Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

The controversy started by British Secretary of Education Michael Gove about how to teach history (exemplified in his Daily Mail column from January 2) has continued for quite a while. With the majority of it focused on the historical causes of the First World War, and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year, it’s probably going to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite sometime.
But I was struck by a comment Gove made a few days earlier during a roundtable/interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on December 30. Towards the very end of the radio programme, Gove made a statement that got me thinking:

Kings and Queens are chapter headings.  They’re ways of dividing up the past and they’re also intriguing personalities.  If you talk about dividing history into Kings and Queens, that doesn’t mean you’re a monarchist.  It just means that you understand that one damned thing follows another.
In America, they break up their history by the personalities of presidents and what happened during that period.


This got me thinking, how do Gove’s pronouncements about how history ought to be taught pertain to the teaching of American history? Particularly, teaching that subject in the UK, as I am doing at present. Although my students all completed their compulsory history education before Gove’s efforts to reform the history curriculum took any effect, if I’m to continue to teach American history in the UK, I eventually would have students whose views of history are informed by Gove’s historiography. How could this matter?
Should I be breaking up my syllabus based on presidencies? The first week we barely discussed US presidents at all (topics: the Pig War, Fenian Raids and US-British relations post-Civil War leading to Canadian Confederation; the Homestead, Morrill Land Grant, and Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862; and the prairie wars with Native Americans from Red Cloud through Wounded Knee), but the second week we talked about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the debates over Reconstruction policies after Lincoln’s assassination, and the effects of Reconstruction on American industry, economy and culture. But are the periodizations we associate with US presidents equivalent to the reigns of monarchs?

So I put the question to my class, and asked for their reaction to Gove’s column. Several points came up:

Presidencies as Eras
With US presidencies, it’s sometimes easy to associate some of those with the terms of 8-year presidents (Eisenhower 50s, Reagan 80s, Clinton 90s, etc.) This led to some speculation as to whether the Obama era will be undervalued because it is split across two different decades. For that matter, why would we consider presidents as equivalent to monarchs, as opposed to, say Prime Ministers? For that matter, Obviously we hear talk about the Regency, the Victorian Era, and other monarchally defined epochs, but are future historians likely to be referring to the second Elizabethan Age as opposed to the Thatcher era or Blair era? Several students suggested that this was in part a function of distance. Thatcher and Blair are close enough to us now that we emphasize their differences, but historians a century from now might be more likely to group them together under the reign of Elizabeth.

Moralized Histories
We haven’t reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different. While US Secretary of State would have no problem agreeing that Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove calls it) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we seen Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

This led to a discussion of what I might call an Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in Moral terms, that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military superiority, or economic superiority. Whether the North had a technological advantage, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.
We then turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir
The narrative that Early gives is one that shows the Souther fight for independence was just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers, the patriotic Southern soldier buried under a mountain of corpses. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith. Like the restoration from exile, or the tribulations faced by chosen people in the past, the true South will rise in messianic fashion.
As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency
So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviors of individuals where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents. that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviors. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.
And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality, if poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology
The conversation then moved to a more general question about history and ideology. If history explains how causes and effects work in human behavior, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was in error all around to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History
What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama. We also discussed the recent debates over the history curriculum in Texas, raising a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

An additional note on the evolution-eugenics historiography

I’ve just read through Michael Egnor’s two blog posts (Dec 20 and 21) directed at me written over the weekend.  I’m going to largely leave off on the various issues of character that he seems convinced of, (for example: that my name is “Alan,” that I’m a “Darwinist”, and curiously, that I’m English) but will point out that he seems to assume that anyone who writes about a person, concept, or event in the past and doesn’t immediately decry it must therefore be apologizing for it or somehow supporting it.  To me, this suggests that that Egnor’s primary interest is not historical.  History’s not really about sorting out who was ultimately an saint and who a demon.  It’s about figuring out what happened, how and why, regardless of whether or not it should have happened that way.

