President Theodore Roosevelt Asserts His Belief in Evolution, in an Important Letter to Naturalist John Burroughs

TR marvels at the evolutionary advances of humans in a powerful and revelatory letter as President, attesting to his passion for and knowledge of natural history and evolution

“Man, and the higher anthropoid apes, for instance, have developed from ancestors which in the immemorial past possessed only such mental attributes as a mollusk or crustacean of today possesses. For reasons which we may never know, man, perhaps some time in the Quaternary period – or some time before...

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President Theodore Roosevelt Asserts His Belief in Evolution, in an Important Letter to Naturalist John Burroughs

TR marvels at the evolutionary advances of humans in a powerful and revelatory letter as President, attesting to his passion for and knowledge of natural history and evolution

“Man, and the higher anthropoid apes, for instance, have developed from ancestors which in the immemorial past possessed only such mental attributes as a mollusk or crustacean of today possesses. For reasons which we may never know, man, perhaps some time in the Quaternary period – or some time before – began to advance in extraordinary fashion….Wide and deep though the gulf is between even the lowest man and an anthropoid ape or some carnivore as intelligent as a dog, there are in both the latter animals and in a good many other higher animals intellectual traits and (if I may use the word very loosely) moral or ethnical traits, which represent embryonic or rudimentary forms of such intellectual and moral traits of our own, and perhaps prefigure them…”

No U.S. president is more popularly associated with nature and wildlife than is Theodore Roosevelt – life-long naturalist, prodigious hunter, tireless adventurer, and visionary conservationist.”

Nature was Theodore Roosevelt’s first passion. Long before he considered a career in politics, he had a fascination with the natural world and thought he would be a naturalist. At age nine he wrote his first long-form essay, “The Natural History of Insects.” This essay shows the observation and extraordinary memory for details that would be hallmarks of Roosevelt as a politician later in life. The area of zoology which interested him the most was ornithology. The family’s trip down the Nile in 1872 provided the fourteen year old Roosevelt with a unique opportunity. He approached the trip as an official scientific expedition for the collection of specimens for what he called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. With his sister, TR prowled the shores of the Nile, observing and hunting its fowl (in fact, it was his desire to collect specimens that led to his interest in hunting). Roosevelt continued his natural history “hobby” throughout his life, writing articles and participating in debates even during his presidency. His two best known expeditions, Africa and South America, were both sponsored scientific expeditions that, in addition to affording TR an opportunity to hunt and obtain specimens for his own collection, gathered valuable natural history data for some of the world’s most prominent museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. So as happens sometimes, the youthful passions of one individual can result in the creation of some truly wonderful things. Roosevelt was a passionate naturalist and hunter. He loved the outdoors, and the thrill of tracking and chasing game, the skill in marksmanship, the careful and deliberate recording of his observations about each hunt, the demanding preservation of specimens, and the pleasure of capturing in rich and vibrant language this experience so that he could share it with the world.

Roosevelt was well acquainted with the noted naturalists of the time. In 1903, he went with John Muir to Yosemite, camping and posing for pictures on Overhanging Rock at the top of Glacier Point . He had written Muir, “I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” A more important relationship was the one he created with John Burroughs. Burroughs contributed to the American understanding of nature through his large literary output, which included works about Henry David Thoreau, and his friend Walt Whitman, whom he admired. In 1903, Burroughs published an article in The Atlantic Monthly that challenged the sentimental and improbable characterizations of animals then being published by those he termed “nature fakers.” A battle lasting half a decade ensued as naturalists sided with Burroughs or with those he criticized. Roosevelt felt as Burroughs did. In April 1903, the two men toured Yellowstone Park together and Burroughs wrote about it in Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt, published in 1906. In planning the two-week trip to the park, he had written Burroughs, “For the last 18 months I have taken everything as it came, from coal strikes to trolley cars, and I feel I am entitled to a fortnight to myself.”  TR arrived in time to set the Roosevelt Arch’s cornerstone in a grand ceremony. In 1907 Roosevelt publicly entered the nature-fakers controversy when he gave an interview and circulated an article defending Burroughs and stating his own views. Roosevelt esteemed Burroughs and called him Oom John (the Roosevelts were of Dutch extraction), an affectionate term meaning “uncle” in Dutch.

Typed letter signed, 3 long pages, White House letterhead, Washington, May 29, 1905, to Burroughs, on humans, animals and evolution. “… I have nothing to suggest except a slight toning-down of your statement as to the effect from the protective standpoint of the mother-bird’s indistinct coloration. It is, as you point out, well-nigh impossible to say with our present knowledge exactly what effects such things have on the life of the species; yet I am strongly inclined to believe that the coloration of the mother in the case of certain ground-breeding birds, where this coloration blends with the dead leaves and soil, is of benefit. In some species the cock-bird takes part in incubating. I wonder whether this is the case as often where the cock bird is brightly colored as where he is dull colored?

“…Some of the closest observers I know – men like Hart Merriam, for instance – feel that animals do teach their young in certain cases and among the higher forms, and feel very strongly that the higher mammals, such as dogs, monkeys, wolves, foxes, and so forth, have mental faculties which are really far more akin to those of man than they are to the very rudimentary faculties out of which they wore developed in the lower forms of life. I am inclined to sympathize with both of these views myself. I think there has been preposterous exaggeration among those who speak of the conscious teaching by animals of their young but I fool that the balance of proof certainly is in favor of this being at least occasionally true. I believe it would be very valuable if we could get observations to show its frequency, and the kind of animals in which it occurs. So it is with mental processes. Man, and the higher anthropoid apes, for instance, have developed from ancestors which in the immemorial past possessed only such mental attributes as a mollusk or crustacean of today possesses. For reasons which we may never know, man, perhaps some time in the Quaternary period – or some time before – began to advance in extraordinary fashion. Yet wide and deep though the gulf is between even the lowest man and an anthropoid ape or some carnivore as intelligent as a dog, there are in both the latter animals and in a good many other higher animals intellectual traits and (if I may use the word very loosely) moral or ethnical traits, which represent embryonic or rudimentary forms of such intellectual and moral traits of our own, and perhaps prefigure them, just as the little skin-covered bony knobs or knob-like epidermal growths on the heads of the animals which, ages ago, were the ancestors of the doer, the antelope, the rhinoceros of to-day, prefigured the extraordinary horn and antler growth of the existing forms. Of course my comparison is not meant to be accurate. The distance traveled in our case has been immeasurably greater, and the make-believe out-of-door observers who read human emotions and thoughts into all kinds of birds and mammals deserve the most severe chastisement, and I fool that you rendered a really great service by what you did in reference to them; but all I moan is that I would be careful not to state my position in such extreme form as to let them shift the issue to one in which they will have very excellent observers on their side. I am aroused at your falling foul of Hudson, that Englishman who writes of South America. I happened to study what he said of the cougar, and became convinced that now and then his romances wore as wild as those of Long himself…”

An important letter of Roosevelt showing how his naturalist knowledge led to his belief in evolution.

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