Critical views of evolution and a sense of danger associated with the theory gained ground as Vernon Lyman Kellogg (1867–1937) drew a clear link between German war atrocities and neo-Darwinism in his 1917 publication Headquarters Nights.
Although the USA’s involvement in the war was relatively brief—entering WWI in April 1917—the war affected the American’s view of science in general and evolution as WWI was the first modern war where countries actively attempted to apply modern scientific knowledge to perfecting warfare. Even prior to the USA’s involvement in the war, the National Academy of Sciences had anticipated the need for collaboration between scientists and the military (Fig. 3). To address this need, the National Research Council was established in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson and once the NPC had been established, the National Academy’s foreign secretary, George E. Hale (1868–1938), sent a message to his counterparts in Britain, France, Italy and Russia reading “The entrance of the United States into the war unites our men of science with yours in a common cause.Footnote 1”
The use of modern technology and science was seen as a necessary means of competing against the Germans who first used chlorine gas on the battlefield in 1915, causing international outrage. When the USA first entered the war, they were unprepared for this new warfare style and recognized their own need for gas troops, who were then deployed in 1917.Footnote 2 This new brand of scientific warfare resulted in an unprecedented loss of human life. For conservative evangelicals, these horrendous losses exacerbated their general fear of modernism and specific trepidation regarding science as Randall M. Miller describes, “From the traditionalist point of view, this war was a demonstration of all that had gone wrong, and a warning because God, they believed, gives warnings. He visits his wrath upon the unrepentant people. The world seemed to be coming apart (Miller 2012).” While all of the involved countries had ultimately participated in the grievous losses, the Germans became equated with evil during this time as publications claimed that the German military forces had poisoned French wells and children’s candy (Humes 2007).
Understanding the new role of science in this war and the American’s perception of the war is relevant when weighing the impact of Kellogg’s 1917 publication. Kellogg was an American entomologist and evolutionary biologist, who was a professor of entomology at Stanford University 1894 to 1920. He had a two-year hiatus during this period (1915 and 1916) when he served as the director of Hoover’s humanitarian American Commission for Relief in Brussels, Belgium. While in Brussels he often dined with the officers of the German Supreme Command and he later published an account of these conversations in his 1917 book Headquarter Nights. In his book, he described his shock at the social Darwinist motivations used by the Germans to defend their wartime actions, writing, “the creed of survival of the fittest based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the Gospel of the German intellectuals (1917, p. 28)” (Fig. 4).
Kellogg understood the importance and centrality of evolutionary theory within the sciences and believed that all “researchers needed to incorporate evolutionary theory into all aspects of biological research” (Largent 1999, p. 466). In fact, Kellogg’s views on evolution were very similar to his contemporary, zoologist and geneticist Ludwig Hermann Plate (1862–1937), who was a pupil and successor of Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) and campaigned for a revival of the “old Darwinism” (Hoßfeld and Levit 2011; Hoßfeld et al. 2019; Levit and Hoßfeld 2006, 2019; Watts et al. 2019). Plate combined selectionism with neo-Lamarckian ideas and orthogenesis and was seen by many contemporaries worldwide as a proper advocate of Darwinism (Hoßfeld and Levit 2011; Levit and Hoßfeld 2006). Kellogg cited Plate profusely and his own view of the origin of species was a composite of Darwinism, orthogenesis, mutation, Lamarckian inheritance and other unknown factors (Dean 1908).
Kellogg’s scientific beliefs regarding evolutionary theory and the relative importance of evolutionary mechanisms are important to understand because he was able to draw a link between the neo-Darwinistic focus on natural selection and the resulting social-Darwinistic principles applied by the German Allmacht, in order to emphasize their incorrect understanding and application of evolutionary theory. However, the general public, who did not understand the intricacies of the scientific debate surrounding evolutionary theory during this time, simply understood Kellogg’s criticism as a connection between general evolutionary theory and German militarism. Ironically, Kellogg himself was painfully aware of how difficult it was to keep up with the ever changing advancements in evolutionary science even for educated readers as he wrote in the forward to Darwinism To-day: “Both destructive criticism of old, and synthesis of new hypotheses and theories, are being so energetically carried forward that the scientific layman and educated reader, if he stand but ever so little outside of the actual working ranks of biology, is likely to lose his orientation as to the trend of evolutionary advance” (Kellogg 1907, p. iii).