In pointing out, for example, that some African-Americans reacted negatively to what they perceived as the white supremacy of supporters of Tennessee’s antievolution bill — and particularly to William Jennings Bryan work to undermine an anti-KKK platform resolution in the Democratic party in 1924 — I’m simply quoting the argument given by a historian who has looked quite closely at the available evidence, publications and correspondence from the era.  I think it’s inappropriate to tell people how they ought to have reacted to events (especially when it comes to lecturing to African Americans about whether they are targets of racism.)  The point was that this reaction actually existed, regardless of whether later commentators like Egnor think that they shouldn’t.  Likewise, with his claim that Darwin/1859/evolution must have inspired eugenics, which might make sense to intuition, but requires more evidence to support as a historical claim.

When Egnor isn’t casting personal aspersions and when he’s not simply invoking his intuition to counter historical evidence, Egnor does raise some interesting historical points, and I welcome that.  The history of nineteenth and twentieth century biology is complex and there’s a lot of different influences inside and outsides sciences themselves that contribute to how it unfolds.  And the broader history of the biological and social underpinnings of eugenic policies is still a matter of some historical debate.

That’s not the question that was originally raised, and in his second post, especially, Egnor seems to have left those off entirely.  The original questions concerned whether or not 1) John Scopes was racist or performed a racist action for teaching from George Hunter’s Civic Biology and 2) whether that textbook taught something that could be characterized as “eugenic racism” or “racist eugenics”.

In responding to those questions, based on my own research, I argued that,

• the textbook itself treats evolution and eugenics as distinct topics, covered in separate, non-consecutive chapters

• it’s consequently unlikely that John Scopes covered both of these topics as a short term substitute for the biology teacher.

• the textbook presents eugenics as an application of heredity, not of evolution.

• the textbook does not discuss racial differences or supremacy in connection to eugenics.  I provided extensive evidence, quoting specific pages of the Civic Biology to support these arguments.

• No one during the debate over Butler’s law or during the Scopes trial made the claim that Darwinism was racism, and given the racial attitudes of some of the supporters of the antievolution law, that comes as no surprise.

• The idea that antievolutionists in the 1920s were motivated by their opposition to eugenics is not historically warranted (I wrote about this back in March.) But that historical claim that seems to have been popularized a generation ago by Stephen Jay Gould – which might help explain why it informs our intuitions today.

Referring to the textbook as teaching “eugenic racism” is like like calling William Jennings Bryan an inflationary prohibitionist.  He supported currency policies that promoted inflation.  And he supported the prohibition of alcohol.  But to claim that he opposed the gold standard because he was against alcohol, or vice versa, requires more than loose association.

That was really the historical point which it was always my intention to emphasize: that calling Scopes a racist is unwarranted, and if the claim of his racism has to do with what he purportedly used in the classroom then we need a much better understanding of what that book actually says.  Not to ratify our intuitions, but to better understand which of them are grounded in facts.  It distracts us from finding  real sources of racism in our culture and society.

There’s a broader question that Egnor has started asking about the relationship between racism and eugenics, and I agree that this is an interesting historical question (but also that it’s different than the question of what Hunter wrote in 1914 or what Scopes taught in 1925).  My sense from some of the primary evidence that the use of eugenic policies in the US to sterilize people became increasingly racialized in later years.  For example, from 1929-1936, North Carolina sterilized 277 Whites and 55 Negros (as they are classified in the biennial reports of the state Eugenics Board).  By 1964-65 those numbers were 64 Whites and 131 Negros.  (The biennial reports are all here.)

