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Scopes Monkey Trial, Eugenics, and the Mind

Sometimes history becomes mythology. There are those who suspect that even stories like Hercules, and Atlantis have a basis in fact. That there, even for the non-believer, a reason to suspect there was a Noah and at least some version of a flood. What level of truth there is in these stories becomes a matter of faith.

The same cultural processes that worked on history thousands of years ago are still at work. I submit that the process is even faster now. Imaging there was a Hercules. A real man doing real deeds. The story tellers of his day share the tale. As they share the deeds grow with each telling. They gain an audience and fame riding on the back of these historical deeds so they embellish even more to hold that audience and so on until myth is born and Hercules, the slightly stronger than average man that had a good day accidentally killing a lion is now the son of a god.

Was God on Trial?

In 1925 a real event, surrounded by a turn of the century version of a media circus, was the reality behind what became a modern myth. The Scopes “Monkey Trial”.

In 1925, Tennessee science teacher John Scopes was indicted and tried for teaching from Civic Biology, a textbook that was explicit about men evolving from apes, rather than emerging fully formed from the Garden of Eden. The ensuing trial — famously nicknamed “The Monkey Trial” by Journalist H.L. Mencken — became one of the most famous in U.S. history. (Timeline, 2017)

That’s the version of history that most people know. It’s accurate to a degree but leaves out many details. It has been made into a few movies with the most famous being 1960’s “Inherit the Wind” with a stellar cast. It romanticized the trial and is likely the “history” that everyone believes was real.

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The trial was seen as a triumph of science and evolution over religion. To this day it is brought up whenever someone challenges evolution or wants to teach intelligent design. It’s the de facto “we are right and you are wrong” evidence and to prove it they have the force of law.

For me, this isn’t about evolution vs creation.

I don’t really care much about the debate some people like to engage in about evolution versus creation. I honestly don’t think there is much of a conflict between the idea of God and the theory of evolution. It’s a matter of understanding that God exists outside of religion. What I mean by that is, if God exists, that doesn’t mean that what religion says about him is accurate. If God exists then wouldn’t he be the ultimate scientist? It is simply a conflict with various religion interpretations of God and not God himself. As an aside – it’s actually rather amusing to me to hear the two sides argue because at some level the Darwinians accept the religionists’ version of God rather than even taking a moment to consider that it’s not God that’s at conflict but one perspective on God. But that’s an aside.

What I find interesting bout the view on Scopes is how much of history has to be ignored in order for proponents to continue to see the trial as a victory of science.

What the Proponents Ignore

There are two interesting things often missed when discussing the trial. The first is the interesting side note that John Thomas Scopes, the titular teacher wasn’t arrested in the sense that no one broke down his door, pointed a gun at his head, slapped him around a bit, and tossed him in jail. He wasn’t a brave teacher of evolution. Instead he intentionally incriminated himself and allowed himself to be arrested. It was a case brought about by the ACLU in order to test a law that banned the teaching of evolution in schools.


That’s a ban that I think was wrong but still find it interesting that it’s dubious if anyone was really doing much teaching of evolution anyway including Snopes himself.

The second thing they ignore is the nature of what was being taught in the text book Civic Biology. It wasn’t so much evolution as we think of it today but the raw version of evolution that is the logical conclusion of the theory known as “eugenics”. That’s right, what was being taught was the idea that humans could use the evolutionary processes to “improve” the human race. Though today we see eugenics as the crazy idea of madmen like Margaret Sanger and Adolf Hitler it is very much the logical progeny of the theory of evolution. Evolution teaches that traits that promote the survival of an individual get passed along to the offspring and through this process they species survives and also changes to include those traits over and over. That’s evolution.

It is logical, based on that line of reasoning, to assume that this hold true of human beings. Humans have used selective breeding for thousands of years to produce domestic animals and crops with desirable traits. The dog is nothing but a wolf that humans intentionally worked with to produce an animal that fit out needs. We have dogs for hunting large game as packs, dogs that can chase a rabbit down a hole, dogs that can fetch a bird after it has chased it into the open for us, and dogs that sit on our laps as well as highly trained dogs that can lead the blind and direct the deaf to answer a door. We did that though a process of selective breeding. Why not do the same with people?

