The discovery in the 1920s of a huge cache of fossils in the Gobi Desert fuelled a mania for dinosaurs that continues to the present. But the original goal of the expedition was to search for the origins of man. Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), director of the American Museum of Natural History, stood at the forefront of the debate over human evolution and the expedition aimed to prove his theory of human origins. Osborn rejected the idea of primate ancestry and constructed a non-Darwinian theory that the evolution of man was the long adventurous story of individuals and groups exerting personal will-power and inborn characteristics to achieve both biological and spiritual success. It is an idea that still echoes today.
Study of Osborn's thinking, however, has been obscured by the perception that racism influenced his theories. Brian Regal paints a different and more textured picture in this book – he shows that Osborn's views on race, like his political ideas, were motivated by his science, itself grounded in religious doctrine. His belief in the Central Asian origins of man, his role as an activist for eugenic reform and immigration controls, his support for Nordicism, his place in the 'New' versus 'Old' biology debate, his role in the Christian Fundamentalist controversy, the Scopes Monkey trial, and finally his construction of the 'Dawn Man' hypothesis – all stemmed from his desire to support his human evolution theory, and point the way to salvation.
This biography charts Osborn's intellectual development, from its roots in the eclectic Christianity of his mother, through his student days with Arnold Guyot, James McCosh, and T.H. Huxley, to his mature work at the American Museum. It examines his trials and tribulations, friendships and conflicts, and the world in which he lived: all contributed to the construction of his theory. It is the dramatic story of a man holding onto ideas that for him represented the very meaning of life itself.
- Introduction: Deconstructing Henry
- 'The era of rash guesses'
- 'The helmet of our salvation'
- The Romantic empiricist
- The Central Asia hypothesis
- A mongrelized world
- Go and find them
- Terrible monkeys
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Brian Regal is an Assistant Professor of History, at Kean University, USA He was an invitee to the recent Max Planck Institute seminar on human origins in Berlin.
– Nominated for the Pfizer Prize 2003
"Brian Regal's book derives from a fresh study of Osborn's published and especially his archival sources, and provides important new insights into the motivations behind both the evolutionary and social theories of one of the most enigmatic figures of early twentieth-century biology. [...] Tracing Osborn's theory of an Asian origin of human beings to his religious upbringing that mandated improvement through struggle, Regal places Osborn's human evolutionary theories squarely in both the scientific and evangelical [...] context of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America."
– Garland E. Allen, Washington University in St Louis
"This is a wonderful book about a fascinating man. Henry Fairfield Osborn was a great leader in science at the beginning of the last century and a dedicated champion of evolution. He was also a man with all of the prejudices (and some) of his day, and at the fore of efforts to restrict immigration and otherwise repress those not of his class and race. It would be easy – too easy – to paint him in stark white or black, but Brian Regal brings a much more subtle brush, showing how complex and interesting are the issues, and how looking at an all-too-human person can throw light on him and his society – on us and our society. Highly recommended!"
– Michael Ruse, Florida State University
"Regal [...] bring[s] to his subject a valuable dispassionate academic eye and a lively style which is infectiously readable [...] excellent."
– Fortean Times
"[...] very good intellectual biography of Osborn that is often nuanced with an appreciation for the complexity of issues."
– Journal of the History of Biology