August 25, 2005

The Real Story of the Scopes Monkey Trial

Christopher Hitchens writes in Slate:

This moment was not to be staged in America for several more decades, but the courtroom battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tenn., did eventually come. And old man Bryan blew himself out of the water by repeating Bishop Ussher's claims. We have an excellent firsthand account of this from H.L. Mencken, and at least two movie versions of Inherit the Wind, which give a fair summary of the dispute between "Rock of Ages and age of rocks," as Bryan so happily phrased it.

C'mon, Hitch, I realize you are under contract to churn out copy so fast for so many outlets that you don't have time to do anything other than regurgitate conventional wisdom in service of your obsessive prejudices, but this is a ridiculous summation of what actually happened.

As history, Stanley Kramer's corny "message" film "Inherit the Wind" is a joke.

What's most important to understand is that Bryan was highly concerned about the popular misuses of Darwinism, such as Social Darwinism and eugenics, especially by self-proclaimed Nietzscheites like Darrow, Mencken and Leopold & Loeb. Bryan was deeply worried about the spread of vulgarized Nietzscheism, with its Darwinian gloss, especially in the German-speaking world. See the chapter "Neroism Is In the Air" in Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" for the alarming impact of popularized Nietzscheism on German culture in the years leading up to WWI. Bryan wasn't anti-German -- he'd resigned as Secretary of State because he saw that Wilson was leading up to war with Germany -- but he was disturbed that the German military had issued condensed booklets of Nietzsche excerpts to inspire the troops.

In America, Nietzscheist Superman-worship had inspired Leopold and Loeb to commit a thrill-kill murder to prove their superiority. Darrow had gotten Leopold and Loeb off from hanging the previous year with some absurdly deterministic arguments, including pointing out that L&L hadn't asked to be born into luxury, the poor darlings! Mencken, who was a German chauvinist and whose first book was about Nietzsche, was Nietzsche's biggest promoter in the America.

All this, of course, is unfair to Nietzsche, as well, who would have been appalled by the misuse of his philosophy. But that's no reason to ignore the fact that the Scopes monkey trial was about far more than pure science.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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