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’ hand, unless Coyne was also legitimating the horrible racism that Scopes taught to some poor innocent Tennessee school children.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

If people though 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.

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 in 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.

Eugenics was considered an application of a biological principle of heredity moreso 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.

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.

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.

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.

Do we Save Scopes By Condemning Civic Biology?

This is the one issue where I think Coyne has made a mistake.  His refutation to the Discovery Institute seems to be that Scopes, being both the substitute teacher and teaching the state mandated textbook had no choice but to use Hunter, which “did indeed contain some pretty dreadful racist and eugenicist statements.” A minor quibble is to point out that there was a second adopted biology textbook—which about 10% of Tennessee students used instead.  But in terms of its evolutionary and eugenic contents it was really no different.  (And it wasn’t left to Scopes’s personal discretion which to use anyway)  but Coyne’s claim that “it is ironic, by the way, that Tennessee, by requiring use of a book that covered human evolution, was requiring its biology teachers to break the law.”  This is really not accurate.  When Governor Peay signed the bill into law, he specifically stated that nothing in the books being taught in the state would place a teacher in jeopardy.  (In Chapter 5 of my book, I argue that if we presume that Scopes taught exactly what was in Hunter’s book, then he didn’t actually violate the Tennessee law.)

But this strategy of acknowledging the offensiveness of Hunter’s textbook has been part of a rhetorical strategy against creationism for quite a while.  Stephen Jay Gould used it to essentially say that William Jennings Bryan was well-meaning in opposing the teaching of evolution, but wrong to claim that it was not true.  This strategy has had the effect of foisting egregious racism onto the character of George Hunter, unfairly I think.  It overlooks the fact that Hunter was drawing from some of the scientific theories of his day, and that he was not solely responsible for the content of his book.  Did he believe that the Caucasians were the “highest type?” Probably.  Did he believe in the politics of Jim Crow or the promotion of racist policies? Almost certainly not.

Egnor states: “Ironically, telling the truth about evolution — telling exactly what Scopes taught to his students — is precisely what David and I did.” This is wrong twice over.  It’s not true that Scopes taught the eugenics passages (or perhaps even the evolution passages) and it’s also not true that the passages about eugenics were “about evolution” in the way that Egnor implies.  Similar to the other rhetorical slight of hand mentioned earlier, Egnor seems to strategically invite us (and Coyne takes the bait here) to disagree that Scopes taught the eugenics section, or that Scopes had no choice but to teach it, but then hopes to slip by the other implication of his statement – that eugenics was part of the evolution coverage.

Overall Coyne does a good job refuting the most egregious historical falsehoods of Egnor and Klinghoffer, but he lets some of the more subtle ones go un(der)challenged, and this reinforces at least some of the false claims that have been made about the Scopes trial, the textbook at the heart of the conflict, and the personae of John Scopes and George Hunter.

One last note: In terms of the militant rhetoric against antievolutionism (and the open disdain for religious fundamentalism) Coyne seems more closely akin to George Hunter than he does to John Scopes.  By the way, Prof Coyne, Hunter’s grave is in Redlands, California, if you’re ever headed out that way.

5 thoughts on “Why Attacking John Scopes as Racist isn’t True

  1. Thanks for the corrections; much appreciated. I have one question, though. You say that in your book you argue that even had Scopes taught exactly what was in Hunter’s book, he wouldn’t have violated the Butler Act. Why is that? If he was convicted for teaching human evolution, then presumably it’s in the book, and the Butler Act expressly prohibited that. Could you clarify? (Sorry, I haven’t yet read your book.)

    Thanks, Jerry Coyne

    • Jerry, the law specifically prohibited teaching human descent from non-human ancestors. Hunter’s book talks about the evolution from primitive ‘man’ to modern, but it never explicitly states that human beings evolved from a nonhuman primate ancestor.
      The textbook also contains references to ‘man’ being classified among the mammals (which is a point Bryan goes off on during the Scopes trial), but Hunter never explicitly says that classification is based on common ancestry. That might be implied by the existence of a classification tree diagram in the book (but humans aren’t explicitly listed in that illustration.) Some of the other HS bio textbooks of the day did state that humans either shared an ancestor with apes, or that humans had an ancestor that was non-human; Hunter never quite made that claim. I think that if Scopes’s lawyers had wanted to argue that he was innocent, they could have made that case (with, ironically, a literalist interpretation of the Civic Biology.)
      Of course the whole point of the Scopes trial was to create a guilty verdict (in order to appeal the constitutionality of the law). Part of my argument is that because of this unusual situation, people (especially educators, textbook adopters, etc) concluded that the law prohibited whatever they understood Scopes to have done. Eventually, any mention of ‘evolution’ (not just human) was presumed taboo.

  2. Pingback: Why John Scopes wasn’t a racist, and other lessons from the “Monkey Trial” « Why Evolution Is True

  3. Pingback: History of Misreading – And Scopes is still not a Racist | Trying Biology

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