This kind of statistical evidence along with the anecdotal evidence that people like Galton seem to be more concerned with degeneration within a race rather than some hierarchical conflict between races suggests that the relationship between race and eugenics is more complicated.  That it more explicitly became a tool of systemic racism later on, and that its origins were more connected to issues of class than of race.  (Of course those are deeply connected – as systemic racism contributed to poverty, but it seems that a poor, uneducated white woman in North Carolina was much less likely to be deemed “feebleminded” and made the victim of eugenic sterilization in the 1960s than the 20s.)  The evidence seems to suggest that the racism comes later: does this mean that scientists were informed by their own racism, or that their research attracted popularization, implementation, or funding from people with racist agendas to pursue?

So evidence of individuals like Stoddard are interesting.  His Harvard PhD thesis appears to have been in history—not in evolution, biology, anthropology, or any science.  And the version which was published upon its completion in 1914 makes no mention of evolution or eugenics, but it does speak of a “world-wide struggle between the primary races of mankind —the ‘conflict of color,’ as it has been happily termed.”  It seems like he was a race warrior first and only came to make use of scientific arguments afterwards, and without any training in the sciences.  Egnor hasn’t suggested that Stoddard had any direct influence over the Scopes trial, and given that Hunter’s book was out the same year Stoddard’s PhD was completed, it clearly had no effect on the textbook.

And yet, I think Egnor’s right to say that at least some people were making use of eugenics to promote racism in the 1920s.  Whether that represented much of biology, or a “consensus” is another question altogether.  In his book on American biology in this period, the historian Philip Pauly gave evidence that “the most popular twentieth-century American book on eugenics was [Luther] Burbank’s engagingly titled Training of the Human Plant, which argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the positive value of racial hybridization.”  Pauly also made a strong case that “a biology-based eugenics… was an enterprise that never really cohered.” (page 216)  Pauly also observed that “initially, [Davenport] hoped to investigate variation, mutation, and selection to uncover ‘the laws of evolution of organic beings,’ but he soon came to focus on Hugo DeVries’s mutation theory and on the Mendelian ‘laws of inheritance of characteristics.’” (page 221) This fits in with my earlier statement that biologists did regard heredity and evolution as distinct areas of inquiry, and that this was true even of Davenport himself.

So in answer to Egnor’s question to me.  There were several new theories of heredity developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The discovery of the chromosome, to cite just one example, was probably a lot more important to discussions of biological eugenics than Darwin. It seems like a variety of developments in biology in the nineteenth century may have contributed to the advent of eugenic policies, but it’s hard to see why Darwin’s formulation of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution would be the most important key to that.

I think there’s a worthwhile conversation to be had about this broader history, but it has to be based on more than misdirected moral indignation and unfounded assertions in the face of evidence.   My interest isn’t to exonerate eugenics, apologize for racism, or advocate for some vague notion of Darwinism.  My interest is in understanding the history of ideas and the people who communicate them.  My feeling is that Egnor (and the Discovery Institute) undermine their own credibility when they refuse to acknowledge that people who disagree with them get things right at least some of the time and.  Similarly, I think that the advocates of Intelligent Design sometimes raise some (metaphysical, epistemological and theological) questions that deserve some honest and open conversation, and that the insistence on being classified a science prevents that discussion from taking place.

For me at least, that conversation will have to resume next year.  I’m going to enjoy my holiday, catch up on course preparation and my own research, and when I do get back to this blog there are other topics I want to give some time to.  Happy New Year, everyone.

History of Misreading – And Scopes is still not a Racist

One of the processes I’m most interested in as a historian is what I often refer to as the genealogy of misreading.  One person writes something, another person quotes it, or misquotes it,  or reacts to its conclusions and misunderstands the reasoning behind those.  Over the course of several iterations, the errors accrue until the original view has been almost totally obscured.  My new article just published online this week examines this phenomenon for William Paley’s Natural Theology.  (Conclusion, one thing both sides of the current debate get wrong is in claiming that modern ID is philosophically similar to Paley’s arguments for a designer.)

