Naturalists, Taxonomists, & Natural History Museums
Evolution & Human Nature
Evolution & American Christianity
The Scopes Trial
Naturalists, Taxonomists, and Natural History Museums
When William Jennings Bryan began a campaign to get evolution out of American public schools in 1921, science in the United States was going through profound changes. During the previous century, natural history museums in New York, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and elsewhere served as centers of scientific research. The taxonomists who worked at these museums spent their hours naming, describing and classifying animals and plants. Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection had largely been inspired by puzzles arising out of taxonomic work: Should newly-discovered animals and plants be described as species or varieties, and how did one distinguish between the two categories? Why were species distributed over geographical landscapes, or in the fossil record, in certain patterns? Why was it possible to group organisms into increasingly large categories, from species to kingdom? Although the day-to-day work of classifying animals and plants changed little with the acceptance of evolution, many taxonomists saw their work as central to the scientific understanding of whether and how species change.
By the first decades of the twentieth century new scientific disciplines challenged the traditional status of museums and taxonomy as centers of scientific research. Proponents of genetics claimed, for example, that only experimental methods could solve crucial puzzles inspired by Darwin’s work, including the origin of variation and how inheritance works. Some even called those who worked in museums old fashioned “stamp collectors” or “species makers” rather than scientists. Two charges in particular inspired critiques of both taxonomy and the natural history tradition; first, that science must be based on experiments, and second, that biology must be driven by a more explicit use of evolution than taxonomists’ highly descriptive methods allowed.
Some taxonomists argued that museum workers could improve the utility of natural history collections for studying evolution by collecting long series of specimens (rather than one or two specimens of each species). In doing so taxonomists could both ensure their descriptions of species and classification were robust (or less subject to change based on future research) and useful to the study of geographical variation. Others, like founder of genetics William Bateson, argued these new museum practices were too little too late. Bateson argued that geneticists’ ability to breed, in controlled conditions, thousands upon thousands of individuals of a single species (most famously Drosophila melanogaster, or common fruit flies) would solve the problem of the origin of species. Critics of museum taxonomy also came from the new discipline of ecology, which emphasized the importance of studying living organisms in their natural environments. In a competitive landscape in which demands for science to be useful were increasing and resources thin, taxonomists working in natural history museums found themselves on the defensive. Meanwhile, although insect taxonomists working at government-funded museums like the Smithsonian Institution had always devoted much of their time to ‘economic’ or ‘applied’ entomology, the pressure to spend all one’s time identifying insects that either harmed or helped agriculture or human health was increasing.
Establishing the grounds on which science should be done and supported grew particularly pressing in the years during and after the war that descended upon Europe and then the world between 1914 and 1918. American scientists of all fields felt increasing pressure to prove their utility to society. Some biologists tried to determine the ultimate causes of war. Others pondered how to “put the world back together again.” As the sciences professionalized (developing graduate programs and salaried positions), the need to justify financial support from patrons and governments only increased. These pressures inspired various defenses of why science should be valued, and heightened competition between different methodological approaches, disciplines, and institutions. At natural history museums, for example, some continued to emphasize the importance of taxonomy to fighting insect pests and insect-borne disease. While others, like Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, argued that naturalists (or biologists, as they were increasingly called) contributed knowledge essential for “race improvement” (Osborn and the museum hosted the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1921).
Amid increasing pressures to make science useful to society, some scientists insisted that the only means of maintaining science’s objectivity was to focus on detailed descriptive or experimental work, and leave the application of scientific knowledge to social or economic policies to theologians, politicians, and ethicists. Geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, for example, who would win a Nobel Prize for his work on the role of chromosomes in heredity, insisted scientists should focus on “pure science” rather than be involved in policy or politics. Still, the pressures to tie science to various, often conflicting, visions of American progress were strong. In 1921 an article in The Scientific Monthly described the public’s perception of scientists as belonging to two species: The “aristocrat” scientist investigates minute details of unimportant subjects, “fussy and irritable if disturbed in his meditations or laboratory procedures,” (these were, the author noted, the “science-for-its-own-sake and knowledge-as-its-own-reward” men). The “democrat” scientists, by contrast, “focused on the needs of humanity, driven to cure some malady in one form or the other, be it bacteria or a disease-spreading fly.” No one, of course, wanted to be called an aristocrat in a democracy, but would not objectivity be undermined if scientists were too concerned about saving the world? Scientists had to decide which was more virtuous: join the fray and risk being wrong, or play it safe and withdraw from public debates in the interest of establishing correct conclusions.
