[Marxism] A new look at the Scopes trial

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 19 14:54:31 MDT 2005

Science vs. science
Posted by Kerim under North America , Topics , Religion

In a recent post I suggested that those promoting traditional forms of 
knowledge should not seek to claim scientific legitimacy, but instead 
should generally educate people better about the basis of scientific 
knowledge, thus displacing the exalted status we give to Science (with a 
capital "S"). These ideas are approached from a very different angle in an 
intriguing post by labor activist and prolific blogger Nathan Newman, who 
in a recent post about the Scopes trial points out that the actual history 
and context of the trial was somewhat different than the theatrical version 
we get from Inherit the Wind.

It turns out that, although populist presidential candidate William 
Jennings Bryan conflated the two and brought religion into the equation as 
well, much of his anger was actually directed at eugenics, not evolution:

     The book that Scopes used was A Civic Biology Presented in Problems, 
by George William Hunter. The book, published in 1914, had been used in 
Tennessee for some years. The book presents standard biological facts about 
cells, muscles, respiration and such topics; but it also teaches eugenics.

     The title Civic Biology is similar to one of the phrases used to refer 
to eugenics, "social biology." In a front page of the book, facing the 
title page, there is a mild but clear piece of propaganda. There are two 
photographs, a city street and a country lane. The caption: "Compare the 
unfavorable artificial environment of a crowded city with the more 
favorable environment of the country."

     Chapter 14 includes the material on evolution, with protozoa, worms, 
insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. Man is grouped with the apelike 
mammals. Hunter writes that "there is an immense mental gap between monkey 
and man" [emphasis added]. He adds that monkeys "seem to have many of the 
mental attributes of man," and this "justifies his inclusion with man in a 
separate mental genus." Hunter states that "early man must have been little 
better than one of the lower animals." The chapter concludes with a claim 
of white supremacy.

     Later in the book, in chapter 17, Hunter returns to the subject of 
eugenics. "If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved upon, it is 
not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men 
and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws 
of selection."

     In marriage, Hunter says, there are some things that "the individual 
as well as the race should demand." To have children with tuberculosis, 
syphilis, epilepsy or feeble-mindedness is "not only unfair but criminal."

     He reviews the Jukes and Kallikaks stories, the family trees that were 
supposed to show the need for eugenics (see chapter 3), and says that there 
are hundreds of families like them. He calls them "true parasites," and 
says, "If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off 
to prevent them from spreading."

     The book would not be acceptable in any school system in the United 
States today, because of the things that it says about the poor, blacks, 
and people with disabilities.

(Emphasis added.)

This is one of the big problems with (big-S) Science. While small-s science 
is essential to helping us disprove theories like eugenics, the fact is 
that often what states, institutions, and corporations are defending is not 
a set of practices for determining the truth of the material world, but 
rather a set of beliefs through which they seek to legitimate the status 
quo. In fact, much of what is being done in the name of Science is not 
scientific at all.

Dina Mehta has an interesting post about the rural vs. urban divide in 
contemporary India, and how that is represented in popular culture. I think 
that, as anthropologists, we need to be very careful about orientalizing 
religious conservatism in America as simply backward and ignorant. Yes, it 
is being manipulated by cynical politicians, but at the same time, there 
are often genuine populist concerns which lead people to support such 
politics. It isn't enough to simply defend Science, or even science, we 
need to also better understand these concerns.

I find it interesting that many of the same people who insist we need to 
understand the motivations of the 9/11 bombers are completely uninterested 
in understanding the motivations of America's religious conservatives. It 
is true that we need to be aware of cynical attempts to label Darwin as 
racist. Yet, on the other hand, we can't stop America from turning into a 
theocracy simply by telling a sizable portion of the country that they are 

I guess I'm arguing that what we need is a good anthropological account of 
American religious conservatism. Anyone have any suggestions for a reading list?

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