Everything I thought I knew about the Scopes trial is wrong

The Scopes trial, the famous 1925 showdown, which pitted modern science, represented by celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow, against religious obscurantism, represented by politician and statesman William Jennings Bryan, was a victory for the forces of progress and modernity — right?

Well, apparently not. In Lecture 9 of his UCSD course, Culture, Art & Technology II (feed), Professor Tal Golan, tells a different story. For those of us who got our image of the Scopes trial from the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, here’s what really happened.

Defendant John Scopes was not the heroic science teacher determined to fight the misguided Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution. Indeed, he was recruited by leading citizens of Dayton Tennessee who thought that the publicity generated by a sensational trial would help the town’s economy.

It’s true that the two celebrity lawyers, Bryan and Darrow, were at the center of the trial, which was widely reported in the nation’s newspapers. It’s true that Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand as an expert in the Bible, and that Darrow’s aggressive questioning made Bryan look a bit of a fool. Scopes was found guilty, and fined $100. The Tennessee State Supreme Court reversed the conviction on a technicality and it’s true that Bryan‘s campaign for laws against teaching evolution received a serious setback.

More important, Golan examines the ways that the theory of evolution was then used as a bulwark for racist theories and to support eugenics, the then popular and respectable scientific movement which aimed to improve the human race by rational breeding. He reads from the Tennessee biology textbook, Civic Biology, used by Scopes, which coupled teachings about evolution with advocacy of eugenics, passages which sound incredibly racist to modern ears.

An exerpt:

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. — Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

The Remedy. — 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. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.

Inherit the Wind was written in the 1950s as a protest against McCarthyism, and the anti-evolution forces were clearly the narrowminded bad guys, and the pro-evolution forces were clearly the progressive good guys. But in the actual Scopes trial, the distinctions were less clear. Considering the uses the Nazis made of eugenics during World War II, we can see that there was a lot to dislike in the way biology was taught in America of 1925.

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