Jenks as Natural Theologian: Bumpus and the Hippopotamus

By LILY BENEDICT

Jenks’ approach to natural history was religiously motivated. Like his mentor, Louis Agassiz, he subscribed to a belief system known as natural theology. Jenks wrote in his textbook ‘A Popular Zoology’:

Jenks as Natural Theologian: Bumpus, Piety, and the Hippo

“Man, the lord of the animal kingdom, is constructed after the same type as the cat which purrs at his feet, the ox which he eats, the horse which bears his burden, the bird which sings in his gilded cage, the snake which crawls hissing across his pathway, the toad which hides in his garden, and the fish which swims in his aquarium. All are modifications of one creative thought, showing how the Almighty Worker delights in repeating the same chord, with infinite variations.”

In Jenks’ biotheological worldview, every species was created for a particular purpose in a particular environment, and there was much emphasis on how animals were designed for harmony with their surroundings. To study nature was to gain insight into the mind and intentions of the Almighty Creator. For example, in that same textbook, we find the passage:

“The hippopotamus of Africa is amphibious, with horizontally-projecting lower incisors and strong vertical canines. A greedy feeder, it sinks to the bed of the sluggish stream, where it can remain six or eight minutes, digs up a quantity of aquatic vegetation, rises to the top, and, washing the mass, devours it while leisurely floating on the surface. It is exactly fitted to dredge the rivers and keep open the channels, so apt to become filled with the luxuriant growth of that tropical region.”

What foresight for the Creator to endow ‘that tropical region’ with a beast to ‘dredge the rivers and keep open the channels’, lest they become impassable!

Not all of Jenks’ students shared his worldview, many of them embracing the dreaded theories of Darwin. As evolutionary theory was changing the study of biology, some of Jenks’ students and colleagues began to find him old-fashioned. The following story was recollected in a biography of Jenks’ student, Hermon Carey Bumpus.

“Professor Jenks, representing as it were the end of an epoch, clung tenaciously to the ideals of the philosophy of special creation . . . Bumpus was appointed an assistant in the museum because of his skills in sketching animals and mounting specimens. He was able to help in the revision and illustration of many of Jenks’ scientific writings. In revising one of his books on zoology, Jenks particularly cautioned his assistant to retain his statement on the use of the hippopotamus: “It is exactly fitted to dredge the rivers and keep open the channels” The whimsical Bumpus countered with the query, “Shall I say the beaver was exactly fitted to dam up the rivers of North America?””

(Lest this bit of whimsy be lost on the modern-day reader, beavers’ dams were seen as something of a nuisance at the time – and surely the Creator did not squander his time and efforts creating nuisances.)

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