Is it really the case that opposition to evolution in early twentieth century America was prompted by a push against eugenics? It’s not an unreasonable claim at first glance, and several histories make casual mention of such a connection. Earlier this week, Prof. Erika Milam asked me whether there’s any solid evidence to support this alleged connection. This post is an outgrowth of our discussion, (although any errors, misrepresentations, or omissions are entirely my own responsibility.)
It’s a more complex question than it might seem. There were many different interpretations of what evolution (or Darwinism, for some people) really was, and even more variation when it came to what it meant to oppose it. It’s important to draw a distinction between antievolutionism as a religious position and antievolution as a school issue. I think that there’s frequently slippage between antievolution as the position that evolution is, in fact, wrong (scientifically or historically) and antievolution as the position that (right or wrong) it ought not to be taught in schools or presented to children. Add to this the fact that in many debates over evolution in the 1920s (including during the Scopes trial) both sides tended to attack caricatures of their opponents’ positions, and it’s sometimes difficult to discern just what specific antievolutionists objected to, and on what grounds they did so. It’s even harder to pin their motivations down to a single issue like opposition to eugenics.
To a large extent, I think the responsibility for this historical claim rests with Stephen Jay Gould. in his essay, “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” (Natural History, 96, no. 11, 1987 –reprinted in his 1991 book Bully for Brontosaurus.) Gould describes Bryan’s opposition to evolution. He notes that Bryan intended to make a reference to “scientific breeding” in the speech that he did not get to make at the conclusion of the Scopes trial. But Gould distorts the quotation. (The passage is taken from what Bryan refers to as the “fourth indictment against the evolutionary hypothesis” given here.) In that paragraph, it seems clear that Bryan is not stating that the problem is that eugenics is immoral, but that the theory of evolution moves so slowly that eugenic progress must take eons instead of years. Bryan’s point is that the expanded time frame discourages progressive social reform.
But Gould’s more egregious distortion comes a page later, when he turns to the textbook from the Scopes trial. George W. Hunter’s 1914 Civic Biology does contain eugenics. Unapologetically. And from our perspective a century later, some of it is shocking. (This link might only work in the US.) But this is guilt by association; and worse, it is based on a highly distorted quotation.
Effectively, Gould wants to portray Bryan as well intended, and rightly outraged, but ultimately won to conclude that outlawing evolution is the right remedy. Fast forward to Gould’s ongoing battles with creationists in the 1980s, and it appears that his intent is to paint a history of creationism that suggests that its heart is in the right place even though its facts are wrong. (For the record, I think Gould did this with other historical figures whose positions he differed from)
Edward Larson’s history of the Scopes trial briefly implies that there’s a connection, (particularly for the preacher Billy Sunday) and cites the same passage as Gould to suggest that Bryan thought that eugenics was a reason not to teach evolution. More importantly, Larson notes that some eugenicists interpreted opposition to them as stemming from antievolution. And it’s probably the case that they did, but it’s also true that many evolutionists grossly misrepresented the specific details of their opponents’ positions in the 1920s.
In an earlier book, Larson himself notes that “the philosophical reasoning that linked evolutionism with eugenics within the thinking of movement leaders did not reach down” to Louisiana’s legislative battles of 1926. At most we might say that some antievolutionists were also antieugenicists, and vice versa. But we might not be able to really claim that people were antievolutionists because they were antieugenics.
Add to this a lot of negative evidence. Boxes of it. I looked through the bulk of William Jennings Bryan’s papers when I was writing my dissertation and my book. To my recollection (disclaimer: most of this research was done a while ago), there’s nowhere that Bryan said that eugenics is the reason why the teaching of evolution ought to be outlawed. As near as I can tell there’s also no indication that Bryan opposed eugenic laws with anything like the intensity that he championed antievolution laws. Of course Bryan’s only one man, and despite being the best known antievolutionist of the 1920s, his specific views on evolution and religion were probably not typical of all antievolutionists. Nonetheless, it’s from Bryan that this claim of a connection is most often made.
And from my own research on the history of biology textbooks there’s also this fact: almost all of the textbook publishers who published revised versions of their books after the Scopes trial in an attempt to address antievolutionism (including the 1926 New Civic Biology) left their discussion of eugenics untouched, even when they changed their discussion of evolution. Clearly, they didn’t think the problem with teaching evolution had to do with eugenics, and since some of their books were adopted in states where antievolution was widespread, their consumers didn’t make the connection either.
The presumption that the opposition to both issues might be linked because evolution and eugenics were philosophically linked in the minds of their supporters is actually a way of allowing one side of a debate to dictate the terms of its history. Even though, nowadays antievolutionists frequently do invoke the history of eugenics as evidence of Darwinism’s immorality. The most extreme incarnation of this seems to be the “Darwin to Hitler” trope that has been part of recent attacks on evolutionary theory.
I can’t claim to have exhausted this subject, but I think there’s a case to be made that if there is a connection between antievolution and antieugenics, then it’s got to be justified by more historical evidence than we currently invoke.