Evolution and Human Nature
Clearly, biologists’ adoption of the theory of evolution raised a number of dilemmas relevant far beyond the halls of genetics laboratories or museum rooms. Darwin had included just a few lines in The Origin of Species on human beings. “In the distant future,” he wrote, “I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” When, in 1871, he published The Descent of Man, Darwin believed that his theory had to account for every human trait, including those traditionally viewed as uniquely human, from religion to musical ability. In putting forward an alternative to traditional explanations of human origins and behavior, Darwin’s work raised a host of profound questions: Whence human values, meaning, and purpose? Whence human conscience and moral responsibility? Whence religion and belief in God? Were humans by nature competitive and selfish, cooperative and selfless, or a complex mix of both? On what grounds could human reason and conscience be trusted, if both evolved from primate ancestors? How did humanity’s past relate to aspirations for the present and future?
During the opening decades of the twentieth century, American biologists wrestled with whether and how to answer these questions. The California biologist William Ritter and his patron E.W. Scripps believed, for example, that biologists must try and answer the question “What is this damned human animal, anyway?” by studying human beings from the perspective of natural history. Ritter argued that teaching people to think “scientifically” about themselves would aid democracy, a belief that led to the “Science Service” (whose members would play a key role in the Scopes Trial). Some even argued a better understanding of human nature was the best path toward preventing future wars. The biologist Jacques Loeb argued, for example, that human nature could be explained purely in terms of physical, chemical mechanisms, and that in doing so humans would be better able to both understand and control themselves and eventually build a better society. The biologist Vernon Kellogg took on German biologists’ use of “survival of the fittest” doctrines to justify war by insisting that cooperation and mutual aid had led to evolutionary progress rather than violent competition. At the University of Chicago, ecologist Warder Clyde Allee also studied animal communities in the hopes of improving humanity’s ability to embrace both altruism and pacifism. Still others looked to Freudian psychology for explanations for why human beings behave the way they do, and found answers in a system of subconscious drives and the conflict between animal instincts and the demands of civilization. Finally, Stanford biologist David Starr Jordan argued that evolution proved that competition and struggle were the only means of future progress (although he argued against war on the grounds it sent the “fittest” men to be slaughtered). Though they differed on the nature of both evolution and humanity, each of these scientists assumed that biology had useful and important, indeed, world-saving, things to say about human conduct. Each assumed biologists must help Americans understand both themselves, recent history, and the best route toward a better future.
Throughout these debates, Americans wrestled with the question: Whose vision of American society did biology support? Debates over evolution in the 1920s are often associated with fights between secular thinkers and religious leaders. But within the growing system of secular universities, from Columbia University to the University of Washington, little agreement existed beyond the assumption that explanations must be based on natural, rather than supernatural, causes. Conflicting visions of what secular explanations should be like were most evident among those studying human beings, especially those intent on influencing American political and social life. The questions were numerous: How should one explain variation within human beings, and to what end? What are the implications of evolution for understanding supposed differences of gender, race, and class? What insights do evolutionary explanations hold for understanding human behaviors, including those that are assumed to be deviant? Take the differences presumed to exist between men and women (they spoke only in binaries, and only in terms of sex, rather than gender). Some influential biologists argued that evolution both explained and justified a division of spheres between the sexes (men as breadwinners and women as homemakers, for example). Indeed, the belief that men were, by nature, more rational and women more religious became an influential argument in support of female suffrage on the grounds “Votes for Women” would help prevent war in future. Others argued that supposed sex differences were the result of culture, education, and environment, and that there was nothing “natural” about the country’s highly gendered status quo.
The stakes were high as influential historians, anthropologists, and biologists claimed they could explain the past (whether recent or distant) and in doing so guide humanity better in the present, especially for those excluded from power. Whereas early-nineteenth century attitudes toward women, people of color, non-Northern European immigrants, and indigenous Americans relied primarily on scripture, by the twentieth century policy-makers appealed to science to justify sexist, ableist, racist, and classist visions of American society. Naturalists’ classifications and theorizing, for example, had a profound influence on how settlers viewed the people they encountered while laying claim to the lands surrounding the Salish Sea. Influential biologist David Starr Jordan, for example, emphasized competition and the struggle for existence, including competition between supposed racial groups, as key to evolutionary progress. That assumption, combined with pervasive belief in white superiority among the powers-that-be inspired some to argue that high mortality rates among indigenous Americans was not only inevitable, but both natural and good. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, however, a new generation of anthropologists, social scientists, reformers, and radicals began questioning the use of biology to justify both hierarchical classifications with respect to gender, race, and class, and competition and struggle as the only means of progress.
