Home > Departmental History at UND, North Dakotiana > Libby, Evolution, and North Dakota

Libby, Evolution, and North Dakota

This weekend, the New York Times had a front page story on the difficulty of teaching evolution in high schools in Florida.  My wife reports that Phil Jackson, (the coach of the Lakers and UND alumnus) who was on campus yesterday to receive an honorary degree, mentioned learning about evolution among his memories of his time at the University. 

All this evolution talk reminded me of a series of correspondence in the Orin G. Libby papers (OGL#49) in the eponymous University of North Dakota’s Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection (at the Elywn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections).  Orin G. Libby was perhaps the best known member of the University of North Dakota’s Department of History where he taught from 1902-1945.  Folks tend to remember Libby as stern and conservative figure, and in many ways this is certainly the case, but Libby was quite progressive in many of his views.  Alongside his friend and ally John M. Gillette, Libby participated in the Women’s suffrage movement, was active in progressive causes in the tumultuous decade of the 1920s, and was involved in establishing the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors.   

Among his causes was the opposition to anti-evolution legislation proposed in the North Dakota legislature in 1927 (#OLG 49, Box 1, Folder 3).  According to Libby’s correspondence, rumors that an anti-evolution bill began to circulate as early as late January of 1927.  Such bills were in the air all across the country in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes-Monkey Trial.  Libby’s papers show that he not only corresponded with Arvid Reuterdahl, a leading member of the Minnesota Theistic Society — a group who offered support to groups who opposed anti-evolution legislation —  but also figures like A. W. Jamison, a sociologist at the University of Arkansas who played a role in the fight against ant-evolution legislation in that state (Gillette, himself a sociologist, seems to have put Jamison in contact with Libby).  Libby was also in touch with Samuel Jackson Holmes the renown geneticist, scholar of evolution, and zoologist at the University of California – Berkeley whose mysterious sounding "Committee M" had prepared a report on evolution designed to be circulated to legislators and interested parties.  These individuals and groups circulated pamphlets and encouragement in the fight to oppose a ban on states teaching evolution.

When the bill was presented in the North Dakota House Committee on Education in February of that year (by L.S. Richardson), Libby began to correspond regularly with Attorney General George F. Shafer (who would later serve as governor of the State). In a letter dated to February 8, 1927, Shafer assured Libby that "I hardly think the bill will get any where, as there seems to be little interest in it.  I will keep you advised as to the situation.” It seems that Libby kept close tabs on the Bill as it languished in committee.  His colleagues in the fight against the banning of evolution corresponded words on encouragement and reported on their own victories.  Jamison reports on February 11, 1927 that the bill opposing evolution was defeated in Arkansas.  On February 22nd, Shafer wrote to Libby telling him:

"You probably noticed in the Press the fact that the Anti-evolution bill was indefinitely postponed in the House of Representatives the other day without objection.  I understand that there was some sentiment on the Committee favorable to the bill, but there was so much sentiment against it, not only among the members of the Committee on Education, to which it was referred, but was among the members of the Legislature generally, that the proponents did not make an effort to put it across"

Libby was clearly pleased with the decision, and in a letter three days later to Jamison in Arkansas, he congratulates Jaminson on his success "in clearing the atmosphere of this pestilential fog."

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