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Monkeying with the Monkey Trial


Jerry Coyne has been in a tizzy about David Klinghoffer’s and my posts on his bizarre photo taken while he was hugging the grave of John Scopes, the defendant in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Coyne hides behind the skirt of English historian Adam Shapiro, a self-styled expert on the trial who wrote a book about it. 

Shapiro raises some issues on his blog that should be addressed. Sharpiro with my commentary:

Why Attacking John Scopes as Racist isn’t True

Two fellows of the Discovery Institute have been criticizing biologist and prominent critic of antievolutionism Jerry Coyne after he posted a picture of himself visiting the grave of John Scopes earlier this month. The substance of both Michael Egnor‘s and David Klinghoffer‘s response was the same: Scopes was put on trial for teaching from a horribly racist textbook that promoted eugenics. Therefore, it’s unconscionable that Coyne should embrace Scopes (or more specifically his tombstone,) or declare that he should like to shake Scopes’s hand, unless Coyne was also legitimating the horrible racism that Scopes taught to some poor innocent Tennessee school children.

Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution to schoolchildren in Tennessee. What Scopes actually taught, if anything, is unclear, because Scopes was untruthful about what he did, and the trial was a legal ploy to spur a Supreme Court ruling. The truth was a secondary consideration at best to Scopes and to his team. 

Hunter’s textbook Civic Biology was racist and taught eugenics. It was vile stuff. If a teacher taught from it today, he would not be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. He would be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations. 

Shapiro correctly observes that Tennessee school children were innocent, and largely poor. And their parents didn’t want them taught human evolutionary swill in school. 

Coyne responded to these posts which prompted an even longer response from Egnor which essentially doubled down on Scopes’s alleged racism, and demanded that Scopes ought to have "taught the controversy" rather than just teaching eugenics.

Seems an obvious point. Since Scopes was obfuscating about what he actually taught, we have to go with hypotheticals. Should Scopes have taught eugenic racism from the text, or should he have taught the kids that this was dodgy science and repellant morality? Coyne and Shapiro are still thinking about it.

Egnor’s first post links to the Wikipedia page for the textbook Scopes used in 1925, George W. Hunter’s 1914 Civic Biology. (Egnor also links to a page from the UMKC law project that shows some pages scanned from the textbook, but he quotes directly from the Wikipedia page. The UMKC link doesn’t contain all of the material that’s cited. It seems that Egnor went only by what he read on Wikipedia, even though the entire Civic Biology is available for free, at least in the US on google books.) As I’ll discuss a bit later on, the quotes from Hunter’s text in the Wikipedia entry are somewhat out of context, running together passages from different parts of the book, which give the impression that evolution and eugenics were closely related.

I quote the text. And of course evolution and eugenics were closely related. Eugenics was experimental human evolution, as defined by eugenicists. The headquarters of eugenic science in the United States at Cold Spring Harbor was founded in 1904 and was named the Station for Experimental Evolution. 

I noticed that the Wikipedia page for the Civic Biology actually cites my book as a reference, but clearly Egnor didn’t bother with it. Egnor (and Klinghoffer’s) posts are rife with patently false historical assertions about Scopes and about the Civic Biology. Coyne’s has some error as well, but much less.

Why I would quote Shapiro’s obscure book is unclear, when I quoted the actual text of Civic Biology. If I wanted to quote a water-carrier for eugenic historical revision, I had many other choices. Most of the other sources sharing Shapiro’s apologetic eugenic historiography were written in German, but translations are available. 

Did Scopes Teach the Eugenics Section of the Civic Biology? 

Egnor states that "Coyne’s hero taught the schoolchildren of Dayton from a textbook with rancid eugenic racist hate." But (as Coyne correctly points out) Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, he only filled in as a substitute briefly. It’s almost certain that Scopes, personally, did not cover the eugenics passages. For that matter, Scopes was unsure that he’d even taught evolution, relating in his memoir that he had to go back and look in the textbook to even be sure it was in there.

Would you forget whether you gave a lecture endorsing eugenic genocide?

But Egnor’s subtle and precise in never actually stating that Scopes taught racism or eugenics. In his second post he says: "Scopes’s legacy consists entirely of inviting prosecution by proudly teaching human evolution from a eugenic racist textbook." Scopes taught the textbook. The textbook taught eugenics. Given that Scopes didn’t even remember whether he’d covered evolution, it’s probable that he didn’t even know (beforehand) that the textbook he was reviewing contained eugenics. Nonetheless, Scopes is morally appalling to Egnor and Klinghoffer because of his association with the textbook. By extension, Coyne is appalling because of his embrace of Scopes.

