The infamous Scopes “monkey” trial is typically remembered today as a battle royal between ignorant Bible thumpers and the enlightened defenders of evolution and scientific progress. Journalist H.L. Mencken framed his narrative of the trial this way, and the didactic play and film Inherit the Wind spread the caricature to future generations.
In truth, many defenders of evolution during the Scopes trial era were anything but enlightened.
Their politically incorrect views are on prominent display in the new film Alleged, a delightfully contrarian retelling of the Scopes trial. Alleged is a drama, not a documentary, and so lots of details are added to create a compelling story. But its overall depiction of the controversy surrounding the trial is far truer to what actually happened than Inherit the Wind.
An important case in point: Alleged shows how the defenders of Scopes weren’t nearly the sophisticated proponents of good science that they are often made out to be.
As I explained in a previous article, Alleged accurately portrays how many scientists and doctors of the era embraced the junk science of eugenics on Darwinian grounds. The film also deftly reveals that the biology textbook Scopes was expected to teach from (Hunter’s Civic Biology) dispensed a ravingly racist version of human evolution, with “the Ethiopian or negro type” placed at the bottom of the human evolutionary tree and “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America” enshrined at the top as “the highest type of all.” The same textbook smeared the poor, the sick, and the disabled as “parasites,” adding that “if such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.” It’s hard to imagine many Darwinists today advocating for the right of high school biology teachers to teach THAT. You can read for yourself the actual pages of Hunter’s Civic Biology here.
In addition their raging Social Darwinism, many evolution proponents of the era embraced flaky scientific evidence to support their views. As Alleged shows in some funny scenes, the defenders of Darwin of the time offered up such now-discredited icons of evolution as Haeckel’s embryos and “Nebraska Man.” The latter creature was supposedly an ancient manlike ape, identified primarily by a single tooth found in Nebraska. Just a couple of months before the Scopes trial, Henry Fairfield Osborn, one of the nation’s leading evolutionary biologists at Columbia University, published an article attacking William Jennings Bryan in which he cited the tooth as “irrefutable evidence that the man-apes wandered over from Asia into North America.” Bryan scoffed at Osborn’s claim, and in retrospect, Bryan got the better of the argument. As viewers of the film learn at the end, the “irrefutable” tooth of so-called “Nebraska Man” was later determined to have come from an extinct pig!
The depictions in Alleged of scientific credulity are undeniably entertaining, but they also raise a serious point: We hear a lot today about trusting the “scientific consensus” because scientists are supposed to be above the fray and untainted by the prejudices and gullibility of ordinary people. But as Alleged points out, the scientific community itself can be dominated by a dogmatism that subverts rational thought and an honest evaluation of the evidence.
Intriguingly, this truth seems to have been recognized by none other than John Scopes later in life. If you watch Alleged, check out the amazing quote from Scopes at the very end. It will surprise you.