Have you ever heard of the "Scopes monkey trial"?
If you have your familiarity with it may have come from a fictionalized portrayal in a film called "Inherit the Wind", a film version of a 1955 Broadway play.
Teacher B.T. Cates is arrested for teaching Darwin's theories. Famous lawyer Henry Drummond defends him; fundamentalist politician Matthew Brady prosecutes. This is a very thinly disguised rendition of the 1925 "Scopes monkey trial" with debates between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan taken largely from the transcripts
And the impression left after viewing that film is that of ignorant rural Christians railing against civilized modern science and enlightenment.
Of course fact is far more interesting than fiction and the story of this famous trial and what we might learn from it might not fit the narrative and caricatures of liberal secularists. Ironically I first learned the real story of this in a book by Stephen Jay Gould, a famous evolutionist but a valuer and promoter of intellectual honesty as well.
It started in 1925 when the Tennessee legislature passed a foolish piece of legislation, the Butler act, which prohibited any state funded educational institution from teaching that man was descended from lower creatures, though not evolution in itself.
This law was broken by the state itself because Tennessee regulated the use of A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems as the official biology text in Tennessee high schools, which had a lot to say on the evolution of man.
And when the Governor of Tennessee reluctantly signed the Butler Act into law he believed it would just be ignored.
But he forgot to take the ACLU into account.
Now they conspired with a group of small town businessmen to put this law to the test. John Scopes the local high school football coach and occasional science teacher agreed to deliberately flout the law and three students were induced to lay a complaint.
The trial was a circus, viewed then, as by many now, as biblical literalism on trial against evolution, the "fundies" versus the enlightened. But John Scopes who had broken the law of Tennessee, no matter how stupid, was convicted and fined $100.
This was overturned on appeal, nothing to do with the matters under consideration but as often in the case with contentious trials, because of procedural issues with the initial trial. And the State of Tennessee declined to retry him. Leaving the original issue open.
The law under which John Scopes was convicted was repealed in 1967, motivated in part to avoid a replay of the 1925 trial.
But what of the book from which John Scopes taught and which was the official biology text for Tennessean high school students at that time?
Well it had this to say
Evolution of Man. -- Undoubtedly there once lived upon the earth races of men who were much lower in their mental organization than the present inhabitants. If we follow the early history of man upon the earth, we find that at first he must have been little better than one of the lower animals. He was a nomad, wandering from place to place, feeding upon whatever living things he could kill with his hands. Gradually he must have learned to use weapons, and thus kill his prey, first using rough stone implements for this purpose. As man became more civilized, implements of bronze and of iron were used. About this time the subjugation and domestication of animals began to take place. Man then began to cultivate the fields, and to have a fixed place of abode other than a cave. The beginnings of civilization were long ago, but even to-day the earth is not entirely civilized.
The Races of Man. -- At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America. ...
Improvement of Man. -- If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.
Eugenics. -- When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics. ...
Parasitism and its Cost to Society. -- Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.
The Remedy. -- If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.
I don't know about you but that all seems far more sinister than the Bible and yet nobody at that time seemed interested in challenging the veracity of presenting that viewpoint to impressionable children.
All of this happened more than eighty years ago now - the Bible is still with us and still going strong but that old biology text is nothing but an historical oddity.
And legislators still pass dumb laws.