This is a lesson in the history of biology—not from me, but for me.
A while back I visited John Scopes’s grave in Paducah, Kentucky and praised him, saying that I would have liked to shake his hand (I discovered that he didn’t die until I was 20). Well, that statement and the picture of me at the gravesite were sufficient to provoke the ire of Michael Egnor of the Discovery Institute (DI), who wrote two posts excoriating me (here and here), as well as his creationist pal David Klinghoffer, who wrote one. (I swear, these people should be trying to produce the promised evidence for intelligent design [ID] instead of repeatedly attacking evolutionists.) My crime? Praising Scopes. Why was that bad? Because the biology textbook from which Scopes supposedly taught human evolution, leading to the “Monkey Trial,” contained not only human evolution (Scope’s crime) but eugenics, which Egnor and Klinghoffer characterize as a part of evolutionary biology. Ergo, by praising Scopes I was endorsing racism, eugenics, and all sorts of horrible things.
No matter that Scopes was a short-term substitute teacher for the biology class, couldn’t even remember whether he taught human evolution from the book, and almost certainly didn’t teach the eugenics part of the book. Creationists like Egnor and Klinghoffer never let facts get in the way when they’re smearing an evolutionary biologist—or promoting ID.
Now Adam Shapiro, over at his site Trying Biology, has weighed in with a piece called”Why attacking John Scopes as racist isn’t true.” Shapiro, a Lecturer in Intellectual and Cultural History at Birkbeck College of the University of London, got his PhD in 2007 at the University of Chicago from the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. And he certainly knows his onions about the Scopes Trial, for he wrote a book about it: Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools. The book is described as “dispelling many conventional assumptions about the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey’ trial.”
“Egnor (and Klinghoffer’s) posts are rife with patently false historical assertions about Scopes and about the Civic Biology. Coyne’s has some error as well, but much less.”
Oy gewalt! Well, nobody likes to err, but of course I wanted to know where I had gone wrong. I’ll get to that in a second, but first Shapiro’s verdict on Egnor and Klinghoffer (quotes are from Shapiro):
- “But (as Coyne correctly points out) Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, he only filled in as a substitute briefly. It’s almost certain that Scopes, personally, did not cover the eugenics passages. For that matter, Scopes was unsure that he’d even taught evolution, relating in his memoir that he had to go back and look in the textbook to even be sure it was in there.”
- “If anything John Scopes indicates in his memoir that his family was quite opposed to racism.”
- “In the 1910s and 20s, eugenics seems to have been less about race and more about class: specifically the class of people who were perceived as non-contributors to society: criminals, the ‘feebleminded’ and the immoral.”
- “The passages of Hunter’s textbook that talks about the hierarchy of races are part of the section that discusses human evolution. But those are in a completely different chapter than the passages on eugenics. . . Egnor states without citation: ‘Eugenic racism in 1925 was consensus science in the field of human evolution.’ This statement is wrong on several levels. It’s wrong that eugenics was primarily about race (in 1925). It’s wrong that eugenics was primarily considered an application of human evolution (as opposed to heredity.) And it’s wrong to claim that it was a consensus. But disagreeing only with the last of those three claims tacitly reinforces the first two. This is an extremely subtle – and dishonest – rhetorical strategy.”
In other words, eugenics wasn’t even considered part of evolutionary biology back then, but was seen as part of genetics. After all, selective breeding had been going on for centuries before Darwin proposed the theory of evolution in 1859. But I was more interested in where I had gone wrong, and here’s what Shapiro says about that:
This is the one issue where I think Coyne has made a mistake. His refutation to the Discovery Institute seems to be that Scopes, being both the substitute teacher and teaching the state mandated textbook had no choice but to use Hunter, which “did indeed contain some pretty dreadful racist and eugenicist statements.” A minor quibble is to point out that there was a second adopted biology textbook—which about 10% of Tennessee students used instead. But in terms of its evolutionary and eugenic contents it was really no different. (And it wasn’t left to Scopes’s personal discretion which to use anyway) but Coyne’s claim that “it is ironic, by the way, that Tennessee, by requiring use of a book that covered human evolution, was requiring its biology teachers to break the law.” This is really not accurate. When Governor Peay signed the bill into law, he specifically stated that nothing in the books being taught in the state would place a teacher in jeopardy. (In Chapter 5 of my book, I argue that if we presume that Scopes taught exactly what was in Hunter’s book, then he didn’t actually violate the Tennessee law.)
So I was wrong in claiming that Tennessee, by requiring students to use a textbook that taught human evolution, was therefore requiring their teachers to break the law. But this puzzled me, for I thought teaching human evolution explicitly violated the Butler Act. If human evolution was in Hunter’s textbook, how could teachers possibly be exculpated for teaching from it? After all, the 1925 Butler Act, which Scopes was convicted of violating, says this (my emphasis):
Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense.
So I put the question to Shapiro on his website, and I reproduce my query and his answer, which is enlightening:
So there’s a lesson for all of us. According to Shapiro (I haven’t read Hunter’s Civic Biology), Scopes didn’t really violate the letter of the law, and shouldn’t have been convicted. I’m curious why his lawyers didn’t bring that up, but, as Shapiro says, even the defense lawyers wanted a conviction. And they surely would have appealed the guilty verdict had Scopes’s conviction not been set aside on a technicality. (The judge levied the $100 fine instead of the jury, and Tennessee law mandated that all fines over $50 had to be set by the jury.)
So we’ve all learned a lesson, and forgive me, Ceiling Cat, for I have transgressed—but not nearly as much as Egnor and Klinghoffer.
Here’s a photo from Lochgarry’s Blog, showing a post-trial re-enactment of the decision of Scopes and the town fathers of Dayton to get Scopes arrested and tried. You probably know that one of the main motivations for the trial was to bring publicity and business to Dayton, and Scopes willingly agreed to break the law (or so he thought). Scopes is sitting at the table looking at the book.