August 14, 2023


The Gospel Truth: a review of The Scopes Trial: An Encyclopedic History, by Randy Moore and Susan E. Brooks (Ian Dowbiggin, Aug 14, 2023, American Conservative)

The passage of time has not been kind to Mencken's reputation. Moore and Brooks describe him as a "strident racist." Race was a central issue of the whole trial, though most attention then and since has focused on the debate over the evolutionary ancestors of human beings. When he was not lambasting Christian preachers, Mencken declared that "the educated Negro of today is a failure." Jews, in his opinion, were "the most unpleasant race ever heard of." 

The textbook Scopes used to teach biology was George Hunter's 1914 A Civic Biology, a triumphalist account of the theory of evolution. Darwinian natural selection, Hunter wrote, had culminated in "the highest type" of human beings, "the Caucasians." Hunter's book also revealed how at the time belief in Darwinism went hand in hand with eugenics. A Civic Biology is full of statements about the alleged dangers to society of "parasitic" families of criminals, alcoholics, prostitutes, epileptics, and such. Hunter called on governments to prevent the "possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race."

If Hunter's A Civic Biology was rife with eugenic references, it was hardly surprising, given that the 1920s were the heyday of the American eugenics movement. Many scientists like Hunter drew connections between faith in Darwinist evolution and belief in eugenics. In the post-World War I years, numerous American state governments passed legislation permitting the forced sterilization of men and women with disabilities. In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell ruled that involuntary sterilization was constitutional. By 1928, 350 American universities were teaching eugenics. By World War II, biologists had rejected much of eugenic theory, but some state laws continued to function into the 1970s.  

Darrow himself was no fan of eugenics, but some of the scientists he brought to Dayton for the defense team were staunch supporters. One wrote that society should engage in "eliminating the unfit by refusing them birth." For his part, Darrow held blunt views about the lives of people with disabilities. "Chloroform unfit children," he advised elected officials. Fifteen years later Nazi Germany did just that.

Mention of medical murder also recalls that another key figure in Dayton during those steamy summer days in 1925 was the clergyman Charles Potter, at the time a Unitarian minister. Darrow invited Potter to be the defense team's religious advisor, but Potter proved to be a wild card, even disagreeing with the defense's position that evolution and Scripture were compatible. Darwinist evolution, Potter asserted, invalidated just about everything in Scripture and orthodox theology, including the existence of God. As a result, he was never called as an expert witness. Potter's headline-seeking did not escape Mencken's sharp eye. "There is a Unitarian clergyman here from New York," Mencken wrote, "trying desperately to horn into the trial. He will fail. If Darrow ventured to put him on the stand the whole audience, led by the jury, would leap out of the courthouse windows, and take to the hills."   

By the end of the 1920s, Potter had resigned from preaching altogether, and in 1938 he helped to found the Euthanasia Society of America. Until the organization changed its name in the 1960s, the ESA tried unsuccessfully to convince state legislators to pass laws removing legal penalties for physicians who killed their patients in the name of mercy. The ESA insisted it supported only voluntary requests for medical assistance in dying, but its members often admitted that they sympathized with people like Darrow who backed the killing of children with disabilities, as well as people with mental illness. Potter's association with the defense reveals that the social Darwinist policies favored by Darrow's legal team contrasted sharply with their stated goal of defending Scopes's individual freedom.

It's not just that Scopes lost then, but Darwinism remains a marginal belief in America to this day.

Posted by at August 14, 2023 12:00 AM