I think it is time for the Alumni Fund to revisit this pitch for donations from our most famous Eph poet, William Cullen Bryant [omitting some of the racially disparaging remarks, of course, as well as the odd antipathy towards one particular family], which he delivered at the Williams College Alumni Fund Dinner, December 28, 1871.  Worrying about US News rankings seems downright frivolous relative to the concerns outlined by Bryant:

… But allowing all that Darwin says of the consanguinity of man and of the inferior animals, admitting that we are of the same flesh and blood as the baboon and the rat, where does he find his proof that we are improving instead of degenerating?  He claims that man is an improved monkey; how does he know that the monkey is not a degenerate man, a decayed branch of the human family, fallen away from the high rank he once held, and haunted by a dim sentiment of his lost dignity, as we may infer from his melancholy aspect?  Improvement, Mr. President and gentlemen, implies effort: it is up-hill work; degeneracy is easy: it asks only neglect, indolence, inaction.  How often do the descendants of illustrious men become the most stupid of the human race!

How many are there, each of whom we may call “the tenth transmittor of a foolish face!” — a line of Savage, the best he ever wrote, worth all his other verses put together — “The tenth transmitter of a foolish face!” and that face growing more and more foolish from generation to generation.  I might instance the Bourbon family, lately reigning in Spain and Naples.  I might instance the royal family of Austria.  There is a whole nation, millions upon millions, our Chinese neighbors, of whom the better opinion is that they have been going backward in civilization from century to century.  Perhaps they wear the pig-tail as an emblem of what they are all coming to some thousands of years hence.

How, then, can Mr. Darwin insist that if we admit the near kindred of man to the inferior animals we must believe that our progress has been upward, and that the nobler animals are the progeny of the inferior?  Is not the contrary the more probable ?  Is it not more likely that the more easy downward road has been taken, that the lower animals are derived from some degenerate branch of the human race, and that, if we do not labor to keep the rank we hold, our race may be frittered away into the meaner tribes of animals, and finally into animal-culae?  Then may our Tweeds become the progenitors of those skulking thieves of the Western wilds, the prairie-wolves, or swim stagnant pools in the shape of horse-leeches; or astute lawyers may be represented by foxes, our great architects by colonies of beavers, our poets by clouds of mosquitoes famished and musical; our doctors of divinity — I say it with all respect for the cloth — by swarms of the mantis, or praying insect, always in the attitude of devotion.  If we hold to Darwin’s theory — as I do not — how are we to know that the vast multitudes of men and women on the earth are not the ruins, so to speak, of some nobler species, with more elevated and perfect faculties, mental, physical, and moral, but now extinct?

Let me say, then, to those who believe in the relationship of the animal tribes, that it behooves them to avoid the danger which I have pointed out by giving a generous support to those institutions of wholesome learning, like Williams College, designed to hold us back from the threatened degeneracy of which there are fearful portents abroad — portents of moral degeneracy, at least.  Let them move before we begin to squeak like bats or gibber like apes; before that mark of the brute, the tail, has sprouted, or, at least, while it is in the tender germ, the mere bud, giving but a faint and indistinct promise of what it may become when the owner shall coil its extremity around the horizontal branch of a tree and swing himself by it from one trunk of the forest to another.  If anyone here be conscious of but a friendly leaning to the monkey theory, let him contribute liberally to the fund for putting up a building where the students of Williams College can be cheaply boarded; if the taint have struck deeper, let him found a scholarship; if he have fully embraced the theory, let him, at any sacrifice, found a professorship, and then, although his theory may be wrong, his practice in this instance will be worthy of universal commendation.

Top that, Williams Alumni Fund!  [Oh, and you can fan Bryant on Facebook if you like].

Print  •  Email