The rise and fall of American eugenics
More than 60,000 US citizens were forcibly sterilised in the 20th century
The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 was one of the most famous court cases in American history, becoming seen in the public imagination as the pre-eminent clash between rational modernists against swivel-eyed religious bigots who opposed progress and science.
The trial, over the right to teach evolution in Tennessee schools, was turned into a film with Spencer Tracy, and was also a subtext in Planet of the Apes (inspiring the Onion’s Our Dumb Century to feature the headline ‘Scopes defended by Super-Intelligent Chimpanzee-Man from Future’).
Yet everything we know about the story is untrue, according to one of those books I feel should be better known, Dennis Sewell’s The Political Gene, published back in 2009 but perhaps deserving a wider audience as the original centenary approaches in just over a year.
In fact, Sewell wrote in his book, John Thomas Scopes was not even a full-time science teacher; he taught maths and coached the football team, and occasionally filled in for science lessons. He had ‘no special commitment to his pupils, and was not planning on staying in Dayton very long’, and probably never taught his class about evolution.
The trial was a ‘cynical contrivance…. hatched around a table in Fred Robinson’s Dayton drugstore by a group of local businessmen. One of them had spotted a small-ad in a city newspaper placed by a pressure group wanting to find a community willing to challenge the law forbidding the teaching of evolution.’
They saw it as a commercial opportunity, for ‘a big trial would make Dayton famous, pulling in visitors from miles around, who would probably spend more dollars in local shops, hotels and restaurants every day the trial was in progress than local residents spent in a month.’ Scopes met the business leaders on May 5, 1925, only weeks before the trial.
But the biggest myth, in Sewell’s telling, is what the conflict was really about - not just evolution, but eugenics.
Eugenics is perhaps most associated today with the Third Reich, yet while the perversion of Darwin’s ideas by the extreme Right is well known, what is less well remembered is how Darwinism in the United States inspired well-meaning - and often Left-wing - social reformers to instigate campaigns of sterilisation against the poor. This was considered mainstream and progressive by many highly-respected and forward-looking thinkers, but strongly opposed by the churches.
Thirty-three US states passed sterilisation laws in total, and some 60-65,000 people were forcibly sterilised in that country; Indiana became the first state to pass such a law in 1907, and Oregon was the last to abolish the practice, only in 1983. Sweden, another democracy which fell for the craze, carried out its last forced sterilisation in 1975.