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Why I am an Infidel: Luther Burbank
Why I am an Infidel: Luther Burbank
Introduction by Frank R. Zindler
Growing up on my grandfather's small farm in Michigan, I learned early-on that some of the most beautiful flowers and the most delicious and productive varieties of fruits and vegetables had been 'produced' by a man named Burbank. After I learned how to read real books, not just the primers and readers taught in the two-room school I attended, one of the first books of any kind I was to read all the way through was a children's biography of the \Plant Wizard\ Luther Burbank. The book gave no hint that the man who had been named after the founder of my family's religion held heterodox views in the sphere of faith. There was not a word or phrase that would have suggested that Luther not only wasn't a Lutheran, he wasn't even a Christian or believer of any kind at all. Luther Burbank (1849-1926) became my first hero, and I read his biography at least twice. I resolved to follow in his footsteps - perhaps to become a Lutheran Luther Jr. Life is irony!
It wasn't until years later, after I had graduated from college - perhaps significantly, as a biologist with a heavy emphasis in botany - that I happened to learn the truth about Luther Burbank. (No, Burbank California is not named after Luther Burbank; rather, it is named after a Los Angeles dentist, David Burbank.) The man whose fungus-resistant potatoes had restored to life Catholic Ireland was an 'Infidel' - an unbeliever in any of the superstitions afflicting this credulous world of ours.
I have long wanted to publish a tribute to Burbank in this journal, but I have never had the time to research a completely original article. As other projects have had to take priority over the Burbank project, I have begun to worry that it will never come to publication and that my childhood hero will pass into oblivion and be forgotten even by members of the American Atheist community. For this reason, I have decided to reprint the full text of the 'Little Blue Book' of E. Haldeman-Julius dealing with Burbank: Why I Am An Infidel: Luther Burbank, LITTLE BLUE BOOK NO. 1020, Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius (Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Company, no date). In addition, I am reprinting part of a chapter from George E. Macdonald's book Fifty Years of Freethought (1931) that contains the actual survey questionnaire to which Burbank replied and touched off the wave of hostile reaction alluded to in the Little Blue Book.
Why I Am An Infidel
by Luther Burbank
[Pages 5-9 of E. Haldeman-Julius' Little Blue Book No. 1020]
Science is knowledge arranged and classified according to truth, facts, and the general laws of nature. Our Dr. David Starr Jordan defines it more briefly as \organized human knowledge\ or \human experience tested and set in order.\
There are always at least two sides of every question which may be suggested to the human mind. Sometimes both views are correct, but far more often one is right, and according to facts and truth, the other wrong. All personal, social, moral, and national success depends upon the judicious wisdom of our choices made by the aid of science. Narrow personal prejudices and feelings quite too often becloud the issue and ultimate defeat is the inevitable result.
Life as we see it around us on this planet is usually thought to be confined to man, animals, and plants, those organisms which grow and reproduce their kind with more or less precision. Why should we omit crystals which grow as truly as plants and reproduce themselves quite as precisely to type, or the more primitive forms of life which are reproduced by division? Science is proving that the world is not half dead, but that every atom is all life and motion.
Life is self-expression, intricate organized polarity. The lure of happiness and the fear of pain are fundamental qualities possessed by all living things and are the two forces which have through untold millenniums kept what we usually call life from destruction by the ever encroaching outside forces of destruction. Life is heredity plus environment. At birth of a plant, animal, or man, heredity has already been fixed. Environment may now call into action only those tendencies which have been experienced in the age long past, yet may recombine and intensify them in a most surprising way. Such a modification is limited, generally, to the individual, but may, if repeated generation after generation, by slow increments at last become fixed and available in the species.
Assimilation and reproduction are, and, of course, must be fundamental and universal. The power of adaptation to various conditions which beset all life may also be considered as fundamental for the continuation of any species. All these various powers of adaptation have to be acquired individually and repeated indefinitely until so fixed in the life stream that they are reproduced. Repetition is the means of impressing any quality or character in animal life or in man and by just the same means plants are impressed, and their qualities and habits changed as we desire. All life depends upon a series of selections, and repetitions.
The first faint glimmerings of choice may be seen in the polarity of the magnet, next we see it perhaps in plants and the more primitive forms of life, and as we mount higher and higher in the scale of life there is more and more freedom of choice and less dependence upon heredity.
