Conflict Thesis and the Scopes Monkey Trial

I was reading about the Scopes Monkey Trial and found out something that added a new wrinkle to the teaching of evolution in schools. It seems that at the time, people heavily associated evolution with eugenics and conservatives had a moral objection to teaching evolution not just because they believed it was untrue, but because they also believed it was immoral.

The George Hunter’s textbook “A Civic Biology” was used by Scopes and required in Tennessee at the time. Sections of the book considered there to be 5 races. at At top were “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”

Another section of the book reads,
“If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race…[to prevent] disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country”

Of course the association between evolution and genetics has been severed in recent times due to biologists probably wanting to distance themselves from Nazi ideology. Still, it makes me wonder if part of the issue fundamentalists has with Evolution wasn’t just the theory itself but also the moral implications and statements (which were considered very progressive).

I wonder if the theory of evolution was presented without any moral or religious consequences (if possible) if it would have been an easier sell to the Supreme Court or even many Christians.

My concern is today if people (like Dawkins) thinks evolution implies atheism, and they make enough noise about this, SCOTUS could rule against teaching evolution because it would violate the establishment clause of the 1st amendment (preferring non-religion over religion). Any thoughts?


Evolution-science-nature-existence does not imply theism.

Even today some hardline YEC proponents claim that evolution is the cause of racism, and may use the eugenics programs of the past to make that case. I think if they take a broader look at history they’ll be forced to admit that humans have always been trying to find ways to appear superior to one another and have used whatever ideas they could to gain an advantage, be that evolution or scripture. I’m glad Jesus calls us to a better way.

Hopefully not – I’d like to think the court would recognize the difference between science and philosophy, regardless of anything Dawkins says, but who knows.


White supremacists like Dr. Kellogg (yes, THAT Dr. Kellogg) attempted to make eugenics sound scientific by coopting scientific language of genetics and evolution. Eugenics was nothing more than a glammed-up animal breeding methodology mixed with racism, social control and moralistic language–Race Betterment, Better Breeding. I’ve worked with some of their primary sources.

The Nazis loved the work that we were doing over here and imported it from us.

If the Scopes trial really had trouble with Eugenics in the text book, the trial would have been about Eugenics, not evolution. We know from U.S. history and more U.S. history that Americans had no problem with studying and applying eugenics on human subjects in real time.

If people think evolution implies atheism (by which I take you to mean: that one will become an atheist or must be an atheist to employ evolutionary theory in the study of biology (and other related sciences)) they are making it up. Do we rule against the teaching of Mathematics? Literature? Languages? Ice-hockey? Marching Band? because these are taught a-theistically?

SCOTUS will rule in line with the law as long as there are at least 5 justices who hold to rule of law. Once that balance has finished tipping, anything can happen.


All very true. many Christians were very enthusiastic about slavery and eugenics. And now many are still enthusiastic about racism, homophobia, and misogyny.

In the United States, the Kitzmiller trial spared us from intelligent design in the public school science classroom. But as the courts lurch to the right, all bets are off.


Folks can watch chapter one of The Eugenics Crusade here


Aren’t we a mess? It seems the most objectionable part of that textbook was left unchallenged, most likely because both the progressive and conservative sides agreed with it, though perhaps for different reasons.
Your concluding concern regarding the danger of equating evolution with atheism is no doubt a real danger, but because that false equivalence is promoted not by Dawkins and the like, but by fundamentalist literalists.


I thought William Jennings Bryan was quite definite in his objection as a Democrat and Christian to the eugenics angle. @TedDavis may be able to comment.
It was a reaction against science from a moral objection to a falsehood…sad.

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I do think a large part of the trial was about the moral implications of evolution, though not eugenics in particular from what I can tell now. The defense talked about the implications of evolution as “detrimental to our morality” but didn’t focus on eugenics. It’s hard for me to imagine (for someone my age) a time when eugenics would not have been “the” huge issue of the case

Surprisingly it was the prosecution who made this statement, which I really agree with:

Blockquote Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane, the earth’s surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times as bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.


if there is any implication to be derived from evolution it is that survival fitness is not about who feeds and fu**'s fastest but who is “a really useful engine”, e.g aids the propagation of life itself. Survival fitness is the ability to love thy neighbour like thyself, thus implies a law that can not be derived from the physical, but the metaphysical realm of reality, like any law :-).

So that explains all biodiversity for the four billion years up to humanity does it? Two billion years of microorganisms loving their neighbours as themselves for a start.

Please…give me an actual example of an individual animal voluntarily refraining from feeding and reproducing, and by doing so, outcompeting other neighbours that are feeding and reproducing…

Dawkins suggested female fertile years were limited to allow the older females to assist in the care and raising of the young. This would result in an advantage for human clans.

You are referring to the “grandmother hypothesis”. But in this example, the female is working to raise her own descendants, her own kin–i.e., still acting to increase the survival of her own genes in the population. As Dawkins also explains, this is not really an example of “altruistically refraining from reproduction to invest for the benefit of a (non-relative) neighbour”. It is still an example of a method to further one’s own (selfish) genetic fitness.

symbiosis, and the world is full of it. Most of you and me is bacteria

Where did you get the idea from that you have to refrain from reproduction for the benefit of others? What part of “not outcompeting your neighbour” do you not understand? look at Plummeting insect numbers 'threaten collapse of nature' | Insects | The Guardian
and you might get the drift

It was not my idea, I was responding to your quote (see below). How did I misunderstand where you say that evolution is not about reproduction, but about “loving your neighbour”?
And organisms engage in symbiosis, ultimately, so they can reproduce better themselves. Not out of an effort to promote the success of another organism, per se…


Much of Bryant’s personal concern about evolution came from seeing it invoked in favor of the “might makes right” attitude of some German propagandists in WWI. Eugenics was widely invoked as everyone’s biological duty in the first half of the 1900’s, and still appears in many arguments for abortion of the handicapped. I have a 1935 US biology textbook encouraging eugenics, and have seen another of similar vintage featuring a diagram putting human races in different stages on an evolutionary tree. Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery Gaudy Night has a fictional scientist faculty member at Oxford favoring eugenics, an attitude also seen in some of the scientists in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy; both aiming at portraying contemporary attitudes in England.

Ironically, Hume was one of the first to point out that science doesn’t actually tell us what you ought to do. Eugenics, like other pseudoscientific agendas such as Marxism and other social appeals to “progress”, falls into this error. They also misrepresent reality to fit their agenda. History does not strictly follow the patterns imagined by Marx (or anyone else claiming a simple, fixed pattern such as much critical scholarship of the Bible. Evolution promotes the success of whatever works. It is not working towards some sort of ideal organism. My evolutionary self-interest is to spread my genes in the next generation, not to improve humanity, though I might be more successful at spreading my genes if I can fool other people into thinking that I am the epitome of improved humanity and everyone ought to work to make humanity more like me. But, given human memories, cooperation is likely to be a much better long-term strategy for evolutionary success than trying to put others down.

Note also that “Inherit the Wind” is a work of fiction that uses the historical setting of the Scopes trial as a metaphor to attack McCarthyism, but it is regularly treated as factual, just as “The Crucible” attacked McCarthyism in the setting of [stereotyped] Puritan New England and is not historically reliable.


Nonsense. . . . .

This point is well made. It’s one reason why (IMO) some American scientists who totally agree with Dawkins are careful how they approach this. They don’t want textbooks to go there, because then they would indeed violate the establishment clause. Remember that Dawkins is British; they don’t have the first amendment to worry about.