The forgotten link between the Scopes Trial and eugenics

Published 11:02 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2022

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Bill Carey

Contributing Columnist

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 in which the Scopes Trial took place.

The cast of “Monkey in the Middle: The Scopes Evolution Trial. Rhea Heritage Preservation Foundation photo

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The Scopes Trial raised the science-versus-religion debate from scholarly texts to popular culture, and it hasn’t left that stage since. At the heart of the case 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’s an aspect to it that gets overlooked today—the link between the way evolution used to be taught and eugenics, which is the belief that society should control its breeding to improve the human race.

You see, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, evolution and eugenics were linked so often that there was an assumption that one led to the other. The logic of eugenics goes as follows: All species, including humans, have adapted and improved from a lower to a higher form. It should be obvious that certain human traits (good health, intelligence, even moral behavior) are superior to others. Therefore, it is incumbent upon society to make sure that humans with certain traits do not reproduce.

By 1920, at least 30 states had laws that required the sterilization of people who were determined as unfit, including “criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists,” as many state laws were worded.

About 60,000 people were sterilized because of these laws. Many states refused to issue marriage licenses to couples who did not have a certificate from a physician stating that neither person had undesirable qualities in their bloodline.

Tennessee’s 1925 evolution law made no mention of eugenics. It forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.​”

John Scopes admitted to having taught lessons out of George William Hunter’s textbook A Civic Biology. If you’ve never read this book, it might shock you. 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 a different section of the book, he discussed what should be done to people with inferior traits:

“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.”

William Jennings Bryan, one of the attorneys representing the state in the Scopes Trial, wrote a long closing argument that summarized his objections to evolution and its implications. Since defense attorney Clarence Darrow waived his right to make a closing statement, Bryan was not allowed to deliver his, but you can read Bryan’s argument on the internet.

Although Bryan didn’t 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 it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.”

And when did evolution become permanently separated from eugenics? After World War II.

When Nazi war criminals were being tried at Nuremberg, their defense attorneys claimed that the idea of the Holocaust came from eugenics theory and practice, quoting a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of state-mandated sterilization of the “unfit.” Because of this and other reasons, eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. Science textbooks still teach evolution, but they no longer use the theory to defend eugenics.

Come Saturday, July 16, I’ll be reflecting on this little remembered aspect of the Scopes Trial as I watch “Monkey in the Middle.”

Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.