Ralph Vary Chamberlin

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Not too much science but too little science is at the root of our troubles.

Ralph Vary Chamberlin (January 3, 1879 – October 31, 1967) was a biologist, ethnographer, and historian from Utah. He described over 4,000 new species, specializing in spiders, centipedes, and millipedes, but he also wrote on topics such as anthropology, language, religion, and history. A Mormon, he was in a notable modernism controversy at Brigham Young University: one of four professors whose teachings of evolution and higher criticism were seen as in conflicting with the views of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and he resigned rather than alter his teaching.


  • Only the childish and immature mind can lose by learning that much in the Old Testament is poetical and that some of the stories are not true historically. Poetry is a superior medium for conveying religious truth.
  • When we see men still so unhappily bound with prejudice and tradition that they are blind to the beauties and light of the grandest conception that science has yet won for man, we sorrow, and in sympathy again recall the plea that the unhappy Castelli made to the pope who was about to inflict punishment upon Galileo for his demonstration of the movements of the earth: "Your Holiness, nothing that can be done can now hinder the earth from moving."
  • The savage mind finds mysterious and arbitrary spiritual powers everywhere, in rivers and springs, inherent in the wind and rain, and presiding over the crops; but, with advance in civilization and the development of ordered knowledge, an ever wider compass is established as the for the reign of natural laws. Those who base their faith in God on the ever-receding miraculous phenomena, on the tacit assumption that human limitations prove the validity of religious interpretations, are ever pointing out some weak spots in the scientific web of cause and effect and saying "Here Science is baffled, and you must admit the need of God." But Science keeps extending her domain; and so the history of the thought of these men is the history of a continuous retreat. Their position is fundamentally a bad one because it makes God a personified symbol of our residuum of ignorance, and justifies Reinach's definition of religion as a "sum of scruples impeding the free use of the human faculties." No, the Creator must be seen as God of all Nature and of every natural law.
    • Life and Philosophy of W. H. Chamberlin (1925) pp.144-145
  • (E)ven within the realm of the strictly scientific; we need constant touch with the concrete realities of living nature to prevent our picturing her as exclusively such as we make her in our specialties and in our private dreams.
    • "Science and Reality" (1931) Bios Vol. 2, No. 1 , p. 39
  • As long as we go back often to Nature herself, and practice the art of then forgetting for the time the fictions and hypotheses necessary in the partial treatments of our specialities,—as long as we thereby allow Nature and her facts to speak to us for themselves,—so long shall we, after each fresh contact, return to our labors with renewed strength and clarified vision.
    • "Science and Reality" (1931) Bios Vol. 2, No. 1 , p. 40
  • The history of human progress is a story of emancipation, and its course has by no means been run. The future of the race is in all likelihood to be a scientific future, since science gives the truth needed in actual life and furnishes the means for advance, every achievement enlarging the field of subsequent possibilities. Nothing can stop this growth except suppressions of freedom.
  • Not too much science but too little science is at the root of our troubles.
  • If you can bring me one student whose faith I have injured in Mormonism, I will bring you five that you, through your narrowness, have driven out of the church.

Quotes about Chamberlin[edit]

A man who worked while others slept.
  • A patient bug-hunter who often remembers his classes.... Strong advocate of modern ideas and an authority on spiders and basket-ball. He sees with one eye what many do not see with two. "A man who worked while others slept."
    • Junior class of Brigham Young University, 1911 The Banyan (quote beneath Chamberlin's faculty photograph in the BYU yearbook)
  • He has been able to to lead the naive student with fixed religious convictions gently around that wide gulf that separated him from the trained scientific mind without pushing him over the precipice of despair and illusion.
    • Angus M. Woodbury and Grace A. Woodbury (1958). "Ralph Vary Chamberlin: educational and cultural contributions". The Biologist 40: 21–26.
  • This man is no mere scholar, one of the common herd, but is a giant among his contemporaries. History will bear out that in his contributions to knowledge in the biological and other sciences he walks abreast of such great figures as Baird, Merriam, Gray, and others.
    • Stephen D. Durrant (1958). "The contributions to science of Ralph Vary Chamberlin". The Biologist 40: 27–30.
  • He was one of the great figures in the university [of Utah]. As a matter of fact, Chamberlin was the university’s most celebrated scientist, world famous in entomology. I think his specialty was spiders. Now, I mention Chamberlin not simply because he was important as a scientist, though he certainly was, but because he was tremendously important in the intellectual life of Utah. He was at the center of the 1911 hassle over evolution at the BYU, in many ways the most important dispute in the intellectual history of Utah.

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