Evolution as Social Evil

The second decade of the twentieth century was a time of considerable social unrest and psychological unease. The appalling death, brutality, destruction, and devastation of World War I led many citizens, including many conservative Christians, to conclude that civilization itself had failed. Conservative Christians sought a solution in a return to biblical authority and in the literal interpretation of Scripture. Their views were further reinforced by Germany's having been the main source of both higher criticism, viewed as an attack on religion, and World War I militarism, viewed as an attack on civilization (Armstrong 2000; Marsden 1980).

Conservative American Christians felt that German militarism, theories of racial superiority, and eugenics were directly related to the acceptance of evolution by Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. In reality, German views of evolution were quite different from those of Darwin, largely rejecting natural selection as a mechanism of change, biological or societal. Evolution by natural selection did not fit German militaristic views of the inevitability of Teutonic triumph; natural selection relies on selection of the "most fit" in terms of a particular environment. It does not support the idea that Germans or anyone else inevitably would be superior to all others, regardless of environmental circumstance.

In the early twentieth century, evolution was also credited with providing the foundation for laissez-faire capitalism, as robber barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sometimes claimed that natural selection justified their exploitative labor policies and cutthroat business practices:

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries is also great; but the advantages of this law are also greater still for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train. But whether the law be benign or not, we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found, and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. (Carnegie 1889: 653)

Thus, fundamentalists, led by the famous progressive politician and champion of the worker William Jennings Bryan, had many reasons to oppose the teaching of evolution to their children, whether or not these reasons were justified. Beginning in the early 1920s, several state legislatures took up Bryan's call to outlaw evolution, and finally, on March 23, 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act. This set in motion events that would culminate in the so-called trial of the century.

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