In looking at Kellogg’s book Headquarters Nights, we see how he described natural selection as the creed of the Allmacht and how the Germans had (mis)used Darwin’s ideas in order to justify their cruel actions throughout the war: “Well, I say it dispassionately but with conviction: if I understand theirs, it is a point of view that will never allow any land or people controlled by it to exist peacefully by the side of a people governed by our point of view. For their point of view does not permit of a live-and-let-live kind of carrying on. It is a point of view that justifies itself by a whole-hearted acceptance of the worst of Neo-Darwinism, the Allmacht of natural selection applied rigorously to human life and society and Kultur” (Kellogg 1917, p. 22). It should be noted that the term “Allmacht der Naturzüchtung” was coined by the German zoologist and evolutionary biologist August Weismann (1834–1914) in defense of the “Darwin-Wallace-Principle” of natural selection (Weismann 1893).
In the quote given above, we see that Kellogg emphasized the alleged use of neo-darwinistic principles by the Germans. From an evolutionary biologist standpoint, he was making an important distinction between a neo-darwinistic focus on natural selection over all other evolutionary mechanisms such as symbiosis, mutualism, and orthogenesis. While Neo-Darwinism places all focus on the struggle to survive as the sole means of evolution, Kellogg argued in his 1907 book Darwinism To-day that natural selection alone leads to constancy, not variability and that the changes driven by natural selection are quantitative in nature, not qualitative (Kellogg 1907). In Headquarters Nights, Kellogg also argued his view of the falsehood of focusing on natural selection alone as he pointed out the power of the mutual-aid principle over the mutual-fight principle:
Again, the adoption by two widely distinct and perhaps antagonistic species of a commensal or symbiotic life, based on the mutual-aid principle—thousands of such cases are familiar to naturalists—would ameliorate or abolish the interspecific struggle between these two species. Even more effective in the modification of the influence due to a bitter struggle for existence, is the adoption by a species of an altruistic or communistic mode of existence so far as its own individuals are concerned. This, of course, would largely ameliorate for that species the intra-specific phase of its struggle for life. Such animal altruism, and the biological success of the species exhibiting it, is familiarly exemplified by the social insects (ants, bees, and wasps). As a matter of fact, this reliance by animal kinds for success in the world upon a more or less extreme adoption of the mutual-aid principle, as contrasted with the mutual-fight principle, is much more widely spread among the lower animals than familiarly recognized, while in the case of man, it has been the greatest single factor in the achievement of his proud biological position as king of living creatures (Kellogg 1917, p. 26- 27).
The term “mutual-aid” in the context of evolutionary theory was coined by Russian geographer, philosopher, and naturalist Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) in his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In this collection of essays, Kropotkin discusses the role of mutually-beneficial cooperation and reciprocity (or “mutual aid”) in the animal kingdom and human societies as an argument against theories of social Darwinism that emphasize competition and survival of the fittest. Although Kellogg refers to mutual aid in Headquarters Nights without citing Kropotkin, he did cite Kropotkin in his—zoology textbook The Animals and Man, which contained an entire chapter devoted to the discussion of mutual aid and communal life. Kellogg’s reference to mutual aid shows that his interpretation of evolution was arguably wider or more inclusive than even Plate’s.
For Kellogg, it was clear that the idea of natural selection described a struggle between an organism and its environment and not between different organisms (Ruse 2018) as seen in the excerpt above. It appears that Kellogg’s intent in Headquarters Nights was to argue that the narrow definition of evolution offered by neo-Darwinism may have harmful consequences not only for evolutionary theory, but also for social life.
The general public who read Headquarters Nights did not however understand that Kellogg was addressing a complex scientific debate regarding the true mechanism of evolution and the proper understanding of ‘the struggle for survival.’ The fine details of his argument were lost on the majority of readers and instead of understanding that Kellogg was opposed to the narrow understanding of evolution according to neo-Darwinistic principles, the book appeared to be a general criticism of evolution as the basis for German militarism.
