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Darwinism’s Dirty Little Secret

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A review of Garry Wills’ Under God: Religion and American Politics carries the argument further. The reviewer is Mark A. Noll. There is much in Noll’s review that’s helpful, but his assessment of Wills’ evaluation of the 1925 Scope’s Trial was especially intriguing.

Wills thinks that ... later anti-evolutionists [i.e., Creation Scientists], because they shifted the focus of their concern from the social impact of evolution to technical defenses of biblical details, have both forfeited a vibrant Christian tradition and condemned themselves to intellectual irrelevance. [1]

Noll forced me to take a look at Under God and Wills’ perspective on the infamous Scopes Trial. Most of what America knows of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial held in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, comes from the fictionalized stage play and screen version titled Inherit the Wind. [2] William Jennings Bryan saw the sinister social implications of evolution. This is why he took the case. It would be his last. He raised this warning:

“We must be careful how we apply this doctrine of the strongest.” Bryan feared what came to be known in the next decade as “social Darwinism”—the idea that human society is an arena of struggle in which the strongest prevail, the fittest survive, and poor “misfits” must be neglected in the name of progress through “betterment of the race.” [3]

Bryan was not alone in his understanding of the potential effect of consistent Darwinism. In fact, Bryan’s legal antagonist, Clarence Darrow, agreed with Bryan’s assessment of the potential social implications of biological Darwinism and fully supported its ramifications! In 1924, Darrow defended the teenage “thrill killers” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. [4] These two self-professed “superiors” killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks for sport, to demonstrate their peerless intellects. Darrow argued for leniency for Leopold and Loeb. Instead of the death penalty, Darrow “got the idiots off with life imprisonment. Nathan Leopold was released in 1958 and lived to the age of 66....” [5] What justification does Darrow give for the murder?

Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite, not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for blood. [6]

Bryan, Darrow, and Scopes were minor players compared to the efforts of H. L. Mencken who saw an opportunity in Dayton and seized upon it with the resolve of a Hercules. In the days before television, print journalists were as famous as today’s TV anchormen. Mencken was to newspaper reporting what Peter Jennings and Dan Rather are to television reporting.

The testimony at the Scope’s trial was heard by the judge but not by the jury. In addition, Bryan’s disastrous comments as an “expert witness on the Bible and evolution” were never entered into the trial record. But thanks to Darrow’s journalist friend H. L. Mencken, this “expert testimony” was read by millions of people in daily newspapers. “Thanks to Mencken and to Inherit the Wind, a 1950s play that continually re-creates (quite inaccurately) the famous trial on stage and on the screen, Bryan is now best known as the fuddled biblicist of Dayton, looking like a beached whale himself as he tried to explain Jonah’s mode of transportation.” [7]

The trial was more than a fight over the Bible and the biblical understanding of creation. Mencken saw in Bryan, a strident populist, a target for his anti-populist ideas based on the social implications of evolution. Mencken was a student and admirer of Nietzsche’s “superman” (Übermensch) philosophy. In 1908 Mencken published The Philosophy of Nietzsche where he argued that Nietzsche “had supplied the philosophy for modern Germany’s ruthless efficiency, in which Mencken took an ethnic pride.” [8] Nietzsche proposed that the strong must grow stronger and waste no strength in the vain task of trying to lift up the weak. Mencken was a Nietzschean “literalist” in applying Darwin to human ethics.