I mention this because an extraordinary example of misreading, with a traceable genealogy, has been unfolding this past month.  This began with Jerry Coyne’s post about visiting John Scopes grave, and a response by Discovery Institute fellow Michael Egnor’s criticizing of Coyne for embracing Scopes.  Egnor (and David Klinghoffer) essentially accused Scopes of being a racist for teaching from George W. Hunter’s 1914 textbook A Civic Biology.  I wrote about some of the historical problems with this in an earlier post on December 14.

A couple days later, Jerry Coyne responded with another post, which largely cites mine against Egnor and Klinghoffer (and is quite gracious in accepting a point of correction I’d raised to something he’d written earlier.)

The next day (December 18), Egnor responded with another post, in which he calls “Bullfeathers” on Coyne (and implicitly me).

There’s some misreading going on.  Some of which may be intentional.

From Egnor’s post:


One misreading which I think was unintentional resulted in Coyne’s use of the word “genetics.” I had said that eugenics was treated more as a primary application of the biological concept of heredity as opposed to evolution (later on I’ll show exactly how this happens in George Hunter’s textbook).  Hunter didn’t use the word “genetics” even though he did mention Mendel’s theories.  I think it’s understandable why someone who’s a practicing biologist working in the field of evolutionary biology might use the word “genetics” when he reads the word “heredity,” even though in this instance it’s anachronistic.

Egnor justifies his claim of “bullfeathers” by pointing out that “The word ‘genetics’ wasn’t coined until 1905, by Bateson.”  Eugenics, of course predates this.  This is itself a completely valid response to the historical argument that eugenics was an application of genetics.  But it also reveals that either Egnor didn’t read the rest of Coyne’s post (or my post from which Coyne cites) or that Egnor was deliberately looking for something he could take out of context.  Because this claim of anachronism is utterly useless in responding to the historical claim that eugenics was considered an application of the biological concept of heredity.  Of course, if Egnor wanted to rebut that claim, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned in his very next sentence: “The science of eugenics began in 1869, when Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, published his landmark Hereditary Genius.”  The first word of the title of that book might be a bit of a giveaway that Egnor’s historical analysis is flawed.

Egnor then gives a somewhat selective history of British and American eugenics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pointing out that some of these eugenicists were supporters of Darwin! Egnor takes note that  “The Center for Experimental Evolution — the center for eugenics, that is — opened in Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. The word “genetics” was coined in 1905.”  This seeming gotcha moment is actually pretty well discredited by the History page on Cold Spring Harbor’s own website:

1904: Genetics research begins

Soon, another mission was established: research in genetics. This grew out of two events: the appointment, in 1898, of Charles Davenport, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, as director of the Laboratory, and the rediscovery in 1900 of Gregor Mendel’s work, carried out 35 years earlier. Mendel’s Laws provided explanations for the variability that underlies evolution, and his work opened new possibilities for experimentation in biology.

Davenport approached the Carnegie Institute of Washington and proposed that it establish a genetics research program at the Cold Spring Harbor site. In June 1904, the Carnegie Institute’s Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Department of Genetics, was formally opened with a commerative speech given by Hugo de Vries, one of the three re-discoverers of Mendel’s work.

From its founding in the 1890s, Cold Spring Harbor was a place where “biologists and naturalists of that time worked out the consequences of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”  However, in 1904, Davenport was brought there for “another mission”  First called the “Center for Experimental Evolution” it began some of the research that led to the coinage of the word “genetics.”  What Egnor’s actually pointed us to is the fact that whatever eugenics was in Galton’s day (an extension of heredity) by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century: it was applied genetics.  More interesting, it was seen as distinct enough from “Darwin’s theory of evolution” that it required the founding of a separate center.

I also want to caution against taking the evolution-or-heredity idea to an impossibly absurd extreme. It’s not as though you had to accept one but not the other.  But I also want to get back to the original issue at hand: which was not the claim that eugenics was not primarily an application of human evolution (as opposed to heredity.)  It’s the claim that this Evolution-to-Eugenics-to-Racism combination exists in George W. Hunter’s 1914 textbook, A Civic Biology.  Let’s actually look at the textbook.  (It’s a textbook I know pretty well, having written extensively about its post-Scopes trial revision in my own book.)

