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Bruce Chapman Is Pleased (Sorta)

The intelligent new on-line Seattle regional magazine "Crosscut", edited by David Brewster, carries a column (as Anika Smith pointed out yesterday) called "Bruce Chapman is Right," written by "Mossback" liberal Knute Berger. It generally agrees with recent comments of mine on Dr. James Watson and the battle over eugenics.

I hate to cavil after such welcome praise, but I have to demur from Berger's one demurral. That is, when he says that we should remember that many Christian and Jewish clergy backed the original eugenics program in America, some heavy qualification is needed.

I will leave the details to John West's authoritative new book, Darwin Day in America--being launched today at a Washington, D.C. book event at the Heritage Foundation--but the point I want to make here is that most traditionalist Christian clergy did not back eugenics. Those who did tended to be liberal theologians in liberal denominations that already had made their peace with Darwinism and modernity. In contrast, virtually the whole scientific establishment not only lined up behind the "consensus" position in support of eugenics, but they also sought to silence dissent. (Sound familiar?)

Theologically conservative Protestants and the Catholic Church were largely opponents of eugenics. The Vatican, which is always a little behind the times, thank God, set Catholic public policy on the issue. As for evangelicals, almost forgotten now is the fact that eugenics was one reason former Democratic presidential candidate and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan became so passionately involved in the Scopes Trial of 1925.

The eugenics was preached in Hunter's Biology textbook and its treatment of evolution, and it was this book that was at issue in Dayton, Tennessee and all around the country.

Playbill from Inherit the Wind, National Production, Chicago, 1956

Bryan feared that evolutionary theory was being used to justify mistreatment of the weak in society, as well as to discredit religion. This motivation takes on even more significance when one realizes, as Ed Larson makes clear in his book on the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods, that Bryan himself was not a young Earth creationist, even though his fictional surrogate is so characterized in the play and film, Inherit the Wind. It might help to rehabilitate the liberal reputation of Bryan, "The Great Commoner," if his stand on evolution was better understood and not permanently warped by the fictional accounts.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Scopes Trial, what about H. L. Mencken, the famous Baltimore Sun journalist who did more than anyone to denigrate Bryan in the public eye and whose bitterly funny style was employed so effectively against other opponents of Darwinism? Well, Mencken's sarcasm has been a great inspiration to aspiring journalists right up to our own time and especially on the topic of evolution. But as to his content, Mencken was an on-and-off-again eugenicist, a racist and an anti-Semite right up to and past the time when that was no longer an acceptable position in polite society.

Sorry, but that is the history. Those who doubt it should be prepared to debate it in public. John West, the expert, along with Richard Weikart of California State (author of From Darwin to Hitler) have the research mastered.

Meanwhile, regardless of the above, I want to repeat that I'm grateful that Knute Berger has been so clear on the need to examine the real way eugenics developed. Because eugenics is still with us in various forms. It is a human rights issue of historic proportions. It goes right to the question that John Paul II always asked, "What does it mean to be human?"