[Marxism] A new look at the Scopes trial
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
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.
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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