A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems by George W. Hunter (American Book Company, 1914) is out of copyright and is digitized online.  The archive.org link should work everywhere, but the Google books full text seems to only be available in the US.  i’m going to direct-link pages from Google books, but i’ll include page references for everyone who can’t access those but can download the pdf from archive.org.

Where is Evolution and Where is Eugenics?

The main sections discussing evolution are from pages 193-196.  If you look at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that these are in the last part of a chapter titled: “Division of Labor, the Various Forms of Plants and Animals.”

Eugenics is detailed on pages 261-265, the last sections of the chapter “Heredity, Variation, Plant and Animal breeding.”  Evolution is mentioned once in this chapter (page 253) but only to say that heredity is a force which is partly responsible for evolution (which was itself discussed earlier.)  This is a few chapters after the chapter which mentions evolution in detail.  It seems pretty clear from the placement alone that eugenics was seen as an application of heredity moreso than evolution.

How is Eugenics Discussed?

Eugenics was considered part of sexual health, good breeding, including the belief that certain diseases could cause congenital deformity or could cause harm to offspring.  Eugenics, at least as Hunter’s book defines it, concerns the transmission of “germ diseases.”  (page 261)  In this section, Hunter doesn’t mention “race” at all, but as I said in my earlier post, there’s quite a lot of class issues in this discussion.  On page 263:

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 cared for by the state out of public money.  Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist.  They take from society, but they give nothing in return.  They are true parasites.

I agree that both the tone and content of this passage is offensive.  But it isn’t at all about race.  (And it bears a striking resemblance to some of the recent rhetoric from the political right that seems to castigate those who (they claim) “take from society, but … give nothing in return.”  In the political rhetoric that claims that the impoverished are undeserving of protection from their government is the free market eugenics of the twenty-first century.)

In the section of eugenics, Hunter continues: “we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or in other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” But it’s clear from the context that Hunter isn’t talking about racial intermarriage, and that he’s using “race” to describe the people (of any color, ethnicity, or background) who are degenerately inferior.  In all instances where the word “race” is used in the eugenics section, Hunter uses it in the singular (as in a human race, not distinct races of humanity.)

There’s been a lot of misreading going on.  Some of it seems to be encouraged through deliberate rhetorical tactics.  In my previous post, I pointed out that Egnor often made claims that were false on several levels, with the seeming strategy of encouraging people to object to the last of these and slipping the others by unquestioned.  He began his new post doing the same thing.  He says nothing in response to the very true fact repeated by Coyne that Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, and “almost certainly didn’t teach the eugenics part of the book.”  But he mentions it along with the second claim in the hope that we won’t notice that his effort to link this alleged racism via eugenics via Civic Biology all the way back to Scopes still has this additional missing link.  I am wary of attributing intentions to authors, but it seems to me that this can’t be as honest a distortion as, say, Coyne’s substitution of “genetics” for “heredity” is.  At least, I don’t think that Coyne threw in an anachronistic word in order to trick Egnor into writing a refutation that missed the point entirely.

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.

Where’s the Economists’ Stephen Jay Gould?

The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium, is a remarkable document.  It’s by no means indicative of a radical shift in Church teachings, dogmas, or theology, but it displays an emphasis on those theological precepts to bear in a an imperfect world: “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (parag. 49)

There has been a lot of reaction among the American political right wing over the Pope’s comments on economic justice in this speech.  Most famously: Rush Limbaugh called the Pope “Marxist” for “attack[ing] unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’.”  According to Limbaugh: “Unfettered capitalism?  That doesn’t exist anywhere.  Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States.  Unfettered, unregulated.”  The Pope never actually used the phrase “unfettered capitalism” anywhere in his exhortation, so it’s not clear how Limbaugh’s effort to draw “Marxism” from that specific phrase has any merit.  The pope decried ideologies proclaiming the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace,” which “reject the right of states… to exercise any form of control.” But the Pope doesn’t say that unfettered capitalism does exist anywhere, only that there are those who are devoted to an idolatry of the marketplace that holds that as an ideal.