The corn we eat today is nothing like the corn of our ancestors. The crop has been engineered. Corn, that yellow ear you eat, is an invention of man which must be cultivated by man. The corn of 7000 years ago was a grass. It’s interesting to think that it’s a South American invention. Corn, so commonly associated with Africa and eaten by Europeans, was unknown to them until 1492.

So why not do the same with humans?

Today we see the idea as immoral or at the very best unethical. We are human after all, not animals, not crops, but evolution teaches us that we are animals. Just like all other animals subject to the whims of evolutionary processes.

But in a way we continue to embrace the legacy. I’m not talking about abortion, even though blacks represent only 13% of the US population but make for 37% of all abortions. I’m not talking about genetic alteration of the human genome either. We’ve successfully created a baby that genetically has three parents. Birth defects can be detected in the womb. Right now, with the exception of things like some heart defects, they cannot be corrected. They can be avoided by aborting the “defective” child. The day will come though when we can alter the genome to make sure that another child with Down Syndrome isn’t born ever again. But that’s not what I’m talking about either.

I’m talking about racism.

That idea that one race is better than another or somehow more worthy has been floating around for a while. I’m not sure anyone knows how long. Perhaps Cro Magnon saw the Neanderthals as lesser and they destroyed them instead of mating with them.

Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism. – Richard Pratt, 1902

Pratt offers us the first usage of the word “racism”. Though the quote sounds quite modern his idea of getting rid of the divisions caused by racism was to “take the Indian out of the Indians”. Pratt was a general and in a position to do something about the problem of racism. Or course his methods were racist even though he didn’t think of them that way. He wanted to bridge the divide. From all accounts he believed in what he was doing to “educate” the Indian would make their lives better. It didn’t.

A legacy of well meaning

It seems everyone wants to fix the racism problem. Fix the Indians, educate the blacks, get the white’s minds right. Social justice is all the rage! But it always has been (it seems) to one degree or the other. And just like today it’s never gone right. Today they riot and burn, harm and shout, yesterday they beat and forced and “educated”. It’s the same in all moments of time as they seek for all men to “get their mind right”.

All the mistakes of the past converge with the mistakes of the present to promise even more mistakes tomorrow; not if we don’t act but if we do. That seems to be the deciding factor in all this. We meddle and things go wrong. If we want to get over the divisions of race, class, and culture, the thing to do – is nothing.

We are all strong

Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?

Because the lessons of evolution fail to offer a solution for the eventuality that all are strong. If the weak are meat and the strong will always eat what happens when all are strong?

If God made us then we are in his image and our strength is like his. If evolution made us then I argue we have in our development certain traits which have made us strong as a species. Human nature, our nature, refuses to be subjugated. We are all strong. We all resist. Even if the only thing being attacked is our mind we will fight. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone telling us we aren’t as good as they or someone telling us we should not think someone is less than us. Any attempt to force a man’s mind will fail. Only persuasion works. Telling someone they are bad for thinking a certain way isn’t persuasion, it’s force of the mind. Telling someone that something they think is wrong or that they should be thinking something they aren’t and pointing the finger, yelling, name calling, rioting in the streets like so many children who haven’t gotten their way and hope the tantrum will force their parents’ hands will not now nor ever has worked. Because such is force of the mind and we are all strong. Too strong to allow that.

If you want someone to agree with you, to behave as you think they should behave, then you better be prepared to convince them on an intellectual level that your way is right. If you force that behavior in any degree any gains you make will be short lived and insincere.

It is only through accepting that everyone else has an equal right to their thoughts and opinions, no matter how wrong you may find them, that you will ever be able to use persuasion to convince them to change their mind. But that’s hard work that takes time and requires the building of trust. It seems to be much easier to throw a tantrum.





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