If you’re looking for something to do the weekend of July 15-17, head to Dayton to see “Monkey in the Middle.” This wonderful drama is produced by the Rhea Heritage Community Foundation and is staged in the same courtroom where the Scopes trial took place.
The Scopes trial raised the science versus religion debate from scholarly texts to popular culture, and it hasn’t left that stage ever since. At the heart of the matter was the theory that humans evolved from a lower form of animal, as opposed to the literal account in the book of Genesis.
However, there is one aspect that is overlooked today – the connection between the way evolution was taught and eugenics, which is the belief that society should control its breeding to better the human race.
You see, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, evolution and eugenics were so often linked that there was an assumption that one led to the other. The logic of eugenics is this: all species, including humans, have adapted and improved from a lower form to a higher form. It should be obvious that some human traits (good health, intelligence, even moral behavior) are superior to others. Therefore, it is up to society to ensure that humans with certain traits do not reproduce.
By 1920, at least 30 states had laws that required sterilization of people deemed unfit, including “criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists”, as many state statutes were written.
About 60,000 people have been sterilized because of these laws. Many states refused to issue marriage licenses to couples who did not have a doctor’s certificate indicating that neither person had any undesirable qualities in their bloodline.
The Tennessee Evolution Act of 1925 made no mention of eugenics. It forbids the teaching of “any theory which denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals”.
John Scopes admitted to teaching lessons from George William Hunter’s textbook A Civic Biology. If you’ve never read this book, you might be shocked. Hunter divided mankind into five races, concluding that the highest race was “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America”. In another section of the book, he discussed what should be done to people with lower traits:
“If these people were lower animals, we would probably kill them to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not permit it, but we 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 base and degenerate race.
William Jennings Bryan, one of the attorneys representing the state in the Scopes lawsuit, wrote a lengthy closing statement summarizing his objections to the development and its implications. Since defense attorney Clarence Darrow waived his right to make a closing statement, Bryan was not allowed to make his own, but you can read Bryan’s argument on the internet.
Although Bryan did not use the word “eugenics”, he does allude to it in sections that describe the “cruel” and “bloody” impact that evolution was already having on American culture. “Science is a magnificent material force, he wrote, but he is not a teacher of morals. He may perfect the machines, but he adds no moral constraint to protect society against the misuse of the machine.
And when did evolution finally separate from eugenics? After the Second World War.
When Nazi war criminals stood trial at Nuremberg, their lawyers claimed the idea of the Holocaust came from the theory and practice of eugenics, citing a 1927 US Supreme Court decision in favor of state-mandated sterilization of the “unfit”. For this reason and others, eugenics has fallen out of favor in the United States. Science textbooks still teach evolution, but they no longer use theory to defend eugenics.
On Saturday, July 16, I’ll reflect on that little-remembered aspect of the Scopes trial while watching “Monkey in the Middle.”
Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit that helps teachers cover social studies.