It’s possible that Limbaugh never read the Pope’s words directly, but only the account of them in other reports which did use the words “unfettered” and “unregulated.” There’s a history of papal statements being criticized for things they don’t actually say, but I’ll return to the history of misreading later on.

The Pope makes several statements about how the moral call of the church and its mission ought to focus on “the need to resolve the structural causes of poverty” (parag 202.) There’s is a quite substantial discourse about the way that social policies and political concern for the long term can bring about a greater expression of human dignity.  But in addition to making normative statements about how political economic and social change should be improved, the Pope also makes statements concerning the validity of economic theories.

…some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system (parag. 54)

Critics of the Pope, like Limbaugh, have effectively treated this statement as an incorrect ethical pronouncement, an assertion of moral order that they either find wrong or inconsistent with other moral teachings of the Church.  Some have found it hypocritical given the Church’s wealth.

But this isn’t actually an ethical claim, but a scientific one.  The statement of whether or not ‘trickle down theories’ are actually valid descriptions of economic cause and effect in the world is ostensibly a testable theory.  The Pope is not saying that trickle down economics must not be practiced because it is inherently unethical.  He is saying that those who would try to bring about justice and inclusiveness through the practice of trickle down economic policies should be aware that the theory has never been empirically confirmed, and may be scientifically (not morally) wrong.

In the past, people on the American political left, including many who welcomed this particular papal statement, have been particularly wary about Church pronouncements on science.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is Stephen Jay Gould who introduced the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” specifically to discuss the proper (as he saw it) demarcation between science and religion.  It is proper for religion to proclaim ethical judgements, to tell us what is good and evil, and to tell us what aims we might achieve; but wrong for religion to pass judgement on an empirical theory.

I think it’s fair to say that Gould’s NOMA has never been an accurate description of the way science and religion actually relate, but Gould’s essay ought to be seen as a prescription for a a resolution to science-religion conflict.  (It might not be a good one, but that’s a separate matter.)  Regardless, Gould’s framing of NOMA has been quite influential, with plenty of scientists, particularly, citing it as a way to keep religion and science apart, even when there are questions of bioethics or ethics of technology that might reasonably need to cross that boundary.  It has some similarities with older ideas of church-state separation.

Perhaps Gould has been too successful.  Readers of the Pope’s statement seem to have presumed that he was making an ethical statement, perhaps because of his identity as the head of the Catholic Church and because the Apostolic Exhortation is an ethical and religious document.  And perhaps because people believe that the Pope ought to be making religious statements, they interpret his statements on economics as normative.  It’s surprising to me that no one has made the criticism that the Pope has no business making statements about whether a scientific theory is true with respect to this claim about trickle down theory.

This has not been the case in the past: In 1951, Pope Pius XII, speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, addressed the question of how Aquinas’s “Five Ways” of demonstrating the existence of God from Nature fared in light of recent discoveries in 20th century science.  This statement was widely misinterpreted (partly though mistranslations, partly because of the selective republication of excerpts) as the Pope “endorsing” the Big Bang (This misinterpretation persists.)  In that event, Pius was criticized by cosmologists on both sides of the Steady-State/Big Bang debate, who effectively claimed that he had no business speaking on the issue.  Gould’s essay was directly prompted by Pope John Paul II’s effective acceptance of biological evolution as the scientifically accepted account for the origin of the human physical form (though not the human soul.)

