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:

Image

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.

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.

Anti-Evolution and Anti-Eugenics: A missing link?

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.