An Uncivic Biology

Michael Egnor


The Scopes trial is often depicted as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of light (scientific Darwinists) and the forces of darkness (benighted citizens of Tennessee who didn’t want Darwinism taught to their children). Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1950s play “Inherit the Wind,” a fictionalized account of the Scopes trail, portrays the trial as a struggle between scientific enlightenment and ignorant fundamentalism and has become a staple of high school English classes. Yet the Scopes trial wasn’t, as a matter of law, just about teaching Darwinism in an abstract sense. Scopes violated the Tennessee law by teaching from a textbook–George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (1914).
In a recent essay in the weekly standard, A Book for No Seasons: the forgotten aspects of John Scopes’ famous biology textbook, Garin Hovannisian recounts the truth about the biology textbook that was at the center of the Scopes trial.
Hovannisian observes:

George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (1914) was the book that sparked the controversy. Condemned as heretical in 1925, today it would seem to be a manual for enlightenment’s battle against religion’s perceived mysticism. Yet if John Scopes were to teach the very same Civic Biology in a modern classroom, he would probably be put on trial again. Because buried under the dust of history is the fact that this progressive, pro-evolution text was also quite racist.

Hovannisian quotes from page 196 of Hunter’s textbook:

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.

Hovannisian notes:

Hunter was also a proponent of eugenics. “[T]he science of being well born,” his text instructed, is an imperative for sophisticated society. “When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand,” he wrote, arguing that tuberculosis, epilepsy, and even “feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.”
“If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading,” Hunter lamented in Civic Biology. “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.”[emphasis mine]

Hovannisian notes that the copy of A Civic Biology in the library of Congress is a sanitized version of the textbook at issue in the Scopes trial. The eugenic and racist sections of the actual textbook in the Scopes trial are now expunged:

Subsequent editions of the textbook, like the ones I found at the Library of Congress, were cleansed of such views. Terms like “civilized white inhabitants” were disappeared, while references to “evolution” were replaced with “development of man.” But these revisions were chiefly the design of Hunter’s publishers who, in spite of the author’s protests, sought to “omit statements that are likely to give offense to large numbers of people in control of the schools.”
Outraged by the “emasculation” of his work and out of patience by 1926, Hunter wrote, “I have never felt so depressed and disgusted with a revision as this one. I thought I had the material for a mighty good book and it was before you people spoiled it.”

The text of A Civic Biology at issue in the Scopes trial taught a doctrine of eugenics and hierarchy of races that was based explicitly on Darwin’s theory of evolution. The textbook, like the Scopes trial itself, was embraced by Darwinists in the early 20th century, and the myth that the Scopes trial was merely a ‘struggle between science and ignorance’ is promulgated by Darwinists to this day. Darwinists today generally fail to note that the use of the actual textbook at issue in the Scopes trial would today be a violation of the law of all fifty states, a violation of federal law, and would almost certainly be ruled a violation of the Constitution. Much of what Scopes actually proposed to teach the schoolchildren of Dayton was abhorrent.
You won’t learn about A Civic Biology in Inherit the Wind. The lessons Scopes actually proposed to teach the schoolchildren of Dayton have been expunged from popular memory, as well as from the Library of Congress. Yet Inherit the Wind wasn’t entirely inaccurate–the Scopes trial was indeed a struggle between two worldviews. The struggle between a ‘benighted’ and an ‘enlightened’ understanding of man continues to this day. The people of Tennessee objected to the lessions taught in A Civic Biology, and they objected to the Darwinist ‘science’ that was the explicit basis for Hunter’s textbook. In rejecting dogmatic Darwinism as an ideology unfit for the education of their children, the people of Tennessee were a bit ahead of their time.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.