Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Scopes Monkey Trial

Darwinism is as true as scientific truth can be as a theory of biology, and most of us can agree that teaching creationism in biology classes is a bad idea.

The efforts of Christian fundamentalists to include creationism in the public school biology curriculum is often cited as archtypical of the conflict between the forces of rationality and science and those of fundamentalist religious superstition.

An event often cited as an example of this conflict is the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial in 1925 pitted populist William Jennings Bryan and his friends against defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and his client John Scopes, who was accused of violating a state law against teaching Darwinism in a public school.

Recently, this episode of American history has been revisited by several pundits, and liberals often cite the trial to frame their opposition to the conservative political agenda in terms similar to those used to characterize the Scopes Trial, i.e., the battle of the rational, scientific and informed against the superstitious and ignorant.

However, in delving into the history of the Scopes Trial one finds that things were not as they are often portrayed in the popular media (or in the news media of the day, for that matter.) For example, the idea that William Jennings Bryan objected to the teaching of evolution only because he thought it undermined the Christian religion is a myth. It wasn't just the right to teach the theory of evolution as a theory of biology that was being defended in the trial.

The textbook from which Mr. Scopes was accused of teaching was A Civic Biology Presented in Problems by George William Hunter. In this text the theory of evolution was not primarily what was being taught, certainly not in a proper biological sense. There was not much in it about Darwin's evidence, nothing about how the theory was developed, no biological examples, nothing that put the idea in a biological context. In fact, the main trust of the book was eugenics, which in the 1920's was considered to be the logical, scientific and rational extension of the theory of evolution into civic life. Civic Biology went into what the author thought were the logical conclusions that could be derived from the theory of evolution in justification of eugenics, such as the idea of white supremacy, the "scientific" justification of the inferiority of certain other races, the necessity of racial purity, and so forth.

Eugenics was what passed for a progressive and rational idea of that day. It was the backward, irrational, religious fanatics like Bryan, who insisted that all men are equal in God's eyes, that objected to the advocacy of eugenics. Bryan, informed by his religious beliefs, strongly upheld the ideals of human rights and equality. These were the same religious ideas and beliefs that had been used to advocate for the abolition of slavery 60 years before.

Looking back on this from our present position in history, having seen where these racist ideas lead, it is difficult for us to understand the thinking process behind the trial. Both Bryan and Darrow looked upon all of the racist ideas advocated in Civic Biology as being a corollary of Darwinism. There was no attempt to seperate Darwinism, which as a theory of biology stood up well even then, from derivative ideas like racism and eugenics. It was all part of a piece. Darwinism was eugenics and eugenics was Darwinism.

In the trial, Darrow made no bones about his approval of eugenics as a scientific and rational idea. The first witness for the defense was Maynard M. Metcalf, a member of the American Eugenics Society. The judge ruled such testimony immaterial and for that was ridiculed by the press for refusing to consider the scientific evidence.

Bryan, who was often called "the great common man" because of his advocacy of equality and social justice, saw where the whole idea of Darwinism/eugenics was leading. The fact that Darwinism appeared to contradict Christian teaching was to him just one part of the evidence that the whole thing was wrong. Bryan didn't object to a theory that made men the relatives of monkeys so much as he objected to a theory that justified treating people like animals. Of Darwinism, he wrote that "Its only program for man is scientific breeding, a system under which a few supposedly superior intellects, self-appointed, would direct the mating and the movements of the mass of mankind -- an impossible system!"

Whenever people advocating a secular and progressive agenda get frustrated with the objections of religious people they should stop and consider what it was their counterparts were defending in the Scopes Monkey Trial. That's not to advocate for the ascendency of religion over science and rationality in public policy, but, at the very least, to say that that religion and traditional values have a necessary role.