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In March 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed into law the Butler Act. In the Tennessee House of Representatives, about 93% of legislators voted in favor of the law. Eighty percent of state’s senators supported the passage of the bill. The text of the law is brief. Here’s the substantive part:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.

Let’s parse this. Note that it applied only to public schools that received funds from the state government. The Butler Act did not forbid teaching Darwinian evolution, except in one specific context. The Butler Act forbade teaching “that man has descended from a lower order of animals”, thus demonstrating that “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” is false.

The Butler Act was not passed into law due to anti-science animus in Tennessee. Rather, the act aimed at crippling the influence of the eugenics movement. Proponents of eugenics embraced a pseudo-science that was all the rage among early 20th-century progressives. More than 30 states had passed eugenics laws by the 1920s, and state government agents had forcibly sterilized tens of thousands of Americans in keeping with the “public health” aims of these laws. Tennessee’s neighbor Virginia, for example, used roadblocks and house-to-house sweeps conducted by police officers in order to arrest so-called “defectives” for subsequent sterilization. Entire families were subjected to these measures.

Tennessee was one of the few states in the U.S. that had no eugenics laws, and the majority of Tennessee’s citizens didn’t want such laws.

The citizens and elected officials of Tennessee understood that progressives wanted to ensure that measures to protect “public health” were enacted, and that those same progressives viewed rural Tennesseans as unfit to marry and have children. The biblical doctrine of God’s creation of man was seen as a bulwark against eugenics and the sorts of public policies and laws that eugenicists promoted.

By May 1925, the ACLU had enlisted the cooperation of John Scopes, a coach and substitute classroom teacher; Fred Robinson, a drugstore owner; and a group of Dayton, Tennessee, businessmen. These men answered a newspaper advertisement searching for people to mount a challenge to the Butler Act. Robinson and other business leaders figured this would be a good way to put Dayton on the map, thus increasing local business profits. Scopes, then in his mid-20s, saw an opportunity to become famous. And so this collection of Dayton businessmen looking to increase profits allied themselves with the ACLU and a young football coach to concoct a case against the Butler Act. Scopes admitted that he taught about the evolution of man from lower animals in violation of the Butler Act. His guilt under that statute was never questioned.

The textbook Scopes admitted to have used was George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology, first published in 1914. It was the required text in Tennessee high schools. Since Scopes admitted to teaching about the evolution of the human species, it’s necessary to look at a few sections from A Civic Biology to see what the textbook says about the topic. Here are six relevant excerpts:

  1. “Although anatomically there is a greater difference between the lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is an immense mental gap between monkey and man.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.”
  5. “Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents…. Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, 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.”
  6. “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 success in this country.”

It’s again necessary to parse some text to see the implication of what the proponents of eugenics wanted taught in school. Let’s do so point-by-point following the excerpts above.

  1. When the text refers to “the lowest savage”, it is referring primarily to peoples living in sub-Saharan Africa. The claim here is that there is a greater difference between monkeys and apes than there is between apes and certain “races or varieties of man”.
  2. The most evolutionarily advanced race are “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” Note that the “varieties of man” are listed in order from lowest to highest, as determined by the pseudo-science of eugenics.
  3. People should breed (or be bred) with the same goals sought in the breeding of livestock.
  4. It is criminal that certain people are allowed to marry and have children.
  5. The “science of…eugenics” has studied the topic of human improvement and has reached sound conclusions based on these studies. People with “mental and moral defects” who have families “are true parasites.”
  6. Since killing these “true parasites” is not possible, steps must be taken to separate them from society in order to prevent “intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”

Contrary to popular history, the defense never demonstrated the falsity or even the unreasonableness of the biblical view of creation. Scopes was found guilty after a bit less than 10 minutes of deliberation by the jury. He was fined. The prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State under President Wilson and three-time Democratic Party nominee for the Oval Office, was not revealed by Clarence Darrow to be a simple-minded biblical literalist. Darrow had Bryan on the stand under oath. Darrow tried to get Bryan to admit that the biblical creation story was soundly contradicted by the theory of evolution. Bryan admitted no such thing, stating, for example, that days of creation in Genesis need not be seen only as 24-hour days. Bryan plainly stated:

I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

The Butler Act was not passed into law by narrow-minded, anti-science bigots. Rather, the Butler Act’s supporters intended to protect the citizens of Tennessee from the racist, classist, and ableist pseudo-science of eugenics that progressives thought justified violating the “unalienable Rights” of citizens viewed as “low and degenerate”. Those“unalienable Rights” held by the targets of progressive social engineering come from an equality granted by “their Creator”; therefore, it became a necessary part of the eugenics movement to dismantle the idea of “the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. Once the idea of a Creator who grants rights that transcend the state is done away with, forcible sterilization and even wholesale extermination become law put into effect by those who claim “the science is settled.”

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Mark L. Chance
Mark L. Chance
Mark L. Chance, a Catholic convert who married his lovely wife almost 30 years ago, is the father of four children. He serves as the 7th and 8th grade English teacher in a Catholic school for boys, where he also leads the “Knights of the Mightier Pen” and “Ludi Fabularum: Games of Stories” after-school clubs. Mark has taught in public and private schools since 1996, and he holds a B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Prior to teaching, Mark served eight years in the U.S. Army. In his spare time, Mark reads about educational philosophy and writes about table-top roleplaying games, all while occasionally sipping on bourbon.

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