Ancient tribes and nations had many gods, often one for almost every phenomenon of nature. The Hebrews have the credit of inventing the conception of ourmonotheistic Jewish-Christian God, who however is represented as having most of the weaknesses and bad habits of primitive man; this was a step in the path of evolution toward man's present conception of God; the God within us is the only available God we know, and the clear light of science teaches us that we must be our own saviors, if we are to be found worth saving; in other words, to depend upon the \kingdom within.\ The manhood and womanhood which would make the most of life in service to others is a sublimated form of the best of self which leads the way to a long lifetime of usefulness, happiness, health, and peace.
There are without doubt some human beings in every nation, who, according to our present standards of civilization are truly civilized, but grave doubts may be entertained as to any community or any nation who could in any way measure up even to this standard scale of life, where we find more and more freedom, but even man today is far from free. Slaves yet to war, crime, and ignorance - the only \unpardonable sin.\ Slaves to unnumbered ancient \taboos,\ superstitions, prejudices, and fallacies, which one by one are slowly but surely weakening under the clear light of the morning of science; the savior of mankind. Science which has opened our eyes to the vastness of the universe and given us light, truth, and freedom from fear where once was darkness, ignorance, and superstition. There is no personal salvation, there is no national salvation, except through science. There are too few who exploit the inexhaustible forces of nature and far too many who exploit their fellow beings. Useless waste and unnecessary parasitism take at least nine-tenths of the productive capacity of the United States.
Will the growing intelligence of man (Science) forever tolerate the wholesale production of the ever-increasing proportion of idiots, morons, mongoloids, insane, criminal, weak, destitute, nervous, diseased half men and women who infest the earth to their own sorrow and disgrace and perhaps the ultimate destruction of our present state of civilization? A knowledge of the fundamental laws of nature, not inefficient palliatives, is the first step. Is there a problem equal to the building of a better humanity? Our lives as we live them are passed on to others whether in physical or mental forms tinging all future lives forever. This should be enough for one who lives for truth and service to his fellow passengers on the way. No avenging Jewish God, no satanic Devil, no fiery hell is of any interest to him. The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead. Every normal human being has ideals, one or many, to look up to, reach up to, to grow up to. Religion refers to the sentiments and feelings; science refers to the demonstrated everyday laws of Nature. Feelings are all right, if one does not get drunk on them. Prayer may be elevating if combined with works, and they who labor with head, hands, or feet have faith and are generally quite sure of an immediate and favorable reply.
Those who take refuge behind theological barbed wire fences, quite often wish they could have more freedom of thought, but fear the change to the great ocean of scientific truth as they would a cold bath plunge.
Mr. [William Jennings] Bryan [the presidential candidate and anti-evolution Scopes Trial orator] was an honored personal friend of mine, yet this need not prevent the observation that the skull with which Nature endowed him visibly approached the Neanderthal type. Feelings and the use of gesticulations and words are more according to the nature of this type than investigation and reflection.
Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity, and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope, and the spectroscope or any other instrument of precision which may in the future be invented, constructed or used for the discovery of truth.
(Apparently written by Haldeman-Julius)
[Pages 3-4 of E. Haldeman-Julius' Little Blue Book No. 1020]
Luther Burbank, naturalist, originator of new fruits, flowers, etc., was born in Massachusetts in 1849. he was always devoted to nature study, especially plant life, with which he early began to experiment. He moved to Santa Rosa, California, in 1875, where he conducted Burbank's Experiment Farms. He often had several thousand distinct experiments under way - even at the time of his death growing some five thousand distinct botanical specimens from all over the world. He was also a special lecturer on evolution at Leland Stanford, Jr., University. His fame as a botanist and inventor of new plant forms awakened widespread interest in plant breeding throughout the world. In January, 1926, Luther Burbank made a declaration of agnosticism to a newspaper reporter. Although Burbank's rationalistic convictions were not by any means unknown to readers of his books, or to his friends, the publication of this interview in the newspapers created a furore of criticism throughout the country. Since it then became known generally to the public at large, the facts about Luther Burbank's agnosticism were news. In spite of criticism from the pulpits, he refused to qualify his unequivocal statements. \I am an infidel,\ he said.
About the middle of March Luther Burbank became Ill with gastro-intestinal complications. He died April 11, 1926. Lest the \last words\ of this infidel be garbled in future ages to delude credulous mankind, it should be emphatically stated that Luther Burbank did not recant - even the newspaper accounts of his death made this fact clear. He remained an infidel until the last - an unbeliever, scientifically sure of himself, passing from life into darkness.