Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Politics of Evolution in the classroom

This week in my class on "The Darwinian Revolution", a sophomore class at the University of Oklahoma, I have been talking with my students about the controversial history of teaching evolution in American public schools. This has always been an interesting topic for me, not least because as a British citizen the whole concept of the constitutional separation of church and state is an alien idea - one I like, I might add.

We have looked at the notorious Scopes Trial from 1925, in which a young teacher named John Scopes agreed to purposefully teach a class on human evolution in direct contravention of House Bill No. 185 which had been enacted by the State of Tennessee as the Butler Act in the March of that year. The Butler Act was "An Act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution theory" in all public schools, that specifically mandated "That it shall be unlawful for any teacher... 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 one}.

Clarence Darrrow in Action in Dayton
The upshot of this case is not really my concern here - for the record, though, Scopes was found guilty (he did teach the class, he did break the law), but the verdict was later overturned - (not the victory for the evolutionists that it is sometimes made out to be - after all, they - and the ACLU who had sought this out as a test case - wanted the conviction to stand so they could appeal the law). What I am concerned with is the broader concern of why Butler was moved to propose House Bill No.185 in the first place, and why William Jennings Bryan - the twice presidential candidate and veteran populist, was moved to take the stand for the prosecution.

The late Stephen J. Gould, paleontologist and essayist on all things evolutionary, wrote about this case and the subsequent legal history of evolution in the classroom, including the various attempts to guarantee 'equal time' for the teaching of "Creationism", and later of "Creation Science" alongside evolutionary accounts of human origins in his book Rocks of Ages. (Although it post-dates the publication of Gould's book, we can add "Intelligent Design" to this list of attempts to get a religious message into schools by way of skirting the establishment clause - a great PBS video on the 2005 Kitzmiller court case is available here.)

What I particularly like about Gould's account is that after telling the story of the various trials, he goes on to ask why someone like Bryan would be so moved to oppose the teachin of science and evolutionary biology. The answer, Gould suggests, is not simply grounded in the fact that he was religious - (it was not until 1968 and Epperson v Arkansas, after all, that the teaching of a religious account of human origins was ruled an unconstitutional breach of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Rather his concerns lay in the politics with which evolution had come to be associated by the 1920s. These were not a politics associated with the advance of liberal values that we might associate with scientific progress, but rather the politics of the eugenics movement and the evolutionary justifications that had been given (by both sides) for the carnage of the First World War.

 Veron Kellogg had disclosed the prevalence of these views among the German High Command in his Head-Quarters Nights, - (just as George Bernard Shaw (who surely needs no wiki-link!) did in England in his long preface to Back to Methuselah). The history of evolution, we need to recognise, is not just a history of scientific discovery about the origins and ecology of the wonderful diversity of life that surrounds us and of which we are a part, but also has a history that is deeply social, deeply political, and not always pretty.

This is one reason why I think that we need to be open to and educated about the political history of evolution, - the history of the various ways in which people have taken the fact of our evolution to speak directly to questions about the sort of creatures we are, and in consequence the sort of society that we might live in. - This is especially important in light of the fact that many who oppose the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools today argue that evolution is inherently tied to a politics that is competitive, individualistic, racist and xenophobic. The book I am writing, entitled Political Descent, will show that this has often been far from the case.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the opponents of evolution will like the idea that evolution has also been used, for instance, by Charles Darwin to endorse an inclusive liberal politics that argued that there is an evolutionary grounding for a morality that was inclusive of all people of all races, and ultimately of all sentient beings; or by the likes of Peter Kropotkin to endorse the ethics of anarchist socialism. But these are both subjects for another time...


  1. Where does Edward J. Larson's work fit into this picture? How much do the politics of evolution relate to the politics of Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction America? To William Jennings Bryan's populism and Clarence Darrow's Progressivism. Are references to evolution rhetorical or foundational in American politics. How does evolution play out in comparative historical perspective? What color is this chameleon, really? Does Darwinian thought trump Spencerian sociology? Why are fundamentalists reacting to Darwin politically? Or are politicians reacting to fundamentalists by seizing the opportunity to beat the Darwinian Drum?

  2. Torbjörn Larsson, UMMay 2, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    This is Qs for the historian of science: On science, wasn't eugenics criticized by biologists? On politics, wasn't eugenics accepted by politicians in, say, Germany, while rejecting evolution?

    Eugenics goes against evolutionary findings since you decrease survivability of a population by weeding out alleles (diminishing variation) that wouldn't be weeded out by selection anyway. Science is a tool that can be used for good or for bad, and I don't think scientists loose much sleep over it as long as the later isn't an immediate obvious possibility. Even less would they need to accept responsibility for ideas that are perverted into anti-science, as much as they wouldn't like it.

  3. Isabelle DussaugeMay 5, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Great project! I'd like to know more about how sociobiology's and evolutionary psychology's conservative (at best) and individualist accounts of the human fit in the historical picture you are sketching here. And, more generally: Historically, how do you explain the salience of right-wing, sexist and racist uses of evolutionary theory in contemporary times? That would be very helpful -- thanks!

  4. Dear Bob, Torbjorn and Isabelle, thanks for your comments and questions - we are in the middle of exams and grading essays here in Oklahoma, so I will respond in more detail over the next few days, if that's okay. For now though a few one liners: Isabelle: this is an important question, what I would offer here is that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology each start from what I take to be the fairly non-controversial assumption that much of our behaviour and our belief owe considerable debt to our evolutionary history. To argue otherwise is just wishful thinking. This said, I think that there is, as yet, a tendency to speculate wildly where we have little in the way of evidence. As a result the picture of the kind of creature we have become in light of evolution tends to be coloured by the preconceptions of the writer... at least that's my thoughts on this this week. But, I would be amazed to find that sex, in-group preference and self-interest do not explain a lot - I'm just not convinced that that is the whole story. I have much more to say on this, but will say more another time.

  5. Torbjorn asks about the connections between science and eugenics - Was eugenics criticised by scientists? Well, yes and no. The eugenics movement - broadly speaking, was indeed a broad church and it included many people who were by no means scientists - and many who were not even particularly scientifically literate. But, it did also include some very promoinent men of science - in the 1860s Francis Galton, and Karl Pearson at University College London in the 1910s and 20s. the geneticist R.A. Fisher was also ardently in favour of eugenics. There were critics, of course, - notably geneticists like J.B.S. Haldane, who quickly recognised that genetic heredity was just too complex for the popular eugenic schemes to work. - However, many who appreciated this point went on to advocate other forms of eugenics, while it might be difficult to choose and detmine the chances of selecting positive traits, severely disabling traits could be quite readily identified, and thus 'negative' eugenic schemes remained popular for longer.

    On your other point, it is certainly true that eugenics was picked up by those who had run out of patience with natural selection. Evolution left to natural selection alone would take an awfully long time - so why not revert to artificial selection. Darwin had used it as a compelling metaphor after all. Further, it could also readily be pointed out (and as was part of Justice Wendel-Holmes ruling in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case) that it was much more humane (and cheaper) to prevent the deviant from being born than to imprison or execute them for their crimes. - Hmm. there's a lot in here - maybe I'll make it a proper post one day soon, and then you'll get some references too! Thanks for some great questions.