Edward Blyth: Creationist or Just Another Misinterpreted Scientist?

In early December, 2007, my hometown newspaper, the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, published my opinion piece concerning the newly opened creation museum in northern Kentucky.[1] I’m a former science teacher with a particular interest in the understanding and advancement of science in society, so the article expressed my extreme concern that this $27 million monument to the acceptance of blind faith over science and reason is exceeding attendance expectations and gaining momentum in their mission to cast doubt, in whatever way they can, on evolutionary biology and the multitude of scientific theories that support it. I went to the museum and toured it twice during their opening weekend in late May of 2007. While no one can argue with the high quality of the facility and their 103 animatronic dinosaurs, the museum, built by the Christian ministry Answers in Genesis, fraudulently claims their Biblical interpretations of creation are backed up by scientific facts. What is most disconcerting to me (and the reason I wrote the article) is that the museum has become a sort of de facto science center for the growing Christian home-school movement in the Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky areas, teaching thousands of children that the theory of evolution is incompatible with Christianity and that science can only be valid when viewed through the ‘lens’ of Christian scripture.

Despite the fact that in the article I suggested Christians seek guidance on the subjects of evolution and cosmology from a Christian organization dedicated to the advancement of modern science (I even included the organization’s website URL), I was accused (in the C-J comments blog) of being an intolerant fascist, as well as being doomed to burn in hell. One of the museum’s founders, Chief Communications Officer Mark Looy, responded to my piece with a letter to the C-J, suggesting that had I visited the museum (which I had) I would see that AIG is not anti-science and that I was one of the intolerant cabal of scientists and secularists who have pushed Darwinism on society and stifled dissenting faith-based scientific theories (oxymoron) on human origins. He stated that “Darwin was not the first to fully describe natural selection; it was a creationist, Edward Blyth, 24 years before Origin of Species. Darwin just popularized an already existing idea and tagged it onto his belief about origins.” Looy also said that AIG is not anti-science and that I “conveniently” failed to mention that AIG has seven PhD scientists on staff. [2]

Before addressing Looy’s (and other creationists’) canard that Darwin undeservedly received credit for the theory of natural selection at the expense of Edward Blyth, let me first mention that the reason I failed to mention that AIG has scientists on staff is that while some of his staff may indeed have PhD’s, AIG does not practice science. AIG practices a form of religion which they masquerade as science. One need not look any further than their “statement of faith” on their elaborate website to see how anti-science this organization actually is: “No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” In addition, they believe “The view, commonly used to evade the implications or the authority of Biblical teaching, that knowledge /or truth may be divided into “secular” and “religious,” is rejected.”[3]

The creationist practice of beginning with all the answers from a supposedly inerrant source (scripture) and then disputing all evidence which contradicts their beliefs is about as far from science as one can get. As I mentioned in my original article, I have no problem if adults want to throw away reason and support this fraudulent temple of pseudo-science. What I object to is that thousands of children are being taught that this approach to science is valid and that many of the major theories of evolutionary biology, geology, physics and astronomy, since they contradict AIG’s belief in a six 24 hour day creation, are not to be trusted or believed.

Now, on to Blyth. One of the tactics that creationists use to cast doubt on Darwin’s theory of evolution is to cavalierly suggest that at best, Darwin undeservedly received the credit for the theory of natural selection and at worst, was a plagiarist of Blyth’s (and others’) work. This claim is as false as the ‘science’ of creationism itself. As anyone who has ever studied the history of science can tell you, new discoveries in science seldom emerge from a single source. Since many of the advancements of science occur when new knowledge, derived from a variety of sources, is blended together to form new theories, credit for scientific discovery is often a messy business. This was certainly the case with Darwin.

Contrary to Looy’s claim, natural selection was first described not by Blyth (or Darwin for that matter), but by the ancient Greek philosophers Empedocles and Aristotle in the third and fourth centuries, B.C. Many scientists and philosophers in the centuries that followed contributed to the understanding of the adaptation of species due to environmental and competition pressures: al-Jahith, Harvey, Paley, Linnaeus, Buffon, Mathus, Lamark, and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name a few.[4] Blyth contributed to the pool of knowledge with his insightful observations of bird species (specifically the birds of India) and his analysis of selective breeding practices of domesticated animals. [5]

It is true that in his younger years (specifically 1837) Blyth believed, as did most of the biologists /naturalists of his day, in an “eternal and ever-glorious Being which willed matter into existence”.[6] He believed that while animal populations changed due to the influences of environmental conditions over geologic time, the human species was created by God as is. He reasoned that because modern humans are able to shape the environment to suite our purposes, we are exempt from the forces of natural selection. “Does not, then, all this intimate that, even as a mundane being, man is no component of that reciprocal system to which all other species appertain? a system which for countless epochs prevailed ere the human race was summoned into being.”[7] While Blyth’s writings clearly disagree with young Earth creationists on the age of the Earth (“It is needless to add, that a prodigious lapse of time is required here; and, to judge from data which past history of the globe abundantly furnishes, in legible records, wherever we turn our eyes…”)[8], he was firmly in their camp when it came to the origins of man. However, there is evidence that Blyth’s thinking on human origins changed, possibly due to the influence of his good friend Charles Darwin.