[T]he struggle for existence went on among the lions in the jungle and the protozoa in the sea ooze, and  . . . the law of natural selection ruled all of animated nature—mind and matter—alike. [9]

Mencken understood where evolution would take man. For Mencken, blacks, women, and Jews were to be repressed. “In fact, the oppression of blacks was one sign of the white man’s superiority.” [10] Later evolutionists repudiated Mencken’s worldview, but with little rational justification. Darwin, however, made such an application in his The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin’s supporters claim that his use of “races” was meant to describe subspecies of animals. To a certain degree, this evaluation is true. But what did Darwin mean by “subspecies”? What if Darwin thought of non-whites as “subspecies” of animals? In his evolutionary sequel, The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

 At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. [11]

Darwin believed that the various races were at different evolutionary levels, all distant from the apes, with Blacks at the bottom and Caucasians at the top. Thomas H. Huxley, an ardent defender of Darwin who garnered the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog,” believed that “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man.” Huxley described whites as “bigger-brained and smaller-jawed.” [12] Richard Hofstadter, in Social Darwinism in American Thought, demonstrated “that Darwinism was one of the chief sources of racism and of a belligerent ideology which characterized the last half of the 19th century in Europe and America....” [13]

The theory of evolution became the philosophy of life for militant atheism in the 20th century. Few people realize that Hitler, in bringing about World War II, merely put into practice what he believed was human evolution. Darwin and Nietzsche were the two philosophers studied by the National Socialists in working out the philosophy set for in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this work Hitler asserted that men rose from animals by fighting. It was the contention of the Fuehrer that this struggle, wherein one being feeds on another and the blood of the weaker is the life of the stronger, has continued from time immemorial and must continue until the most highly advanced branch of humanity dominates the whole earth.

The biology text used in the Dayton school system was George William Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914), the best-selling text at the time. Hunter’s work was “heavily laced with the scientific racism of the day. According to Hunter, 'simple life forms of life on earth slowly and gradually gave rise to those more complex.’ Humans appeared as a progressive result of this evolutionary process, with the Caucasian race being 'finally, the highest type of all.’” [14]

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Hunter believed the Caucasian race is the highest of all the races. On page 196, he stated the following in his textbook written for high school students: "At the present time there exist upon the earth five races of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure.” He lists the races from ascending order, starting with the “Ethiopian or negro type” and ending with “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”

Page 196 from Civic Biology

Racism has been with man since the dawn of sin. We cannot claim, therefore, that evolution gave rise to racism. [15] Evolution only made the practice respectable because it justified racial attitudes and practices on the basis of “science.” Darwin’s defenders don’t like to talk about Darwinism’s dirty little secret. “Darwin’s racial and sexual views permeated his discussion of the origin of species and especially of the descent of man. His contemporaries were shocked by the notion that human beings had evolved from primates. Now many people are shocked by his racism.” [16]

  1. Mark A. Noll, review of Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills, First Things 14 (June/July 1991), 43.[]
  2. For a very helpful analysis of the Scopes trial and its misrepresentations by the Inherit the Wind play and movie, see John Eidsmoe, The Christian Legal Advisor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 201–212.[]
  3. Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 101.[]
  4. See the movie Compulsion (1959), a fictionalized version of the Leopold-Loeb case, starring Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Orson Welles as the Clarence Darrow character.[]
  5. Lance Morrow, A Boy Dies in the ’90s,” Time (October 20, 1997), 120.[]
  6. Quoted in Herbert W. Titus, God, Man, and Law: The Biblical Principles (Oak Brook, IL: Institute in Basic Life Principles, 1995), 14.[]
  7. Wills, Under God, 99.[]
  8. Wills, Under God, 104.[]
  9. H. L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Kennikat reprint of 1908 edition, 1967), 102–103. Quoted in Wills, Under God, 102.[]
  10. Wills, Under God, 103.[]
  11. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed. (New York: A. L. Burt Co., 1874), 178. Quoted in Henry M. Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 60.[]
  12. Thomas H. Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews (New York: Appleton, 1871), 20. Quoted in Morris, The Long War Against God, 60.[]
  13. Raymond F. Surburg, “The Influence of Darwinism,” in Darwin, Evolution, and Creation, ed. Paul A. Zimmerman (St. Louis, MO: Concordia 1959), 196.[]
  14. George William Hunter, A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (New York: American, 1914), 194-96, 405. Quoted in Edward J. Larson, Summer for the God’s: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 23-24.[]
  15. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, [1944, 1955] 1967), 171–172.[]
  16. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1994), 184.[]
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