recall to one's mind Prof. Huxley's satire on the Hebrew language. A case that stands in need of logic so bad and of quotation so erroneous must indeed be in a sorry plight. Sir C. Lyell evidently had no intention of denying the antiquity of the human pelvis. With characteristic caution he suspended judgment, and no one has any right to wrest his language in either direction. Whether ancient or not ancient, whether fraud or forgery or fact, matters not here. Testimony has been misquoted and authority misapplied. We plead not here for the genuineness or antiquity of the Mississippi man, but for fairness in logic and accuracy in statement.

We can not avoid the impression that in another place Major Powell somewhat transgresses the limits of accuracy where he says:

"Prof. Wright stands almost alone in his advocacy of a scientific doctrine. He has a few sympathizers and some defenders of some portions of his theory, but the great body of his work is repudiated by nearly every geologist in America and especially by the professorial corps."

The latter part of this extract may be true, but so far as they have declared themselves the following may rightly be claimed on his side: Dana, Hitchcock, Emerson, Crosby, Upham, and Bell. Others, in view of the pending discussion, await further evidence. Abroad a longer list of names may be drawn up, including that of the venerable Prestwich, ex-Professor of Geology at Oxford, Hughes, of Cambridge, Lamplugh, Crosskey, Kendall, and Dugald Bell in Groat Britain, Falsan in France, Credner and Diener in Germany, Hoist of Sweden, and Nitikin, state geologist of Russia. Sir H. H. Howorth says in a recent work,[2] "While the theory of a plurality of glacial periods has found several advocates in Germany, the French geologists are virtually unanimous on the other side." With such a list Prof. Wright stands "alone" in good company.

The scientific imagination is a faculty of the highest order and of great value so long as it is held in check by reason and knowledge. But when Pegasus runs or flies away with his rider, the result is often disastrous to the latter. We have already given proof of Major Powell's great command over the realm of fiction. He will excuse us if we further illustrate his supremacy in this region by another equally striking quotation. Writing of the so-called palæolithic implements recently found in New Jersey and some other places in the Eastern States, he says:

"These implements were gathered in very great numbers and collected in various museums in the United States and many collections were sent abroad to the great museums of the world. Several different collectors were engaged in this enterprise for some years and acquired great reputation for their proof of the antiquity of man on this continent and for their zeal in discovering the evidence, and to recompense them for this work they were made members of many scientific societies throughout the world and decorated with ribbons, and some were knighted."

We took the liberty in our last paper of calling indirectly on Major Powell for exact details regarding the Nampa image, but without very great success. Will he allow us respectfully to ask for some further particulars concerning this very startling paragraph of his, in order to remove the suspicion that spontaneously but irresistibly lurks in our mind that it too is "based on error"? It would be deeply interesting to the archaeologists of this country and of others to learn where are the "very great numbers" of these palæoliths from New Jersey, in what "museums of the United States" they are stored, and to what "foreign institutions many collections have been sent." We should also like to know how many of these collectors "have been made members of many scientific societies," how many have "been decorated with ribbons," and the color, style, and significance of these same ribbons. But especially would it delight the archaeological world to be favored with a list of the Sir Knights who have received the accolade as a reward of their great powers and magnificent achievements on the hard-fought field of American archæology, and who are now Sir Somebody Something and Sir Something Somebody among their untitled scientific brethren of this democratic land. We are free to confess that in our seclusion in "Ohio" we had not heard of these decorations, and did not know that the palæolithic heretics had amassed so much evidence in favor of their great archetype in America, or that they had been so highly and so widely honored for their discoveries. We must infer, though we had not heard of the fact, that our palæolithic acquaintance. Dr. Abbott, is now Sir C. C. Abbott, of Trenton, N. J., and Bristol, Pa. We congratulate him. Others will no doubt be heard from in due time.

We sincerely trust that the Director of the United States Geological Survey has not been in this instance also drawing on his imagination and clothing the creations of his fancy with "local habitations and names." But if not, we must express the fear that he has been looking at the palæoliths and their finders through his most powerful multiplying glass.

We write the above criticisms not without regret. Major Powell's services to geology as the head of the United States Geological Survey have been great. Not even himself will claim that they have been faultless. But in entering the controversial field it is needful first to make quite sure of the facts and then to reason logically from them. In the former respect some of Major Powell's paragraphs are "based on error," as we have shown, and his deductions from them are consequently mere fallacies. If no stronger argument can be found, the case for which he has pleaded may almost as well be abandoned.

In the midst of so much that is open to criticism it is refreshing and pleasing to find Major Powell expressing a sentiment with which all geologists and other scientists should agree and with which we ourselves are in full accord. We thank him for so well wording what must be the rule of all concerned who appreciate the present position of the palæolithic discussion in this country. He writes:

"We will all withhold final judgment until the evidence is in, being perfectly willing to believe in Glacial man or Tertiary man or Cretaceous man if the evidence demands it, and being just as willing too to believe that man was introduced on this continent within the last two thousand years if the evidence demands it. What care we what the truth is if it is the truth?"

Grant this, and courtesy in debate, and the present controversy will not have been useless.

E. W. Claypole.
Akron, Ohio, June 29, 1893.

  1. It is deeply to be regretted that this same official has seen fit to repeat and thus to exaggerate his offense by putting out, since our article was written, a second paper of similar tenor. Though a copy of this was in our possession at the time of writing, we could not justly refer to it, as it had not then appeared. We also hoped that the author's good sense would lead him to acquiesce in its suppression for the sake of American science and his own reputation. This hope was, however, disappointed.
  2. The Glacial Nightmare and the Flood, p. 469.