Those who saw social problems as rooted in the organization of society itself, rather than as the inevitable result of evolution, set out to change society in the interest of social justice and the amelioration of suffering. The most radical was the Industrial Workers of the World (whose members were called Wobblies). For a time, the IWW was tremendously active in the Pacific Northwest, especially among loggers and dockworkers. After the war, fear of socialist revolution in the wake the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Seattle General Strike of 1919 inspired a reaction against communist, anarchist, and socialist solutions (culminating in the first Red Scare of 1917-1920. Tacoma’s IWW office was raided in 1917). Meanwhile, biologists who emphasized the hereditary origins of supposed individual and group traits increasingly turned to eugenics as the best means of securing a better future, urging Americans to breed out the bad (via sterilization policies, anti-immigration laws, etc.) and breed in the good (by encouraging individuals to make better ‘biological’ evaluations of prospective mates).
Some biologists tried to avoid becoming involved in politics and social problems. Philosopher G.E. Moore had been warning since 1905 that it was unphilosophical to try and derive values and justify ethical claims based on what biologists, or anyone else, believed nature was like. He even came up with a term for such moves: moving from an “is” (what nature is like) to an “ought” (what one ought to do) was to commit a “naturalistic fallacy.” In their arguments against anti-evolutionists, some biologists adopted a version of Moore’s claim, namely, that science examines nature (the “is”) and religion establishes morality and values (the “ought”). Today this is sometimes called the contrast or complimentary model of science and religion. That model is often used to argue that any attempt to derive values (as opposed to describing their origin) based on evolution is not, in fact, science. That stance got its first major hearing by the American public during the Scopes Trial. But the temptation to see and defend biology as useful for determining how humans should behave and treat each other, and how society should be organized, was difficult to give up, especially given the pressures on all professions to say something meaningful about the dilemmas facing American society.
Evolution & American Christianity
Of course, many Americans have long-since had answers to questions like “Whence human values, meaning, and purpose? Whence human conscience and moral responsibility?” (although often little consensus existed on the details). Demographically and politically, Protestant Christianity dominated American culture and institutions. Protestant understandings of God and the study of nature had become tightly intertwined since the seventeenth century, when influential colonial ministers like Cotton Mather and early scientists like Robert Boyle argued that the purposeful parts and animals and plants demonstrated the wisdom, goodness, and power of God. This “design argument” for the existence and character of God depended in turn on the assumption that God gave humans two books through which to know Him: Nature and the Bible. As a result, answers to questions about God and human nature had become intertwined with a particular interpretation of the scriptural account of creation, namely that God created species “in kind” and man “In His Image.” The fact that defenses of the existence of God were thus tied to a particular view of the origin of species meant that alternative explanations of the origin of species often seemed an attack on fundamental assumptions of Christianity.
That said, American Christianity changed a great deal over the course of the nineteenth century, often in ways that dampened the impact of evolutionary ideas. During the nineteenth century, many Americans had appealed to the Bible to justify a range of positions on war, gender, race, class, progress, suffering, and human behavior. Orthodox explanations of each tended, ultimately, to rely on belief in the Fall of Man and its consequent: original sin. That vision of history in turn explained the entrance of both moral and physical evil into God’s creation, as well as the promise of salvation via the redemptive power of Christ’s sacrifice. But the fact this history depended upon belief in miracles inspired some theologians to reexamine the grounds of historical knowledge about the Bible so that its moral teachings could persist in a modern age enamored of scientific explanations and natural law. Within Presbyterian churches, for example, some ministers abandoned orthodox doctrines in an effort to reform Christianity into something individuals committed to both earthly progress and science could believe in. They repudiated belief in hell, abandoned literal interpretations of scripture, and argued against reliance on miracles to explain both nature and history. These ministers saw themselves as reforming Christianity, rather than abandoning it, but critics soon demanded to know what, precisely, remained of Christianity in this reformed faith. In the nineteenth century few of these critics believed in a literal interpretation of scripture (much less a six-day creation). But “liberal” and “modernist” Christians’ increasing reliance on natural law rather than miracles, the abandonment – by some – of belief in the divinity of Christ, and their ardent repudiation of eternal punishment, caused increasing concern among more orthodox circles.
