Why John Scopes wasn’t a racist, and other lessons from the “Monkey Trial”

December 17, 2013 • 6:26 am

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.”

Shapiro’s verdict:

“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:

Picture 1

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.

John Scopes with Men at Drug Store Table
“How it Started” Principals of Scopes trial grouped around table in Robinson’s Drug Store (specially posed) Seated – H.E.Hicks, attorney; John T. Scopes; Walter White, Rhea County superintendent of schools; and County Judge J.G. McKenzie; Standing – B.M. Wilber, justice of the peace; W.C. Haggard, an attorney; W.E. Morgan; Dr George W.Rappelyea, chemical engineer, who initiated prosecution of his friend to test the law; S.K. Hicks, attorney and F.E. Robinson, chairman, Rhea County Board of Education

29 thoughts on “Why John Scopes wasn’t a racist, and other lessons from the “Monkey Trial”

  1. Fascinating! It is certainly true that eugenics came more from readings & understanding on Mendel than Darwin. I have been reading a lot about the early development of eugenics, for example under Leonard Darwin (son of Charles), by all accounts a nice man.

    He wrote “When considering whether it is possible to make any move, other than by mere persuasion, in the direction of lessening the fertility of the inferior, there are two classes of persons to whom it is especially desirable that the attention should be directed. The first class comprises those who are living an uncivilized life in our midst. The second class includes all those who have for a long time been in receipt of help of various kinds from the state; that is, of public assistance, as it may be called.” Leaonard Darwin, What is Eugenics, 1928 p.69)

    We see that his concerns were largely class/wealth based rather than based on race. In this regard it is alive & well today in social policy of many conservative governments & of the public who decry giving welfare to people with large families who do not work.

    1. Sorry – Leonard came out mangled due to my terrible typing & I missed an opening bracket!

      Suggested recent books – Darwin & his Children by Berra (almost finished), & The Chief Sea Lion’s Inheritance: Eugenics and the Darwins by Blaney (read a little).

    2. Fascinating! It is certainly true that eugenics came more from readings & understanding on Mendel than Darwin.

      A slight temporal gig and pony sequencing error, I think.

      In 1883, one year after Darwin’s death, Galton gave his research a name: “eugenics”. [In the book “Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development”]

      (From wikipedia)However Galton had been working on this general field since his cousin Charles Darwin had published a certain book. Mendel was working in his pea garden over much of that same period, but his publication was almost unknown until it’s rediscovery in about 1900. So, Galton wasn’t much influenced by Mendel.
      (Wasn’t Darwin sent a copy of Mendel’s paper, but he never got to read it, the pages remaining “unsplit” when it was found in his archive? OR am I getting stories conflated? I’ve certainly seen books of this vintage still unsplit.)

  2. “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. ”

    You’ve answered your own question. The whole point of the defense was to convict Scopes, and Scopes was complicit in that. They were hoping to get the case to the Supreme Court. The more interesting question is why the prosecution wasn’t trying to bring about an acquittal! (To prevent it from getting to the Supreme Court). In the end, the Tennessee Supreme Court found a way to acquit Scopes and prevent the case from proceeding further. The defense was mad at them for that.

    BTW The photo you show includes Sue K. Hicks, who as I think you have noted was the original Boy Named Sue.

  3. I’ve always considered eugenics a close “biological” cousin of religion. The idea that perfection exists and that it is an end goal of human endavour.

    Only the chosen ones get the prize, be that eternal existence in another realm, or the ideal great-great-great-etc….grandchildren.

    Just like when parents get’s pissed if their offspring chooses a mate that isn’t approved by their prefered doctrine.

  4. Klinghoffer will cling to anything and Egrnor is a selective ignoramous. Nothing to see here but two misguided sophistry acquisition specialists pimping for sweet baby white Jebus while obsessed with vexation.

    1. “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”

      — H.L. Mencken (Chrestomathy)

    1. It is quite natural that you be confused. After all, Ceiling Cat, Happy Cat, and Hover Cat are three separate entities, yet all are one. It is one of the deepest, ineffable mysteries in teh worldz.

  5. I’m not sure Shapiro is correct about Scopes being alright if he’d stuck to Hunter’s Civic Biology. I read the complete trial transcript this summer, which, with the pre-trial arguments, is much longer than just the testimony. The court wasn’t interested in splitting hairs about what constituted evolution, or whether it, in fact, controverted the Genesis story. I will dig it all out tonight, and find some relevant passages.

  6. Your “error” was so trivial that it really shouldn’t be classified as such. Someone just wanted to nitpick.

    1. The important thing is caring about what the truth is and making corrections or clarifications when errors, omissions, or questions arise. This is a key quality that distinguishes science from religion. It was their carelessness about facts and willful refusal to acknowledge, much less correct, errors that, for me, really drained the authority out of the religious leaders I was raised under. People who don’t feel competent to judge the truth of evolution or the poverty of evidence for god can, nonetheless, detect which side is being honest and cares about the truth and which does not.

  7. wrt to

    “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.”

    I think this is an overstatement. It’s worth remembering how pervasive and permissible racisim was in the 1920s. Race was also part of the eugenics equation, and racial traits were often claimed to correlate with moral and intellectual defects.

    However, creationism was hardly an answering call, being shot through with racism itself, as it still is today.

    It’s true that Bryan’s motivations to involvement with the case may have come from high minded objections to eugenics, as is often claimed, but it’s also true that the majority of people rooting for his success were proud members of the polity of the nakedly racist Jim Crow South.

  8. The Sage of Baltimore, fellow atheist H. L. Mencken wrote some interesting reports from the trial:


    Click the links at the bottom for the complete articles. Interestingly, Clarence Darrow weighed in against eugenics in Mencken’s “American Mercury” before it was criminalized by association with the Nazis. His article in the June 1926 issue, “The Eugenics Cult,” is at:


    Mencken published a pro-eugenics article in the February 1924 issue by H. M. Parshley, “Heredity and the Uplift”:


    Parshley was the first translator of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.”

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