The Scopes Trial Revisited

Science as CultureIn a recent issue of Science as Culture, 17(2), Matthew J. Tontonoz compares the recent “evolution wars” with a revival of the historic Scopes trial of 1925. In this formulation, William Jennings Bryan — who had served as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908 — plays the role presently adopted by, as Tontonoz puts it, “today’s creationists and proponents of intelligent design.”

Using Bryan’s unread closing remarks as a key to his views, this revisionist historical work argues that Bryan opposed evolution primarily for political and ethical reasons–reasons that have been lost to historical memory. Bryan’s overarching concern was the threat to society posed by extrapolations of evolutionary doctrine–namely, Social Darwinism and eugenics. His commitment to the Social Gospel put him at odds with the concept of natural selection being applied to humans. This view of Bryan differs from the one with which we are most familiar. Our faulty historical memory largely reflects the caricatured view of Scopes spawned by the movie Inherit the Wind, a view that, furthermore, reinforces an unhelpful positivistic view of science.

See also at AHP: Darwin and early American psychology, Scopes “Monkey” Trial Ended on this Date

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

6 thoughts on “The Scopes Trial Revisited

  1. Considering the horrors that would unfold in the following decades due to eugenics, it’s easy to suggest that Bryan was being leery at the overly simplistic view of “scientific breeding” that was all the rage at the time. There isn’t a lot of evidence of that, though. He made no mention of eugenics during the Scopes trial and his previous crusading to oppose the teaching of “Darwinism” tended to focus on its impact on morality rather than social policy.

  2. On the contrary, Romeo, I think it is pretty well known that Bryan was an opponent of eugenics and of social Darwinism more broadly, and that his populist appeal in the late 19th century had stemmed in part from his opposition to these conservative programs. (Indeed, it is so well known that it says so in the second sentence of his Wikipedia entry: By 1925, however, he was quite old and his political views were way behind the times. Social Darwinism had long lost its novel appeal, and even eugenics (in America) had probably passed the peak of its popularity (though they would linger on in various forms until WWII). Bryan’s last, disastrous, presidential run, nearly a whole generation before the Scopes trial, had resulted in a crushing defeat (by Taft), in which he had won, essentially, only southern states. So his lingering popularity in that region of the country was part of the reason he was brought in to shore up the case. But it was a bit like, if you can imagine, in 2008 some Kansas creationist group calling on Bob Dole to help defend their cause in a small- town trial.

  3. The appeal of Social Darwinism may have faded (largely because it had become unhitched from the laissez-faire capitalism that had made it so popular with businessmen) but eugenics was still going strong by the time of the Scopes trial. Sterilization of the unfit continued in many Western countries even after WWII. In Canada and the US, perceived undesirables were being sterilized as recently as the 1970s. If Bryan viewed eugenics as an undesirable consequence of Darwinism, he made no mention of it during his anti-Darwinism crusade.

  4. Romeo, I’m not sure what the basis is of the distinction you are trying to make between eugenics and social Darwinism. Eugenics is nothing more or less than the hard leading edge of social Darwinism. If Bryan was opposed to the latter (and there can be little doubt that the main thrust of his long “Progressivist” political agenda was in that direction) then he was against the former as well. If you don’t believe me, try the second sentence of Diane Paul’s chapter on social Darwinism and eugenics in the _Cambridge Companion to Darwin_: And although, as you say, sterilizations did continue into the 1970s (the 1908s, actually) in a few places in North America, WWII was the decisive cutoff of the general political palatability of eugenics in North America (in no small part due to a 1942 Supreme Court decision against it) , and it had lost much of its steam long before that.

    Moreover, one cannot equate all compulsory sterilizations with eugenics. There were at least two other regimes of justification for sterilization laws: punitive (viz., with criminals) and therapeutic (see the Wikipedia “compulsory sterilization” entry at

  5. The rationale for involuntary sterilization almost always came back to eugenics, regardless of the convenient justifications that may have been used when eugenics developed a bad name. The fact that most sterilized adults tended to be females and visible minorities pretty much attested to that fact.

    As for Bryan, if he opposed eugenics, why did he never say as much in his writings?

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