From Scopes to Dover-3: The role of ‘social Darwinism’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As far as the legal issues were concerned, the famous 1925 ‘Scopes monkey trial’ did not actually resolve anything and did not even deal with the same weighty constitutional issues that now surround the issue of evolution in the classroom.

The issues involved in the trial arose as a result of the collision of two trains of events, one emerging from the rising unease with the implications of Darwinian thinking for Christian beliefs, and the other with concerns about infringements on the fundamental right of free speech that followed the creation of the Soviet Union following World War I and the ‘Red Scare’ that followed.

Unease over the implications of the theory of evolution for religious beliefs had been simmering for some time, even since the full implications of Darwin’s theory had become recognized. While some people were willing to tolerate the idea of all species other than humans being evolutionarily linked, the idea that human beings were also part of the great tree of evolutionary descent was repugnant to many because it seemed to imply that we were no different from other mammals and thus not in the image of god nor possessors of an immortal soul.

Williams Jennings Bryan was a devoutly religious Christian and also a populist, supporting many progressive causes while championing the underdog and fighting for the rights of the poor against their exploiters. Because of this, he was often referred by the nickname of The Commoner, in addition to the name of The Boy Orator, which he had acquired early in life because of the skill he displayed as a public speaker. He had basically a majoritarian democratic view that held that people, through their collective voice, had the final say in how they were to be governed. As such, he opposed elitist ideas, and he saw evolutionary theory as one such doctrine that was being imposed on people by a scientific elite.

In fact, while one reason he opposed Darwinian thinking was because of his religious beliefs and his fears that the theory left no room for god, another of the sources of his opposition to Darwin’s theory were the claims of the so-called ‘social Darwinists’ like Herbert Spencer, who tried to extend Darwinian natural selection to explain human society and argued that ‘survival of the fittest’ meant that harsh social conditions were inevitable and maybe even desirable since that would weed out those who were ‘unfit’, thus improving humanity in the long run. The ‘robber barons’ of that time, people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who had made enormous fortunes at a time of widespread poverty, also took comfort from social Darwinism since it seemed to bestow a seal of approval on them and their actions, suggesting that their success was due to them being exceptionally ‘fit’ for the world of business and innately gifted at it, and not because of their exploitative business practices. Bryan saw Darwin’s ideas as being at the root of that particular evil, saying “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate – the merciless law by which the strong crowd out the weak.” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 39).

Bryan was a humane and peace-loving man, who even resigned in 1915 from his position as Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson when it looked like Wilson was taking the country into World War I. That war gave Bryan yet another reason to oppose Darwinism because he was strongly influenced by some books written at that time that argued that the war was due to Darwinian principles at work among nations.

Another factor at play in the popular opposition to Darwinism was the rise of eugenics and its suggestion that the human race, just like livestock, could be improved by selective breeding, such as by segregating those people who were seen as ‘defective’ and preventing them from having children. Many viewed this as an abominable practice and those opposed to evolution saw this as a direct consequence of Darwinian thinking applied to humans, and dangerously close to playing god. Their linking of Darwinian evolutionary theory with eugenics was buttressed by the fact that one of the founders of this new field (and the person who coined the term) was the British polymath Francis Galton, who happened to be Darwin’s cousin and one of the earliest supporters of Darwin’s theory.

Bryan was opposed to the excesses of both capitalism and militarism and also rejected social engineering at the expense of the poor. He saw Darwinian thinking as the source of all those evils and thus as a pernicious idea that should be defeated and definitely not taught to students in public schools.

Next: Bryan’s views on religion and evolution.

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  1. says

    Wow. I can’t believe they let the KKK outfit in. I’m also kind of surprised that he apparently tried all of these at the same place on the same night.

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