It would seem like the Pope could be criticized for making a definitive pronouncement on the state of a scientific theory of economics.  One could raise a NOMA-like objection to the papal pronouncement that trickle down economics is a theory that is unconfirmed by facts.  But the question remains as to who would make such a complaint?  It’s a trap there for the American political right—people like Limbaugh, because they can’t embrace NOMA for economic sciences and then reject it for other science-religion issues like climate change and evolution.  But there have been plenty of anti-religious scientists who scoff at the thought that the church has any place acknowledging science, even when it’s a position they agree with.  Gould related that some of his evolutionist colleagues had that mindset in response to John Paul II in 1996.  Will any economists who agree with the Pope’s economic conclusions still object that it’s not his place to make them?

Boris’s New Reasons for Contentment – Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public

Whilst I was back in America (marking a holiday ostensibly commemorating the success of some dissident English people who were quite happy to be quit of that country) I discover that the Mayor of London – Boris Johnson, has stirred up many of my colleagues with a speech remarkable as much for its rhetorical bluster as it is for its deification of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  I don’t really pretend to understand current British politics at all, and my sense of Boris Johnson prior to this was that he was this bizarre advocate of bicycles who also blamed their riders for their inability to survive lorry strikes.  Perhaps giving people the means to kill themselves in the name of economic development is actually a Conservative thing in this era.  I don’t really know.

But it’s Johnson’s invocation of history, as well as science and religion, that has me more knowledgeably confused.  In particular I’m left wondering how he did on his own history A-levels (the exam which he so castigates) given his fond reminiscence for some gloried era of 1750-1865, when “we” as he puts it, “were by far the most politically and economically powerful country on earth.” While Johnson presumed to channel the dead and tell us what Thatcher would do if she were with us right now, I want to summon up a similar spirit from the vasty deep, taken from the midst of Johnson’s imagined golden age.

In 1792, William Paley (already well known for his book on Moral and Political Philosophy, and not yet the author of the Natural Theology) penned an essay whose very title is extraordinary: “Reasons for Contentment – Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public.”  This was published widely in pamphlet form by the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, and Paley takes a rather conservative position (somewhat to the right of Burke’s reflections on the French Revolution)

The entire pamphlet is a rich feast for those whose preferences run to the shocking one-liner (perhaps we shall see the Mayor borrow from it in the future).  But I am personally partial to Paley’s affirmation:

 I (God knows) could not get my livelihood by labour, nor would the labourer find any solace or enjoyment in my studies.

Although Johnson seems to think that Britannia of this era was great economic power, that economic strength was certainly not felt by many people who lived in it.  At the very least, there was widespread discontentment.  The working classes who were drawing inspiration from the French Revolution, or from local movements against exploitive labour, or the nascent societies against British slavery (though Paley was also an outspoken abolitionist) give a pretty good indication that in imagining this to be an era of great economic success, a lot of people don’t count as part of Boris Johnson’s “we.”

Paley goes on to explain that there are great benefits to being of the labouring (or poor) class.  Benefits which the rich men of leisure can never understand:

Another article, which the poor are apt to envy in the rich, is their ease. Now here they mistake the matter totally. They call inaction ease, whereas nothing is farther from it. Rest is ease. That is true. But no man can rest who has not worked. Rest is the cessation of labour. It cannot therefore be enjoyed, or even tasted, except by those who have known fatigue.

There are a few presuppositions and arguments put forward in this, some of which find clearer expression in Paley’s other writings.  One is that people have natural inclinations towards certain types of labour pursuits, or to certain roles in society.  Those natural inclinations give each of us an indication of the type of occupation that we are suited to.  Paley, like many who understood the sciences of the human mind and of heredity of his day, presumed that there was an inherited component to this – that it made sense why those who had been artisans or farmers had offspring naturally suited towards those same occupations.  Johnson seems to echo this wholeheartedly in his claims about IQ and natural inequality.