Scopes didn’t remember if he covered evolution. Scopes didn’t know if the textbook contained eugenics. The textbook he admitted using contained eugenics and racist swill. All, apparently, reasons the Coyne couldn’t resist hugging his grave. 

Perhaps, if Scopes had remembered teaching non-racist-non-eugenic human evolution, Coyne, being an enlightened fellow, would have been even more enthusiastic, and would have dug Scopes up and kissed him.

Interestingly, William Jennings Bryan tried the same thing during the Scopes trial. In one of his speeches, he began to attack Hunter’s Civic Biology for other material that it contained rather than the part that ostensibly put Scopes afoul of the law. (Note that even then, Bryan didn’t even think the Eugenics was worth mentioning.) As I argue in my book, this backfired tremendously as it opened the door to the defense to discuss the broader relationship of evolution to religion.

Bryan detested the Darwinian paean to natural selection and survival of the fittest in human evolution as an incitement to cruelty to the weak and as a horrendous affront to human dignity. He was right, as any reading of Civic Biology, and any honest historiography of the first century of Darwinism and eugenics, will attest. 

Did Scopes’s Accusers Mind the Racism or Eugenics of the Civic Biology 

In an earlier post, I argued that antievolutionists in the 1910s and 20s were not motivated by antagonism towards eugenics. In fact, the same year that the antievolution law was passed, the state legislature also passed a General Education Bill that reinforced school segregation.

Tennessee was one of the minority of states that refused to pass a eugenic sterilization law. Shapiro slanders the good people who tried to prevent the teaching of racist eugenic swill to their children.

If anything John Scopes indicates in his memoir that his family was quite opposed to racism.

Scopes was untruthful about the entire context of the trial. Yet his memoirs, Shapiro insists, are to be trusted implicitly. Scopes’s memory improved after the trial? He remembered that he was no racist. But he still couldn’t remember if he taught that weak people should be sterilized and that Negroes are closer than Caucasians to apes.

Historian Jeffrey Moran has noted that while some African-Americans were opposed to evolution at the time of the Scopes trial, their concerns were its incompatibility with scripture not the purported eugenic applications of evolution. Moran also noted that

African-American intellectuals invoked Scopes and the respectability of science as part of their struggle against white supremacy in the South: they identified with John Scopes as a victim of southern repression and they claimed that antievolutionism derived much of its strength from racist assumptions that resonated with white southerners. 

After insulting Tennesseans for opposing eugenic racism in their schools, Shapiro claims that blacks were really on the Darwinian side. I wonder how many black kids learned their biology from the chapters in Civic Biology that Scopes taught (or didn’t teach or whatever). "Mama, I didn’t do so well on the bio final, but it says that we’re closer to the anthropomorphous apes, so there’ll be a curve." 

If people thought that Scopes and what he taught was deeply racist, you’d think that would show up more among the racial minorities who were close audiences to the Scopes trial. For the record, although Bryan was personally opposed to the KKK, he also opposed the Democratic Party’s consideration of a 1924 platform resolution condemning them. At least for some African-Americans, Bryan’s accommodation of the KKK a year earlier certainly shaped their distrust of his agendas at the Scopes trial.

After insulting Tennesseans for rejecting Darwinian filth about human evolution and asserting that blacks really liked being compared to apes by Darwinists, Shapiro tries to stick the KKK label on Bryan, who detested and fought the Klan all his life. 

Such is Shapiro’s "scholarship." Carrying water for eugenicists is no easy task, nor pretty.

How Racist Was Eugenics in the 1920s? 

Eugenics was described by Hunter in the Civic Biology as the improvement of the human population, not as the basis of ensuring the superiority of those races. It’s true that eugenic sterilizations in the United States (some of which stayed on the books until the 21st century) were deeply racially skewed: both in terms of racist assumptions built into intelligence testing and in selective enforcement of the eugenic laws. However, the racial disparities became more pronounced after the Second World War. In the 1910s and 20s, eugenics seems to have been less about race and more about class: specifically the class of people who were perceived as non-contributors to society: criminals, the "feebleminded" and the immoral.

Eugenicists attributed class degeneration to biological factors, prime of which were race. Shapiro, who brandishes his purported scholarship on eugenics and race, should read Lothrop Stoddard’s classic 1920 eugenic text The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published five years before the Scopes Trial, during which Shapiro claims that eugenics wasn’t racist. Harvard-trained Stoddard was perhaps the early 20th century’s most prominent scientific racist and a leading (and foaming) eugenicist. 

In human evolutionary biology, race and class were joined at the eugenic hip, without a sliver of light between them. 

