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Joe Cain lecture
Norwich lecture uncovers the dark side of Darwinism 

Why did so many people hate evolution in 1920’s America? Through an online lecture arranged by the John Innes Centre, Professor Joe Cain from University College London discussed the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. This sought to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools.

Report by Nick Brewin

Why did so many people hate evolution in 1920’s America? Through an online lecture arranged by the John Innes Centre, Professor Joe Cain from University College London discussed the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. This sought to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools.
At first glance, Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” seems harmless enough. It isn’t difficult to accept the idea that several species of finches arose by divergent evolution as they became adapted to specialised environments in the Galapagos Islands. But much more controversial was the question of how “scientific” ideas about evolution should apply to human society, past, present and future. This provided the critical issue for the Scopes trial and its full significance is not often appreciated.
For most people, Darwin’s most shocking proposal was that human beings are related to apes. The creation of the human race by progressive evolution is completely contrary to a literal interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Genesis. While many theologians quickly came to terms with the idea of human evolution, the majority of those in America’s bible-belt regarded it as a heresy.
Although the interpretation of biblical literalism was central to the Scopes trial, it was certainly not the only issue at stake. The chief prosecutor was William Jennings Bryan, a distinguished social reformer who had three times stood as a candidate to be President of the United States. As a defender of the “common people”, perhaps Bryan should be viewed as the Bernie Sanders of his generation.
In his talk, Professor Cain focussed particularly on the thinking behind the final address that William Jennings Bryan had prepared for the Scopes trial. He was strongly opposed to what is loosely called “social Darwinism” – the concept that human society might be governed by evolutionary rules such as “the struggle for survival” and “the survival of the fittest”. By contrast, Bryan tried to uphold the biblical teaching that every human being was made in the image of God. He was against the teaching of evolution in schools because he worried about the social implications associated with evolution-based thinking. This, he argued was leading towards racism, eugenics and unfettered capitalism. The scientific facts and theories that might apply in the natural world were not in themselves sufficient to provide the framework of moral values needed to create a civilised human society.
As regards racial strife, it is not often realised that Darwin’s famous book has both a title and a subtitle “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. The reference to “favoured races” provided a degree of scientific respectability to the argument of social Darwinists that war and racial conflict are an inevitable part of human evolution. After the Great War, many Americans understood German militarism to be built on the idea of a struggle for existence between nations, leading to the evolution of a new race of “superman”.
This frame of mind was recognised by Vernon Kellogg a professor of zoology at Stanford University. In his book “Headquarters Nights” he argued that the German high command was obsessed by a wrong-headed connection between what happens in nature and what happens with people. Similarly, William Jennings Bryan worried that, if we taught children that strife was normal in the natural world, they might learn that this was the way that we should behave ourselves. Bryan believed that the “law of the jungle” was no basis for human morality.
Another prevalent theme of social Darwinism in the 1920s was eugenics. This implied that the “stock” of humankind could be improved using the general principles of “natural selection” in much the same way that we breed for improved varieties of corn or cattle. As applied to human society, eugenics involved promoting the reproduction of the “superior classes”, while abandoning the weak and sick as somehow not worthy of life. While social-Darwinists argued that this was a justifiable application of evolutionary theory, such practices were bitterly resented in the poor communities of Tennessee. William Jennings Bryan argued that eugenics was distinctly anti-Christian and should not be encouraged by any form of teaching in schools.
Bryan also took exception to the relationship between social Darwinism and the prevailing form of “robber-baron” capitalism that exploited the common people. A century earlier, William Blake had spoken of the "dark Satanic mills" as symbols of social oppression in London. For William Jennings Bryan in the 1920’s, capitalism was associated with the de-humanising constraints of factory production lines, and the cruel treatment of workers in the iron and steel industries. The industrial barons of America justified their activities through the new religion of social Darwinism - “survival of the fittest”. For example, J.D. Rockefeller famously remarked that “millionaires are the product of natural selection”: they were the victors in the continual “struggle for existence”.
Although science and technology liked to create an aura of unremitting “progress”, Bryan argued that its proponents were often guilty of hubris. In many cases, the costs and benefits of new technologies were not being shared equally in society. Furthermore, “social Darwinism” was being used as a rationale for discouraging charity and national support for the rural poor. Bryan wanted people to build on the humanitarian truths that he read in the Bible, which we might describe as “Christian charity”.
In summary, this more nuanced view of William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial differs from that portrayed by the film “Inherit the Wind”, which was produced in 1960. Professor Cain argued that Bryan’s opposition to the teaching of evolution in schools was as much for political and ethical reasons as it was for an interpretation of biblical literature. His overarching concern was the threat to society posed by applying the concept of natural selection to human social and economic development.
As an alternative to social Darwinism, Bryan supported the Social Gospel Movement, a reform programme promoting service to the poor and disadvantaged communities of America. He was also influenced by “the Gospel of Wealth”, a pamphlet written in 1889 by the Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie’s millionaire philanthropy stated that rich industrialists should use their fortunes to promote the “general good.” in the form of universities, libraries, medical institutions, public parks and so on. This philosophy of capitalist altruism was in direct opposition to the thinking of social Darwinism.
Andrew Carnegie was a strong supporter of Darwinian evolution in the natural world and a keen paleontologist. One interesting consequence of his philanthropy will be the arrival of “Dippy the Dinosaur” at Norwich Cathedral early next year. Discovered in a quarry in Wyoming in 1899, the original skeleton, named Diplodocus carnegii was housed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Carnegie wanted to use Dippy as an example of the world’s shared history to foster greater dialogue among nations - a form of “dinosaur diplomacy”. Within 15 years of its discovery, replicas of the skeleton were on display at the Natural History Museum in London, and in seven other cities around the world.
The current Dippy-on-Tour exhibition helps to commemorate Carnegie’s legacy a century after his death in 1919. Furthermore, the arrival of a dinosaur in the nave of Norwich Cathedral celebrates the fact that Darwinian evolution and Christian teaching can easily be reconciled, a century after the bewildering Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
Nick Brewin is a molecular biologist, formerly Emeritus Fellow at the John Innes Centre, Norwich


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