In 1867, thirty years after Blyth’s above quoted articles first appeared in the Magazine of Natural History, a very different Edward Blyth emerges from correspondence with Darwin. Blyth wrote Darwin at least 57 letters between 1855 and 1869, with Darwin, in all likelihood, responding to most, if not all. I have read all of Blyth’s known letters to Darwin: 25 are posted on-line by the remarkable Darwin Correspondence Project[9] while the other 32 were read during a blissful, wintry day spent at the manuscript room of the Cambridge University library. In a letter dated February 21, 1867, far from believing that man was created “as is” by God , Blyth suggests to Darwin that humans descended from primates similar to gibbons. The complete letter follows (with my comments in italics). Be advised that Blyth’s beliefs on man’s origins were obviously influenced by the wide-spread racism of mid-19th century Western culture:

My Dear Sir, (Darwin)

The remarkable resemblance in facial expression of the orangutan to the human Malay (Blyth had spent time studying the wildlife of Sumatra in the Malay Peninsula) of its native region, or that of the gorilla to the negro is most striking, and what does this mean? Unless a unreadable of anthropoid type prior to the specialization of the human similarity, while unreadable would imply a parallel series of at least two primary lines of human descent which seems hardly probable; and moreover one must bear in mind the singular facial resemblance of the unreadable unreadable (an unreadable form) to the negro the resemblance can hardly be other than accidental. The accompanying diagram will illustrate what I suggest (rather than maintain); and about Hylobates (genus of Southeast Asia lesser apes) or gibbons, I am not sure that I place it right, for, upon the whole, the gibbon approximate the chimpanzee more than they do the orangutan not withstanding geographical position. Aryan I believe to be improve Turkman or Mongol.

To appreciate the likeness of a Malay to an Orangutan, you should see an old Malay woman chewing unreadable (probably betel, a palm seed / pepper leaf / ground limestone combination still commonly chewed in Southeast Asia) and note the mobility of the lips, in addition to the general expression. However, to be explained, the likeness is much less unreadable in other races of the Turkman stock. We cannot call this a case of mimicry.

I remain, ever sincerely yours,

E. Blyth[10]

Might I suggest that Answers in Genesis, the Creation Institute, and others, in addition to correcting their claims that Edward Blyth was a “creation” scientist robbed of credit for the theory of natural selection because he was creationist, should also inform their devotees that Blyth changed his thinking in later years and suggested that all humans evolved from primate ancestors, with some races sharing near ancestry with orangutans while other races shared near ancestry with gorillas? Something tells me Chief Communications Officer Looy won’t be jumping up and down to put this on AIG’s website.

DNA analysis and the fossil record show that Blyth was half right: Homo sapiens have a shared ancestor with the small Asian apes (gibbons) going back 18 million years, giving credence to the Out-of-Africa, Into-Asia, Back-to-Africa theory of ape migration. He was wrong however, in his hypothesis of two separate paths of Homo sapien evolution, one from an orang ancestor and the other from a gorilla ancestor. We now suspect that all humans share our nearest non-human ancestor with chimpanzees, going back 6 million years, with gorillas splitting off 7 mya and orangutans splitting off 14 mya.[11]

Why did Blyth’s thinking on human origins change? Judging from his published articles and his letters to Darwin, one can only conclude that his exposure to thirty additional years of scientific inquiry and evidence lead him to reshape his philosophy on human origins (he was never a young Earth creationist) into one that recognized that transmutation of species was the logical extension of the theory of natural selection. In fact, it is this theory, descent with modification over ‘countless epochs’, creating totally different species, including mankind, that Darwin originated and popularized, with the already described theory of natural selection gaining additional acceptance due to Darwin’s brilliant insights and writings. AIG’s Looy states, “Blyth, though, did not believe that natural selection could be a mechanism to produce new genetic information in creatures that could, over time, turn molecules into men.” [12] Is Looy so sure of the validity of this statement since Blyth, in his later years, clearly believed that humans were the result of new genetic information passed along by our primate ancestors?

