In a recent post I suggested that those promoting traditional forms of knowledge should not seek to claim scientific legitimacy, but instead should generally educate people better about the basis of scientific knowledge, thus displacing the exalted status we give to Science (with a capital “S”). These ideas are approached from a very different angle in an intriguing post by labor activist and prolific blogger Nathan Newman, who in a recent post about the Scopes trial points out that the actual history and context of the trial was somewhat different than the theatrical version we get from Inherit the Wind.
It turns out that, although populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan conflated the two and brought religion into the equation as well, much of his anger was actually directed at eugenics, not evolution:
The book that Scopes used was A Civic Biology Presented in Problems, by George William Hunter. The book, published in 1914, had been used in Tennessee for some years. The book presents standard biological facts about cells, muscles, respiration and such topics; but it also teaches eugenics.
The title Civic Biology is similar to one of the phrases used to refer to eugenics, “social biology.” In a front page of the book, facing the title page, there is a mild but clear piece of propaganda. There are two photographs, a city street and a country lane. The caption: “Compare the unfavorable artificial environment of a crowded city with the more favorable environment of the country.”
Chapter 14 includes the material on evolution, with protozoa, worms, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. Man is grouped with the apelike mammals. Hunter writes that “there is an immense mental gap between monkey and man” [emphasis added]. He adds that monkeys “seem to have many of the mental attributes of man,” and this “justifies his inclusion with man in a separate mental genus.” Hunter states that “early man must have been little better than one of the lower animals.” The chapter concludes with a claim of white supremacy.
Later in the book, in chapter 17, Hunter returns to the subject of eugenics. “If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved upon, 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.”
In marriage, Hunter says, there are some things that “the individual as well as the race should demand.” To have children with tuberculosis, syphilis, epilepsy or feeble-mindedness is “not only unfair but criminal.”
He reviews the Jukes and Kallikaks stories, the family trees that were supposed to show the need for eugenics (see chapter 3), and says that there are hundreds of families like them. He calls them “true parasites,” and says, “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”
The book would not be acceptable in any school system in the United States today, because of the things that it says about the poor, blacks, and people with disabilities.
This is one of the big problems with (big-S) Science. While small-s science is essential to helping us disprove theories like eugenics, the fact is that often what states, institutions, and corporations are defending is not a set of practices for determining the truth of the material world, but rather a set of beliefs through which they seek to legitimate the status quo. In fact, much of what is being done in the name of Science is not scientific at all.
Dina Mehta has an interesting post about the rural vs. urban divide in contemporary India, and how that is represented in popular culture. I think that, as anthropologists, we need to be very careful about orientalizing religious conservatism in America as simply backward and ignorant. Yes, it is being manipulated by cynical politicians, but at the same time, there are often genuine populist concerns which lead people to support such politics. It isn’t enough to simply defend Science, or even science, we need to also better understand these concerns.
I find it interesting that many of the same people who insist we need to understand the motivations of the 9/11 bombers are completely uninterested in understanding the motivations of America’s religious conservatives. It is true that we need to be aware of cynical attempts to label Darwin as racist. Yet, on the other hand, we can’t stop America from turning into a theocracy simply by telling a sizable portion of the country that they are ignorant.
I guess I’m arguing that what we need is a good anthropological account of American religious conservatism. Anyone have any suggestions for a reading list?