Due to the extreme poor image of the Germans during this time, i.e., one associated with brutality and war crimes, Kellogg's observations and the connection that he made between the German militarism and Darwin had a particularly powerful effect. This effect was expounded by the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) wrote the foreword of the book, stating: “One of the most graphic pictures of the German attitude, the attitude which has rendered this war inevitable, is contained in Vernon Kellogg’s ‘Headquarters Nights.’ It is convincing, and an evidently truthful exposition of the shocking, the unspeakable dreadful moral and intellectual perversion of character which makes Germany at present a menace to the whole civilized world. The man who reads Kellogg’s sketch and yet fails to see why we are at war, and why we must accept no peace save that of overwhelming victory, is neither a good American nor a true lover of mankind” (Roosevelt in Kellogg 1917, p. 13). Thus, Kellogg (1917) drew the connection between neo-Darwinistic (-Weismannistic) thinking and evil, while Roosevelt made a link between patriotism and rejection of evolution.
Kellogg’s book had a particularly profound effect on William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), whose already cynical view of evolution was fueled by Headquarters Nights (Gould 1977). Bryan had already vocalized his concerns regarding evolution, warning Americans in a 1909 lecture that Darwin’s theory could undermine the foundations of morality, “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn back toward the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love (Bryan 1909, pp. 15–16).”
Following the reading of Kellogg, Bryan began touring the USA in the 1920s, becoming one of the most prominent religious figures in the country (Kazin 2006). Evangelicals rallied around him also appropriating the belief in the link between evolution and the darkest evils of mankind. Again, it is clear that Bryan also misunderstood Kellogg’s true intention. Kellogg did not say that evolution was the creed of the Allmacht, he said natural selection was the creed of the Allmacht and clearly pointed out that the Germans had omitted to understand many other potential mechanisms of evolution, “Altruism or mutual aid, as the biologist—prefer to call it, to escape the implication of assuming too much consciousness in it—is just as truly a fundamental biologic factor of evolution as is the cruel, strictly self-regarding, exterminating kind of struggle for existence with which the Neo-DarwinistsFootnote 3 try to fill our eyes and ears, to the exclusion of the recognition of all other factors (Kellogg 1917, pp. 27–28).”
Despite Kellogg’s actual intention of pointing out how the German Allmacht had misunderstood and misused evolutionary theory, his publication helped ignite a crusade against the teaching of evolution under the leadership of Bryan. In the context of this crusade, conservative evangelicals began to refer to themselves as fundamentals and began to form grassroots organizations focused on ridding American schools of evolution (Watts 2018). This focus on education came about as a result of the timing of Kellogg’s publication since he declared this link between war atrocities and evolution just three years after evolution was first introduced into textbooks, during a time of rapid public-school expansion. So, as American students were just beginning to learn about evolution and Darwin’s theory, their parents were learning that this theory was the root cause of German militarism, as German military and intellectual leaders had justified their imperialistic expansion using classic social Darwinism (Kellogg 1917; Blancke et al. 2014; Shermer, 2006).
In an article in The Atlantic in 1924, Kellogg attempted to clarify his understanding of evolution stating, “So I want to plead for a wider conception of evolution, a conception as wide as that of living Nature itself.” He also attempted to clarify his own views on the perceived conflict between evolution and Christian belief, stating, “Evolution makes its appeal to reason, but its acceptance does not mean the abasement, let alone the denial, of emotion, faith, and religion…In a word, evolution and the tenets of the Christian religion are not in opposition. They have really little to do with each other”. Yet, this publication did not dissuade the fundamentals who were already committed to preventing the perceived loss of a Christian nation to the theory of evolution as they began to lobby nationwide for legislation that would ban the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Bryan and the fundamentals were successful and evolution prohibition legislation was passed in multiple states such as Tennessee, which passed the Butler Act in 1925, which stated: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” (Watts 2018).
This organized fight against the teaching of human evolution that took place around the 1920s can be seen as the official origin of the creationist movement in the USA. Although WWI ended more than one hundred years ago, its impact on how fundamentalists see science and evolution is still palpable today and can be traced back to the link that Kellogg made between Neo-Darwinism and German militarism. While the general fear of evolution has remained relatively constant, the form of anti-evolution trends today differs greatly from those of the early twentieth century. In the next section, we examine how and why creationism has evolved over the last 100 years, how it transgressed across the borders of the USA and how it has changed the public’s understanding and view of science.