A fellow Louisvillian, Mohammed Ali, once said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I would bet that were he alive today, Edward Blyth would have this axiom as a banner on his website. He might also be asking AIG, Ken Ham, Mark Looy, William Dembski[13], and other evolution obstructionists to quit using his earliest works to prop up their fundamentalist, nothing-to-do-with-science-but-we-want-you-to-think-it-does worldview. Unfortunately, Mr. Blyth is no longer with us to prevent his considerable body of work from being misused by AIG. As Stephen J. Gould (another great evolutionary biologist, no longer with us, whose writings and opinions have often been misrepresented and purposely misused by creationists) once wrote, “Shall we deprive millions of this knowledge and once again teach biology as a set of dull and unconnected facts without the thread that weaves diverse material into a supple unity?”[14]

By not vigorously exposing and confronting the educational injustice that the creationist movement is inflicting upon an ever-increasing number of young people, will we regret our inaction when, as adults, this growing crop of fundamentalists become school board members, military personnel, journalists, teachers, and politicians? If we think the situation is bad now, wait until a creationist who also believes in the prophecies of the End Times[15] has their finger on the trigger of a nuclear weapon. Then the real fun will begin. Surely the radical Islamist / Koran literalists will make sure they have reciprocal powers in place. It will matter little if an ensuing Armageddon is due to self-fulfilling prophecy (reality) or God’s anger with the sinfulness of the human race (fantasy). The result will be a man-made extinction event (certainly small-scale, possibly large-scale)…something that would surely disappoint and anger Edward Blyth, Charles Darwin, and our other hard-working ancestors who were committed to the advancement of science and knowledge.

During the past one and a half centuries, evolutionary biology and other modern sciences have given our species an unprecedented understanding of our existence and increased our profound appreciation for the responsibilities we have towards this amazing experiment we call life on Earth. It seems such a shame that the superstitious clap-trap which is creationism continues to flourish in the 21st century, with the help of enormous expenditures of capital, both intellectual and economic. What is particularly insidious is that creationists’ chief tool for supporting their absolutist doctrine (besides their “cause the Bible tells me so” argument) is to attack the enormous collection of evidence supporting evolution, while supplying no evidence to support their own position. It is a practice I’m sure would be appalling to Edward Blyth, a credible scientist whose thinking ‘evolved’ over the years due to Darwin’s Great Idea.

Will we allow the legacy of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution to be over-powered by tax-free, fundamentalist, pseudo-science institutions? Or will we stand up to their campaign of science disinformation and strongly re-advocate for the advancement of science and reason in society? I suggest Edward Blyth would strongly support the latter position and firmly condemn the former.


1) Courier-Journal

2) Courier-Journal

3) About faith

4) Evolution library

5) Blyth, E., The Magazine of Natural History Volumes 8, 9 and 10, 1835–1837

6) Blyth, E., Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 4, The Magazine of Natural History Volume 10, 1837.

7) Blyth, E., Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 3, The Magazine of Natural History Volume 10, 1837.Blyth, E., Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals – Part 4, The Magazine of Natural History Volume 10, 1837.

8) Blyth, E., Psychological Distinctions…– Part 4

9) Darwin Project

10) Letter 5405 — Blyth, Edward to Darwin, C. R., 19 Feb, 1867, Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge University

11) Dawkins, Richard, The Ancestor’s Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004)

12) Courier-Journal

13) Was Blyth the True Scientist?

14) Gould, Stephen Jay, Evolution as Fact and Theory, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994)

15) Even though Answers in Genesis claims the Bible is the Word of God “from the first verse”, they are strangely silent on the ‘inerrancy” of prophesies (e.g. Armageddon, the Apocalypse, the second coming) as described in the Book of Revelations and other gospels. “AiG doesn’t have an official position on a particular eschatological (the branch of theology that is concerned with the end of the world or of humankind position) except accepting there will be a bodily return of Christ. “AiG/Creation Museum doesn’t even talk about Armageddon.” says CEO Ken Ham in AIG’s newsletter dated December 4, 2007. He does say on his podcast of September 14, 2007, “The second coming is eminent.” The only text reference to the End Times or Consumption on AIG’s website is the relatively benign Revelations Chapter 21, verse 4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” AIG may be choosing to disassociate themselves with the rest of the Book of Revelation and their claim that it is literally true, since it appears quite likely that the author, John of Patmos (if he was indeed the author and if the text is a true accounting of his two visions) may have arrived at his visions by a) consuming large quantities of psychotropic plants or fungi, b) experiencing some sort of serious psychotic break from reality or c) a conscience manipulation of fanatical believers to believe lies.

Comments are closed.