God's Country by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan smiles on Aiken, S.C. -- where the debate between evolution and creationism still rages

 

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Known variously, through his distinguished political career, as the "Great Commoner" and the "Boy Orator of the Platte," Bryan had chiefly been associated with reform movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when he had championed women's suffrage, a federal labor department, an end to capital punishment, and in general, the causes of "the people" who to Bryan were, more often than not, farmers.

Author Edward Larson, whose book on the Scopes trial is the definitive work on the subject, has suggested that Bryan was responsible for more Constitutional amendments than anyone but the American founders. And in fact, the portly politician with his alpaca suits and string ties, held a combination of beliefs which, while not unusual for the time, would read like a contradiction today: at once forward looking in his enthusiasm for liberal reforms, and yet provincial in his glorification of the farm and traditional religious values.

Bryan did not object to evolution in general. In fact, much like Glenn Wilson and others in Aiken who support his cause, he welcomed the idea as "theory." But he saw in it two issues consistent with his defense of the downtrodden masses, two issues which resonate deeply with twenty-first century America. For one, he believed that the insistence of the evolutionists on inserting their arguments into the American education system was patently undemocratic. "The real issue is not what can be taught in public schools, but who shall control the education system," he said. "The hand that writes the check rules the school." Bryan's other objection was a far graver issue: the acceptance of evolution as fact was dangerous for its doctrine of natural selection and the "survival of the fittest" invited a belief in eugenics, defended predatory business practices, and even justified war.

The enthusiasm for science at the turn of the century had indeed spawned a movement that advocated applying rational control over the reproductive process and hence the very path of evolution. After all, if everything else was being improved by science, why not the human species itself? "We stand on the brink of an evolutionary epoch whose limits no man can possibly foretell," pronounced Ellsworth Huntington, a professor at Yale and the president of the American Eugenics Society, " .consciously and purposefully [selecting] the types of human beings that will survive."

Racism was an implicit theme in the eugenics movement, whose members spoke derisively of the "fecundity of mediocrity" and advocated enforced sterilization of the mentally retarded. But so, interestingly, was morality. Science could be used to erase all the flaws of the human species, the eugenicists claimed, allowing for the perfectibility of man, and the true path to righteousness. "Had Jesus been among us," claimed Albert E. Wiggam, a eugenicist and author, "he would have been the president of the First Eugenics Congress."

Evolution had been taught in Tennessee's schools for some time, and without challenge, when the state legislature, in January 1925 went beyond Bryan and considered a bill that would actually declare a prohibition upon "the teaching of any theory that denied the biblical story of creation or the theory that human beings had descended from a lower order of animal." But Bryan had made the subject such a touchstone for argument nationwide and such a folk movement had built up around it, the people rallying to his side now saw the issue as "them" or "us." Ten times as many children were attending high school in 1920 as in 1890; five times more than 1910. The Tennessee law was passed by a margin of four to one to protect them from the intellectuals, the specialists, the urbanites. "Save our children for God," shouted one Tennessee senator.

[S]eventy five years later some of the same themes that inspired Bryan to defend the Tennessee statute banning the teaching of evolution have emerged in the discussions over research in genetics.

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