In their attempts to adjust Christianity to scientific ideas, some Christians argued that the story of the “Fall of Man” was actually a metaphor for humanity’s continued imprisonment within selfish, animal instincts, an imprisonment that could be broken by divinely approved progress in both religion and science. As a result, for the generation of Christians that first confronted Darwin’s work, it wasn’t necessarily clear that evolution threatened Christianity, even in its more evangelical forms. Indeed, quite orthodox Christians, like the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, believed that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was not only compatible with Christianity, but provided a better explanation of the existence of suffering than the “theory of special creation.” A long tradition of seeing natural law as God’s means of creation (after all, a law requires a legislator) allowed some to see Darwin’s theory as the latest revelation of God’s activity in creation. Finally, some replaced Darwin’s mechanism of choice, natural selection, with alternative mechanisms that seemed much easier to combine with a theistic (or divine) interpretation of evolution.
Variation existed in how reconcilers addressed the origin of human beings. Some accepted the evolution of the human physical body from primate ancestors but attributed humanity’s capacity to reason and make moral choices to a special, creative act (this is still the position taken by the Catholic Church, and was held by Darwin’s allies Charles Lyell and Alfred Russel Wallace). A primary concern of this position was that if morality arose via evolutionary means, rather than via a special creative act of God, then the demand that moral rules be obeyed seemed compromised. In what sense, they asked, did sin exist, if humanity came from apes? Others argued that a naturalistic account of sin did not undermine the demand that conscience must be obeyed: sin was the remnant of animal instincts, and human moral, social and material progress depended upon the turn away from animality. These theologians argued that the ‘Fall of Man’ and the doctrine of original sin were ‘true’ only in the sense that both captured the constant threat of temptation from our animal drives.
By the opening of the twentieth century extensive debates were taking place regarding what, precisely, was fundamental to Christianity, given so much had changed. A series of essays called The Fundamentals captured the debate and concerns, as authors wrestled with changing theological and scientific thought, including evolution. Defenders of orthodox Christianity called the revisions described above heretical. Yet it was not until after the war, when some congregations tried to expel “liberal” and “modernist” ministers from the fold, that debate solidified into two ‘sides’: Fundamentalists and Modernists (each term stood in for a great deal of variation with respect to stances on miracles, Christ, faith, and science). In the wake of the war, some Christian leaders urged a return to the ‘fundamentals of the faith,’ including –most importantly – belief in the miracles deemed critical to Christ’s vicarious atonement for sin and the possibility of salvation. Fundamentalist Christianity, then, constituted a rebellion against the nineteenth-century attempts to adjust Christianity to modern science by abandoning belief in (at least traditional definitions of) miracles. Similar questions would eventually be posed, in some form, within all denominations and religious faiths over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Americans confronted the ideas, events, triumphs, and tragedies of modernity.
The Scopes Trial of July, 1925
Between 1921-1925 naturalists who had argued biology was central to American life found themselves on the defensive. In January 1921 the English geneticist William Bateson gave a speech in which he insisted the origin of species was unsolved, and that the place to solve it was in genetics laboratories via experiments, not museums. He was right that little consensus existed on whether Darwin and Wallace had been right about natural selection (indeed, some referred to this period as the ‘Eclipse of Darwinism.’) Taxonomists at natural history museums tended to support natural selection because their experience with the extraordinary amount of variation within species meant they were drawn to mechanisms that relied on small, seemingly continuous variation. By contrast, those working in laboratories with experimental organisms like fruit flies paid more attention to large variations, or ‘mutations.’ When Mendel’s work on heredity (which emphasized large variation as the foundation of evolutionary change) was rediscovered in 1900, many geneticists declared natural selection inadequate to account for species change. In the meantime, former Secretary-of-State William Jennings Bryan was paying attention to biologists’ debates. Taking a definition of science as classified knowledge, i.e. factual and proven, Bryan insisted that evolution was based on guesses and speculation: “While many scientists accept evolution as if it were a fact,” Bryan wrote after reading Bateson’s lecture, “they all admit, when questioned that no explanation has been found as to how one species developed into another.” Bryan asked why, in that case, evolution was being taught in schools as though proven, especially given how, in his view, evolution undermined both morality and social progress.
Bryan did not interpret Genesis literally and accepted a metaphorical interpretation of the word ‘day’ that made it possible to adjust to geologists’ expansion of the time frame since the original creation. But he believed evolution undermined belief in a personal God. Those who tried to reconcile Christianity and evolution, he argued, placed God at so far a distance that their belief in God was of no real use. Bryan clearly agreed with fundamentalists’ claim that Darwin’s collapse of the boundary between animal and man was destructive to faith and morality. He started collecting evidence that biology undermined orthodox faith: a survey of scientists and college students that showed belief in the tenets of Christianity was low among scientists, especially biologists, and fourth-year college students; accounts of German military officers justifying the World War on grounds that natural law dictated the “survival of the fittest”; defenses of criminals on the grounds they were determined by their biology; the writings of eugenicists who held the scientific breeding of human beings to be the only route to progress.
