American Fundamentalists and the English Journalists

by G. K. Chesterton

Originally published in The Illustrated London News, 1st August 1925.

(Source: G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Volume XXXIII,
The Illustrated London News 1923-1925,
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990. Pages 598-602)

By this time, we have all had our laughs over "Monkeyville" and the public execution of the Missing Link, not least the Americans, who are fully alive to the fun of the fair, and most of all, perhaps, those astute Americans who are said to have used the whole scientific and philosophical controversy as a means of advertising the little town of Dayton in Tennessee. I have heard it stated, I know not how truly, that certain of those too restless, not to say rampant, publicity agents who are prepared to run anything and anybody in the United States had solemnly promised the municipal authorities, that the name of their town should be in the front page of every newspaper in the world. I do not know if this is true, but if the promise was given, it was certainly kept. Perhaps the fulfillment is a little too like Mark Twain's story of how he doubled the circulation of an agricultural paper. It will be remembered that, being a temporary editor of that quiet rural organ, he raised it, by his own account, into the wildest popularity by advising people not to pull turnips, but to send up a boy to shake the tree; and assuring them that clams would lie quiet if music were played. The story of "Monkeyville" may be as mythical as the story of Mark Twain, but if it is true, it is at least highly evolutionary. In one sense the small American towns which are least ready to preach evolution are most ready to practise it. I have myself seen a tiny little hamlet of wooden houses on the empty plains, outside which stood a notice in enormous letters: "Watch Us Grow." This might be regarded as a highly biological conception of the germ and the organism. But if it was evolution, it was one of the sort founded on will and in that sense on design. It was certainly Lamarckian and not Darwinian evolution. But we may be permitted to doubt whether the sturdy Fundamentalists who probably inhabit its frame-houses drew any fine distinction between Darwin and Lamarck. Anyhow, as I say, we have had our laughs over the affair; and indeed I fear, to tell the truth, that a great many of the English journalists who laughed loudest knew just as much about evolution as the Fundamentalists in the little houses of that wooden village in the wilderness.

All my life, or at least the latter part of it, I have been trying to discover the meaning of the word "paradox." It seems to have two meanings - a statement that seems to contain a contradiction or to be intrinsically improbable, and a statement that happens to be different from the catchwords common at a particular moment. Now, as a fact, these catchwords themselves often are paradoxes. These catchwords themselves are often intrinsically contradictory or improbable. So that, by the simple operation of stating the dull and obvious truth, one may gain quite a picturesque reputation for dashing and dazzling paradox. For instance, it is a pure paradox to say, as the modern English have said for so long, that it is more practical not to be logical. Its exactly like saying that book-keeping is more practical if it ignores simple addition, and assumes that two and two make five. It is exactly like saying that carriage-building is more practical when we abandon the attempt to make circular wheels and are content with wheels of any rough and approximate outline, like that of an ellipse or an egg. In other words, it is not only paradoxical, but nonsensical. Yet all the books and papers and patriotic poems and stories I read in my youth repeated again and again this paradox: that our conclusions would be right if our reasoning was wrong. I ventured to say, in my humdrum and prosaic fashion, that I did not think this was so; and instantly all those thousands of paradox-mongers accused me of paradox. Or again, it was pure paradox in the old Utilitarians to say that if everybody was egotistical the result would somehow be social. Yet the men who, like Ruskin, merely pointed out the fantasy of this fantasy, were themselves called fantastic. By a sober and industrious attention to this little rule, I also have managed to get myself called fantastic or paradoxical. But I have always found that, whenever one of these truisms was thus criticised, the truism very soon came true.

So it was in this case of the journalistic joke in England about the Fundamentalist in America. I pointed out long time ago in these columns that what was the matter with America and Americans was not that they were bad or good, or wise or foolish, or corrupt or public-spirited, but simply that they were almost incredibly backward and behind the times. I pointed out that this involved virtues as well as vices. It is sometimes just as well to be behind the times, when they are such bad times as modern progress is apparently in for. But, for good or evil, America is a generation behind. Yet when I said that, any number of people cried out in protest against such a provocative absurdity, asking me if I knew more about electricity than Edison, or whether I had seen the labour-saving appliances in the New York apartments. By this time journalists who have joked about "Monkeyville" may be disposed to admit that, if I know less about electricity than Edison, I know more about evolution than the late William Jennings Bryan. Now Mr. Bryan was not only an orator of genius, he was a public figure who had been the Secretary of State and might have been President. Suppose we imagine a British statesman of Cabinet rank, let us say Earl Balfour, intervening in a scientific and religious debate. Who can imagine him going back fifty years, dressing up as Disraeli, in order to defy Professor Huxley with the words: "I am on the side of the Angels"? That is practically what Mr. Bryan did, because his whole world was fifty years old. Earl Balfour's intervention would quite certainly be about something new, like Einstein; certainly not about something as old as Darwin. Earl Balfour is supposed to be a Tory and Mr. Bryan was supposed to be a Radical; the former is an aristocrat, the latter was a Democrat. But do not let us forget that tradition is one of the true virtues of democracy. Do not let us forget that curiosity and innovation, the appetite for anything new, are among the vices of aristocracy. England has suffered a great deal from the progressive spirit of all aristocrats. It has been hurried into fashion after fashion, and folly after folly, in every department from Dress to Religion. There is a great deal too much Einstein in the English governing class. Exactly what England has lacked for the last few centuries has been the strong family traditions that exist in farmers and rooted social types; England has not enough tenacity in religion and morals. In another and far more fundamental sense, what she lacks is Fundamentalism.

And now that the journalists have had their joke, perhaps it would be well to realise that the joke is partly against them. In so far as some of them seem to imagine that Darwinism is a final scientific discovery, like the circulation of the blood, the joke is entirely against them. It is rather old-fashioned to fly into a fuss about the sudden appearance of Mr. Charles Darwin in the scientific world. But it is almost as old-fashioned to be completely overwhelmed by the appearance of that rising young biologist. It is almost antiquated to fancy Darwin has proved his case merely because he has presented his case. From the point of view of a REALLY rising biologist today, the fun of the Darwinian leading articles must be even funnier that the fun of the Fundamentalists. A French or Italian scientist would probably be as much amused at the assumption that nobody can contradict Darwin as the Darwinian is at the assumption that nobody must contradict Moses. But if we are, in some ways, a little behind the main march of European knowledge, at least we are a long way ahead of the New World and its pioneers. O pioneers! This naturally gives us a certain gratification in the case of commercial pretensions; but do not let us forget the other side. In one sense Darwin is still a rising and recent and youthful figure. And that is in the sense that his theory is still a juvenile hypothesis and has never come of age as a law. The child has not yet been successfully reared; nor is it certain that the suggestion of the survival of the fittest will be the fittest to survive. Now it is likely that the English were much too eager to swallow it. A mere craze tied us to Darwin, as it might now tie us to Einstein. It might have been better for science if we had shown a little more of the spirit of Dayton versus Darwin. For even Fundamentalism is better god than Fashion.

=== End ==

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Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.