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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Scopes Trial

Many people know of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" through the play and movie "Inherit the Wind," which portrayed it as a battle between enlightenment and ignorance.  The trial involved A Civic Biology, a textbook by biologist George William Hunter.  In a profile of Hunter, who later taught at Pomona College, The Foothills Reader makes an important point:
One of the great misconceptions of the trial is that it simply pitted creationism against evolution, yet the actual trial forged an alliance of creationists and opponents of a then-popular and now discredited pseudo-scientific theory called eugenics, which bolstered white supremacy theories embraced by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
That distinction was omitted from the play and subsequent film. Playwright Jerome Lawrence said he and writer Robert E. Lee fictionalized the events to mount a parable against McCarthyism. Many historians later suggested that the section on eugenics had been inserted by Hunter's editors.
Eugenics was a pet cause of the Progressive movement and was quite popular at the time. So was racism, and the book's discussion of evolution was explicitly racist:

At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.
And in light of subsequent events, its discussion of eugenics sounds chilling:
Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.