Clearly many American others agreed with William Jennings Bryan about the dangers of teaching evolution. Soon, state legislatures in Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee passed laws restricting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Tennessee law, known as the Butler Act, reads as follows:
AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.
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.
Section 3. Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.
The American Civil Liberties Union, founded in 1920 in the wake of war-time infringements on free speech, announced in Tennessee newspapers that they would fund a test case, that is, a suit designed to test the constitutionality of the law. A young man named John T. Scopes was substituting for the science teacher in the town of Dayton, Tennessee (and teaching from George Hunter’s biology textbook Civic Biology: Presented in Problems), when town boosters approached him with the idea of answering the ACLU’s call. They got more than they bargained for when William Jennings Bryan signed on to aid the prosecution, and the famous agnostic and defense lawyer Clarence Darrow signed on to aid the defense.
Darrow and Bryan had worked together in the past, but here they found themselves on opposite sides of a case that caught the attention of the world. Critics of evolution saw both free will and moral and personal responsibility at stake, especially after Darrow applied a materialist, determinist interpretation of human nature to criminal punishment. In 1924 he relied on a mix of environmental and hereditary determinism to argue that the teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb could not be held responsible for their actions and, while they must be imprisoned for the good of society, they should be pitied rather than hung. (Bryan called upon Darrow’s defense of Leopold and Loeb during the Scopes Trial as evidence of the corrosive, “natural” tendencies of Darwinism).
Bryan and Darrow had a famous, dramatic exchange on the second-to-the-last day of the week-long trial during July of 1925. By that point, the prosecution had successfully convinced the Judge that the testimony of the defense team’s eleven expert witnesses, both scientists and ministers, was irrelevant to the case at hand. The expert testimony was central to the defense’s plan to argue against the Butler Act’s basic assumption that evolution and Christianity were in conflict. The scientists and ministers’ statements were read into the record to be ready for the defense’s expected appeal to a higher court. (The jury was sent out of the room so the inadmissible testimony would not influence their judgment of whether Scopes had broken the law).
Having lost the ability to place their expert testimony before the jury, Darrow surprised the nation by calling Bryan to the stand as an expert on the bible and drilling him on his belief in miracles. Darrow’s famous interrogation of Bryan and Bryan’s replies were later used, at points word for word and at times with critical changes (including toning down Darrow’s materialism and changing Bryan into a six-day creationist) in a 1955 play called Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (the play was actually written to criticized Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on academic freedom in the 1950s). As historian Edward Larson has shown, that play has remained a primary source of Americans’ impression of both the Scopes trial and the history of science and religion in the United States. The actual trial was, not surprisingly, a much more complicated event.
As all sides expected, the jury convicted Scopes of having broken the law, but the defense team’s plan of appealing to a higher court in an effort to ultimately get the law ruled unconstitutional was halted when the case was thrown out on a technicality (the judge rather than the jury had decided the fine). The Butler Law stayed on the books in Tennessee until 1967. Meanwhile, some textbook publishers and authors adapted to strong anti-evolution sentiment among some American parents and legislatures by toning down the place of evolution in biology curriculum. In the 1960s, in the post-Sputnik era, a thorough overhaul of textbooks began with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, and evolution returned as the foundation of biology education. Those reforms, and the removal of anti-evolution statutes on Establishment Clause grounds (the application of the federal “separation of church and state” to state’s public education practices did not take place until 1947) set the stage for subsequent trials over the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools.
Ever since the Scopes Trial ended, historians have been asking: What was at stake and why? How did the debate over evolution connect to other debates about the past, present, and future of American beliefs, culture and society? Asking these questions can provide a good foundation from which to ask the following question: What is still at stake and why, when Americans debate the role of theory of evolution in education, as they have in landmark cases in 1968, 1983, 1988, and 2005, and continue to do on the internet, in churches, science classrooms, and school boards?
Some biologists were willing to engage with Bryan and other critics of evolution, plenty of individuals were uninterested in or rebelled from pressures to join the fray. Both archive correspondence and tens of thousands of pages of detailed taxonomic work published in natural history journals in the 1920s is proof of that. Then, as now, scientists had to decide between competing norms and obligations when faced with a public controversy over the claims of science. Some scientists decided to join the fray, writing letters to newspapers, composing books defending evolution, traveling to Dayton to serve as an expert witness for the defense, or debating fundamentalist ministers in public forums. Others kept firmly to their museum desks or laboratory benches. Then, as now, scientists had to decide what their stance would be amid controversies over the claims of science and the role scientists would play in determining the nation’s future.
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