From July 10-21, we passed through the 82nd anniversary of "the trial of the century," the infamous Scopes trial in the state of Tennessee in 1925.
Eighty-two years later, on the substance of the matter, who was right, and who was wrong? This case has many threads. Here we examine just one of them.
At issue in the trial were certain chapters of the biology text mandated by the State of Tennessee (and many other states of the Union). For nearly a decade, George W. Hunter's A Civic Biology (1914) was the most widely used high school science text in the nation, supported by distinguished professors at Pomona, Brown, and Columbia Universities. The State of Tennessee had no problem with the bulk of the text, concerning the evolution of the earth, its plants, and its animals. In 1919, the Tennessee Textbook Commission prescribed this text for use in all its public schools. Then in March of 1925, the Legislature passed a law as follows:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
Did this law conflict with the selection of A Civic Biology? Apparently not. The text remained in use throughout the state. The Statute was understood to be aimed at teaching about the origin of human beings ("the Divine Creation of man"), not the rest of creation. It intended to reserve to parents the right to instruct their own young in matters of human nature and destiny.
Meanwhile, on that subject, which may be paraphrased this way: "Who are we, we human beings? What ought we to do? What may we hope?" A Civic Biology included such scarlet passages as the following:
At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America (196).
If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part (261).
When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, that dread white plague which is still responsible for almost one seventh of all deaths, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics (261).
Unruffled, it plows ahead:
Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents. The "Jukes" family is a notorious example…. In seventy-five years the progeny of the original generation has cost the state of New York over a million and a quarter of dollars…. If such people were lower animals; we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race (261-263).
Many taxpayers in Tennessee objected to these implications of the doctrine of evolution. And these implications were made explicit in the very science text required by their state. Even prior to the Tennessee law of 1925, so great was the outcry against these passages in many other states that the publisher, American Book Company, insisted on rewriting them (Tennessee used the original 1914 edition until 1926).
Meanwhile, after the new Tennessee law was promulgated, the American Civil Liberties Union began advertising all over the state of Tennessee for someone, anyone, to please step forward to challenge this law in Court. The city fathers of Dayton saw a great opportunity to attract national tourism. For the good of the town, they urged the new young football coach (and substitute biology teacher) to say he had violated the law during his two-week stint of substitute teaching that April. Prominent scientists from the major universities of the United States flocked to Dayton, Tennessee, to challenge in court the right of the state to prevent civil contention in public schools on the facts and implications of human evolution. The expert witnesses never once distanced themselves from the inflammatory passages in A Civic Biology. Indeed, some were active supporters of the Eugenics movement in America, as was Hunter's text.
After the horrid abuses of Darwinian eugenics by the Nazis in the 1930s, even few liberal scholars today approve of these passages, as once prescribed for instruction in the public high schools of Tennessee. Among the first to awaken to the moral evils lurking in these passages had been the most left-wing Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in U.S. history, William Jennings Bryan. Mr. Bryan's nickname among the people since the year of his first presidential candidacy (1896) was "The Great Commoner." His most recent biographer, Michael Kazin, expatiates on Bryan's attachments both to Thomas Jefferson and to the sort of rural yeomen on whom Jefferson rested his moral hopes for the Republic.
Indeed, Bryan took on the arduous Scopes case, even though his health was flagging, on the basis of a solid Jeffersonian principle: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical" (Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786). He pointed out three implications that many professors of that time were drawing from Darwin's "natural selection." Among these were not only eugenics, but also the nihilistic morals of Nietzsche (as in Darrow's complaint about the University of Chicago in Leopold-Loeb) and the "moral obligation" of "superior" races such as the Germans in World War I to overpower the weak races (e.g. the Belgians) for the future welfare of the human race. Bryan had been awakened to this last point by Headquarters Nights, Stanford biologist and pacifist Vernon L. Kellogg's report on conversations with the German General Staff in Belgium in 1914.
These implications of evolution then being taught in American schools and promoted by the tonier set, now seem to most scholars repulsive. At least on the limited point of coercive eugenics, the State of Tennessee was right, while the promoters of eugenics as a corollary of human evolution were wrong. These promoters were wrong to interpret science that way, and wrong to impose it coercively on public school students.