Eugenics was considered an application of a biological principle of heredity more so than evolution (inasmuch as those could be seen as distinct principles.) This included the presumption that at the cultural and developmental level, social improvements (or disimprovements) could be passed on. The eugenic theories that were outlined in Hunter in 1914 were based on a combination of hard (genetic) inheritance principles as well as "soft inheritance." That is to say that (this era of eugenics) prescribed neither essentialist or hierarchical views of race.

Eugenics was applied human evolution — experimental evolution as the eugenicists named it — and the science of eugenics antedated the science of genetics by more than a generation. Galton (Darwin’s cousin) introduced eugenics in 1871 and named it in 1883. The Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor — the excrescence of eugenic science in America — opened in 1904, a year before the word "genetics" first appeared in the scientific literature. 

Human evolutionary biology and eugenic science routinely invoked the proximity of Negroes to anthropomorphous apes, although not essentially or hierarchically proximal, as Dr. Shapiro reassuringly points out. 

The passages of Hunter’s textbook that talks about the hierarchy of races are part of the section that discusses human evolution. But those are in a completely different chapter than the passages on eugenics.

One chapter on human evolution, and one chapter on applied human evolution. For some reason, Shapiro believes this makes eugenics less racist.

Egnor states without citation: "Eugenic racism in 1925 was consensus science in the field of human evolution." This statement is wrong on several levels. It’s wrong that eugenics was primarily about race (in 1925). It’s wrong that eugenics was primarily considered an application of human evolution (as opposed to heredity.) And it’s wrong to claim that it was a consensus. But disagreeing only with the last of those three claims tacitly reinforces the first two. This is an extremely subtle — and dishonest — rhetorical strategy.

Eugenics was about hate, for which race was central. 

As I observed in a previous article, eugenics in 1925 was consensus science in the field of human evolution. By the late 1920s there were 376 eugenics courses in leading universities — Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, to name a few — along with enthusiastic support from media and government. Eugenic science was funded lavishly by the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Harriman Railroad foundation, and the wealthy businessman J.H. Kellogg. Many national and international conferences on eugenics and human evolution were hosted at leading research institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History, and eugenic science gained the imprimatur of leading scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. By the 1930s, 31 states in the U.S. had passed compulsory sterilization laws based on mainstream eugenic science and human evolution, and eugenics would receive the explicit endorsement of the Supreme Court in 1926. By the end of the first half of the 20th century, sixty thousand Americans had been sterilized involuntarily on the basis of consensus eugenic science.

Nazi eugenics was a derivative of American (and to a lesser extent British) eugenics, and German eugenicists were effusive in their praise and acknowledgment of debt to American eugenicists.

There was astonishingly little criticism of eugenics from the scientific community in the United States, and almost none from the evolutionary biology community. The list of pioneering unrepentant eugenicists is a subset of the list of Darwin Medal recipients. The few scientists who did dissent in the 1920s were geneticists (T.H. Morgan), although most of the genetic dissent was on the science, not on the ethics. Of prominent evolutionary biologists, J.B.S. Haldane was almost alone in consistently criticizing eugenics as an affront to human dignity. 

Eugenics was mainstream consensus evolutionary biology. The complicity of the scientific community — and the near-unanimity of support from evolutionary biology — was a scandal of astonishing proportions, and the complicity of modern historians in covering up the truth of eugenics remains no less a scandal. 

Among historiographic apologists for eugenics, casuistry such as Shapiro’s is (to borrow a phrase) an extremely subtle — and dishonest — rhetorical strategy.

None of this is to say that eugenic practices were morally justified or shouldn’t shock us, but they weren’t directly connected to evolution. Scopes and other readers of Hunter’s textbook wouldn’t have seen it that way.

Eugenics was directly connected to evolution. Eugenics was a sub-discipline of human evolutionary biology — "Experimental Evolution" as eugenicists at Cold Spring Harbor named their Station. The evolutionary rationale for eugenics was simple: man had evolved by natural selection, but civilization’s care for the weak and dissolute threatened the degeneration of the human species. It was necessary, to preserve the human race, to take evolution in hand, and to prevent the unfit from procreating. 

The only alternatives to eugenics, from the Darwinian perspective, was natural selection — wholesale slaughter of the unfit by the fit — or evolutionary catastrophe. 

Eugenics was advanced (incredibly) as humane enlightened applied human evolution. Contra Shapiro, eugenics was directly and explicitly connected to evolution. 

The fact of the Scopes trial is simply that Scopes advanced the credibility and the teaching of evolutionary racism and eugenics.

So why would Coyne embrace Scopes’s grave? 

And why would Adam Shapiro embrace Coyne?

Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan (right) during the Scopes Trial/Wikipedia.

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.