The reason for this, and the reason that labourers should find contentment is Divine Providence (in particular that aspect of Divine Goodness which the Natural Theology also promises)

But Providence, which foresaw, which appointed, indeed, the necessity to which human affairs are subjected (and against which it were impious to complain), hath contrived that, whilst fortunes are only for a few, the rest of mankind may be happy without them.

People have natural inclinations towards different occupations.  These are largely hereditary, but they are also well-proportioned, so that society as a whole has the right ratio of artisans to famers to labourers to scholars to aristocrats.  Through a diverse society made up of people following their god-given inclinations, the society as a whole can best function and ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the people.

This is where the most controversial of Paley’s theological positions, his “utilitarianism” comes in.  A well functioning society produces the greatest joy and happiness for its consitutents.  It is for that reason that divine providence has made it possible for “the rest of mankind [to] be happy without” great fortunes.  One of the central arguments of the Natural Theology is to show that this principle of maximizing happiness occurs in nature.  (In fact it’s on exactly this point that Darwin draws from Paley in the Origin of the Species.)

But Paley’s notion of happiness or of utility is a religious one that marks him as a different kind of utilitarian than Bentham or those who use the doctrine to justify an unrestrained free market.  Ultimately, a divinely ordered society isn’t meant to bring about the most wealth or economic growth but the is supposed to bring about an ethical one, and one in which eternal happiness is also shared in greatest measure

It’s because of this religious vision of utility that Paley’s reasons for contentment don’t ring wholly disingenuous.  Although people might be suited to different social roles, Paley does not find any sense that wealth or leisure is an indication of moral value

…some of the necessities which poverty (if the condition of the labouring part of mankind must be so called) imposes, are not hardships but pleasures. Frugality itself is a pleasure. It is an exercise of attention and contrivance, which, whenever it is successful, produces satisfaction.

Here is where we begin to see a breakdown of the similarities between Paley and Johnson, and perhaps an interesting criticism of Johnson’s gospel of greed.  The idea that society functions better because of natural inequality is actually rooted in a overarching notion of divine providence (which is evidenced by both religion and by nature) and it is only able to work through the valorization of frugality and charity as means to an end.  This is summed up by Paley in his Moral and Political Philosophy in the claim 

that the condition most favourable to population is that of a laborious, frugal people ministering to the demands of an opulent, luxurious nation; because this situation, whilst it leaves them every advantage of luxury, exempts them from the evils which naturally accompany its admission into any country.

It is the role of other elements of society to give the labourers reasons for contentment, not just platitudes.  A society that treat natural differences as a basis for a non-egalitarian society can only function (and should only function) if it is done in a basis of strong personal ethics.  The strength of the British system for Paley, at the height of the period that Johnson seems to find most exemplary, is because of the cultivation of a personal virtue of frugality, not greed.

Whether or not Paley’s individually frugal but nationally luxurious society is sustainable (and divinely providential) is precisely what Thomas Malthus took issue with.  Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population states that it’s unrealistic for a society to function in a way in which mere frugality can stave off population distress inevitably.  However, in a footnote to the second edition of the essay (published after the Natural Theology) Malthus states that by 1802 Paley has come around to the idea that distress to some extent is inevitable.  And that this idea of divine providence leading to a fruitful and successful society can only work if the “spread of luxury” is minimized.  Even in the Moral and Political Philosophy, Paley had recognized that the society that the society that grows from the results of the laboring poor had an obligation to provide for their sustenance.  This is almost exactly the opposite of what Johnson advocates in his valorization of wage gaps.  Though Paley is by no means a revolutionary, his conservatism looks like a form of religious progressivism from the vantage of the 21st century.

Johnson’s present day claims of natural inequalities being good for society have their roots in the historical glorious era from 1750-1865 (leaving aside exactly from whom it was ever glorious) but the invocation of such a claim to valorize personal greed or advocate an abolition of the state’s responsibilities for the welfare of its people is a confusion of the highest order.