Madeline Bodin | The Atavist Magazine | December 2022 | 1,515 words (5 minutes)

This is an excerpt from The Atavistissue no. 134, “The Curious Case of Nebraska Man.” 


The rancher plucked the tiny tooth out of the sand of a dry creek bed. Around him was a grassy plain studded with low, flat hills. The small, dark object in his hand was worn down by use in life and by the water it had encountered over millennia. The tooth had long since petrified into stone.

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Harold J. Cook had uncovered fossils in western Nebraska for much of his life. As a teenager in 1904, he led a paleontologist from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to a trove of early-mammal bones. The fossils practically tumbled from a hillside on his family’s ranch, known as Agate Springs. Among the bones were remnants of Dinohyus, an animal resembling a pig that stood as high as eight feet at the shoulder, and the still mysterious Moropus, a horse-like creature that dug in the earth with hooves that resembled claws.

The news that the Cooks’ land was bursting with the bones of ancient mammals set off a polite war among the leading natural history museums, which hoped to gain exclusive access to the fossil beds. Harold’s father, however, wanted the institutions to work together to wring all possible scientific knowledge from what would be known as the Agate Fossil Beds. He never profited from the treasure on his land. His family’s contributions to paleontology were celebrated in other ways: One scientist named an extinct rhinoceros in his honor, and an antelope with two of its four horns on its nose after young Harold.

Another scientist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, lured Harold Cook to New York City to work at the American Museum of Natural History and to study with him at Columbia University. Cook returned home after a year to help run the ranch when his mother became ill. That meant he both knew the land and knew fossils, making him a valuable hire for any paleontology expedition in the region.

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, Cook assisted paleontologists from the Denver Museum and the American Museum in digs at fossil beds along Snake Creek, some 20 miles south of his family’s ranch. Whether he picked up the tooth while scouting for those excavations, during one of them, or sometime after, he never said. Broken bits of fossil, turned blue-black by iron phosphate, were common in the region, and had little scientific value compared with the bones of entire herds of pony-size rhinoceroses or the corkscrew-shaped dens of prehistoric beavers. But Cook believed he had found something truly special. Based on his knowledge of fossils, he suspected that the tooth belonged to a primate, and not a mere monkey—an ape perhaps. An even more tantalizing prospect was that the tooth belonged to an early human.

If Cook was right it would be a heady find, as scientists had yet to identify either variety of fossil in America. Meanwhile, paleontologists around the world were eager for evidence of so-called missing links—transitional fossils that could help prove that humans evolved from apes. Men who claimed to have found missing links often became famous.

Cook was correct about one thing: The tooth was important. But it would become part of history in a way he never imagined.


Four years later, in October 1921, William Jennings Bryan stood behind an ornate wooden pulpit in the auditorium of the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The room’s delicate stained-glass windows glowed in the fading autumn light. Bryan had strong opinions about fossils and their potential to destroy the worldview that he and others in the room held dear.

The dozens of students and faculty who packed the auditorium, which also served as the seminary’s church, had every reason to expect that Bryan’s lecture would be an experience they would talk about for the rest of their lives. Bryan, then 61, was a national sensation at the age of 36, when as a Nebraska congressman his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention swept him into position as the party’s candidate for president. He went on to receive two additional Democratic nominations, granting him the dubious honor of being among only a handful of U.S. presidential candidates to receive electoral votes in three elections without prevailing in any of them.

Bryan, a lawyer by training, supported a woman’s right to vote, an eight-hour workday, a progressive income tax, the regulation of banks and the stock market, and the prohibition of alcohol. He despised the way unchecked industrial capitalism ground down working people, sometimes robbing them of their savings in bank failures and stock market swindles. He reserved special disdain for the financier John Pierpont Morgan. That Bryan himself lived a lavish lifestyle didn’t seem to mar his reputation: His plainspoken appeals to the average citizen earned him the nickname the Great Commoner. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan secretary of state, but Bryan’s pacifism led him to resign the post two years later, when Wilson’s response to the sinking of the Lusitania signaled America’s march toward war in Europe.

Once out of office, Bryan didn’t recede from public life. He kept doing what he did best: give speeches. Public lectures were popular middle-class entertainment in the years before radio and movies were commonplace. Prior to his appointment as secretary of state, Bryan sometimes gave two of them per day on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits, sleeping in his train seat between engagements and using his coat for a pillow. Now he traveled from coast to coast to speak.

A devout Christian—among his first aspirations as a boy was to become a Baptist preacher—Bryan also wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column about the Bible and taught Sunday school classes to thousands of people in a public park in Florida, where he and his wife had moved for her health. He became such a popular religious figure that he was asked to give a week of lectures at the Union Theological Seminary, an honor typically reserved for the nation’s leading ministers. Bryan focused his talks on a topic outside his usual purview: science.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith.

It was not a subject he had any special interest in prior to World War I, but during that conflict, Bryan told his listeners, European had slaughtered European without a thought that they were all children of God. He attributed that blind savagery to what in the end was his own flawed interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution, which Darwin had introduced to the world some 50 years earlier. Bryan argued that Darwin’s painting of humans as the descendants of apes was a demotion in ontological priority that provided tacit permission for the deaths of millions. Bryan quoted liberally from The Science of Power, a book by Benjamin Kidd that linked Darwin to the “selfish” and “godless” philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. “Darwin’s doctrine leads logically to war,” Bryan declared.

War wasn’t the only thing Bryan blamed on the theory of evolution. He was also disturbed by reports, mostly from parents, that students were losing their religious faith by studying Darwin’s ideas, as well as geology, in college. “If it is contended that an instructor has a right to teach anything he likes, I reply that the parents who pay the salary have a right to decide what shall be taught,” Bryan said.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith. Bryan further promoted his cause by printing hundreds of copies of a pamphlet containing one of his Richmond lectures. He sent it to editors and friends and in response to fan letters. A year later, the Union Theological Seminary published Bryan’s speeches in a book titled In His Image.

While Bryan was promoting the book, The New York Times invited him to contribute to its pages. Though he loathed big cities and East Coast elites—basically everything the Times seemed to represent—he accepted the offer. Bryan often drafted his public writings in a large scrawl, using either a soft pencil or a thick-nibbed pen. It was up to his secretary, a Mr. W. E. Thompson, to corral the wild stampede of letters into neat, typewritten lines.

Bryan’s New York Times editorial condemning Darwinism, which cribbed generously from his Richmond lectures, was published in the February 26, 1922, paper, a Sunday edition. Despite there being “millions of species,” Bryan declared, scientists “have not been able to find one single instance in which one species has changed into another, although according to the hypothesis, all species have developed from one or a few germs of life.”

Newspapers across the country reprinted the piece or ran glowing commentaries about it. If Bryan hoped to be God’s PR flack, he earned his full commission with that editorial alone.

However, one sentence from it would soon come to vex Bryan. Not only was Darwin’s theory an insult to God, Bryan had noted wryly, but it was also unpatriotic. Darwin “has us descend from European, rather than American, apes,” he wrote. An eminent scientist would soon seize the opportunity to turn Bryan’s quip into a taunt.