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Facts to the Wind

Reviewing "Monkey Trial," a PBS Documentary Originally published at National Review

Sunday, February 17 at 9:00 PBS viewers will be treated to an historical account of the famous Scopes Trial called Monkey Trial. According to the advance billing, “Monkey Trial explores the dramatic moment when a new fault line opened in society as scientific discoveries began to challenge the literal truth of the Bible. Often humorous and at times frightening, the story of two value systems colliding resonates today.”

In itself, this is a wonderful idea. For most of us, the closest we have come to the actual trial of 1925 is Hollywood’s Inherit the Wind. While the acting merits of Spencer Tracy and Fredric March were considerable, the scriptwriters were far more interested in drilling a point, than historical accuracy. PBS is to be commended for this attempt at uncovering the real trial itself.

Yet, even while we are transported to Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 to witness the dueling of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, it is unlikely that PBS will cover the entire dark side of this “epic event of the twentieth century.” From their advance advertisements, it seems that, for the most part, viewers will receive the standard black and white account of the Scopes Trial, with William Jennings Bryan and the townsfolk leading the cause for foolish faith and the forces of darkness, and John Scopes and Clarence Darrow leading the cause for sweet reason and the light.

There is an overlooked source of darkness at the trial that is well worth bringing into the light, the very high-school biology textbook at issue in the trial, George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology. Few have even heard of it. Even fewer have read it. I happen to run across a copy, of all places, at a local thrift store.

Simply put, the textbook which John Scopes was using was offensively racist and blatantly eugenic, and the racism and eugenics were both part and parcel of Hunter’s presentation of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Hunter ranked the races according to how high each had reached on the evolutionary scale. There are “five races or varieties of man…the Ethiopian or Negro type…the Malay or brown race…the American Indian…the Mongolian or yellow race…and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” [emphasis added] By implication, we can surmise who, for Hunter, was on the bottom.

Well, now. I don’t remember that in the movie. Nor have we been made aware of Hunter’s eugenic ruminations. “If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.”

For Hunter, not only genetic predispositions for diseases such as tuberculosis and epilepsy are handed on by careless human breeding, but also “feeble-mindedness” and “immorality.” Since it would be “not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity,” weeding out the unfit is part of good human husbandry. “The science of being well born is called eugenics.”

For support, Hunter trotted out the notoriously bad breeders, the Jukes family, the matriarch of whom had “a feeble-minded son from whom there have been to the present time 480 descendants,” of which “33 were sexually immoral, 24 confirmed drunkards, 3 epileptics, and 143 feeble-minded.”

The eugenic moral was clear. “Hundreds of families such as those [Jukes] described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. The take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”

Hunter then declared that “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.”

All this from the most famous, but unread book, the book John Scopes used to teach biology, Hunter’s A Civic Biology. This is what Scopes was teaching his students down at Dayton. So much for the forces of reason and light.

Now it might be objected that Hunter (and perhaps Scopes himself) deviated from true evolution into pseudo-scientific racism and eugenic rambling, and in doing so, ceased to be scientific.

That may be true, but he did not cease to be an evolutionist in full accord with his master, Charles Darwin himself. While many read (or at least, have heard of) Darwin’s Origin of Species, few know of his Descent of Man, where he applies the principles of evolution directly to human beings. And guess what? Darwin was a racist and a proponent of eugenics, and both were rooted squarely in his account of evolution.

Darwin spent quite a bit of effort in the Descent trying to determine whether human races had evolved sufficiently to be considered distinct species. “Some of these, for instance the Negro and European, are so distinct that, if specimens had been brought to a naturalist without any further information, they would undoubtedly have been considered by him as good and true species.”

Even more interesting, the different races created by natural selection were necessarily and beneficially locked in the severest struggle for survival precisely because of their very similarity. The happy result? Evolution will eventually eliminate the “least favoured races.” So it was that Darwin predicted “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes [that is, the ones which look most like the savages in structure] . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope…the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

Nor did Darwin shy away from eugenics. “We civilized men,” Darwin declared, “do our utmost to check the [natural] process of elimination [by natural selection]; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

Like Hunter less than a half a century later, Darwin could not bring himself to advocate removing the plague of bad breeding directly. Instead he counseled the good to breed more fervently, and the less endowed by natural selection to avoid breeding at all. “Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind” And the fit? The “most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.”

As with Hunter, a “soft” form of eugenics, but one which, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, became more and more hard-edged with the many eugenic societies springing up all over America, Britain, and Germany.

There is more, then, to the Scopes Trial, than the standard story of light vs. dark, science vs. religion, reason vs. faith, much more. Until it is all brought to light, we simply won’t have the full story.

Mr. Wiker is a fellow of the Discovery Institute. He lectures in science and theology at Franciscan University and is the author of the upcoming Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists.