Universities Scrub Names of Racist Leaders
The Next Step Should be Acknowledging The Racism of the ACLU
by Jerry R. Bergman, PhD
A new report in Nature covered the trend of removing the names of “racist leaders” from institutions and organizations. Among those listed in the Nature article was Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson public policy program. When Wilson was president of Princeton, he openly discouraged enrolling Black students, and, when president of the United States, he supported segregating white and black federal government employees. In Los Angeles, the University of Southern California removed Rufus Von KleinSmid’s name from a central campus building because the former USC president was a eugenics supporter and a member of the Human Betterment Foundation that advocated forced sterilization of people they judged inferior.
Stanford University is considering removing marine biologist David Starr Jordan’s name from the facade of its psychology department building. Jordan, the university’s founding president, was a well-known eugenicist. Likewise, Indiana University at Bloomington is considering changing the name of its biology building, Jordan Hall. Jordan was president of the university before moving to Stanford. Over 70 faculty members signed a petition to rename the building. No one seems immune. New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory removed Nobel Laureate James Watson’s name from its biological-sciences graduate program due to his past racist comments. Watson co-discovered the structure of DNA that ignited the genetic revolution, one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the last century.
The removal of racists’ names has also hit Europe. University College London dropped the names of celebrated statisticians Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, who actively supported eugenics, from buildings and lecture halls on campus. The rooms now have generic names, such as Lecture Theatre 115. The University of Mons in Belgium removed a bust of King Leopold II, the Belgian king who led a brutal and bloody colonial campaign against the native Black population in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Some observers hope that “the conversations sparked by renaming efforts will push universities to examine their legacies, cultures and climates critically and make substantial changes for the better.” This is a very good idea.
What About the ACLU?
One organization that needs to atone for actively supporting racism is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The prime example is their defense of John Scopes who used a textbook that openly taught racism. In the Scopes Trial, a racist textbook was a centerpiece: the biology textbook A Civic Biology, Presented in Problems was authored by American biology professor George William Hunter. It had been mandated by Tennessee (and many other states) and contained explicit statements on eugenics. Some examples include the following openly racist statement:
“there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other … the highest type of all, the Caucasians, [is] represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”
Hunter also wrote that we can improve domesticated animals by breeding, thus “future generations of men and women on the earth” can also “be improved by applying to them the laws of selection” that we use for animals – namely controlling breeding. Hunter stressed that this is no small concern because nothing less than the “improvement of the future race” of humanity is at stake. Under the subheading “Eugenics,” Hunter made it clear what type of “improvement” programs he was referring to: “When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. … The science of being well born is called eugenics.”
Those who pushed “Jim Crow” laws and wanted to prevent people judged of “inferior racial stock” from reproducing rationalized their agenda on the grounds that blacks were biologically inferior. Professor Alan Dershowitz says that the eugenics movement “took its impetus from Darwin’s theory of natural selection,” explaining that German militarism
drew inspiration from Darwin’s survival of the fittest. The anti-immigration movement, which had succeeded in closing American ports of entry to “inferior racial stock,” was grounded in a mistaken belief that certain ethnic groups had evolved more fully than others. The very book –Hunter’s Civic Biology– from which John T. Scopes taught Darwin’s theory of evolution to high school students in Dayton, Tennessee, contained dangerous misapplications of that theory. … Indeed, its very title, Civic Biology, made it clear that biology had direct political implications for civic society.
Karl Giberson claims that “apart from Jesus’s trial before Pilate… the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial” is “probably the best-known legal confrontation in history.” Scopes’ teaching was opposed by the famous Christian attorney William Jennings Bryan, and supported by the famous ACLU agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan had many concerns about Darwin besides racism:
For many years Bryan had been troubled about the possible social implications of Darwinism. In 1905 E. A. Ross, then teaching at Nebraska University, had found Bryan reading The Descent of Man, and Bryan had told him that such teachings would “weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth.”
Tontonoz added that for:
Bryan and other religious leaders the troubling issue was not organic evolution per se—the fact that species have changed over time—but rather natural selection as its proposed mechanism. Natural selection, or what is commonly (if simplistically) referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’, was seen as cruel and random…. Bryan could even accept that lower species had evolved from simpler forms, but he refused to apply the doctrine to humans. To do so was in effect to lend implicit support to troubling social policies and ideologies.
For nearly a decade, Hunter’s book was the most widely used high school science textbook in the nation. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz correctly noted that those persons actively advocating evolution in 1925 when the Scopes Trial occurred included “racists, militarists, and nationalists” who used evolution “to push some pretty horrible programs,” including forced sterilization.
Charles Darwin laid out in ugly detail how he believed that a race with superior qualities—those selected by natural selection—would have an evolutionary advantage and thus be able to destroy the weaker, less-evolved, races. This process of conflict was critical for evolution, and when natural selection that resulted from conflict ceases, evolution also ceases. Hitler stressed this point repeatedly in the only book he ever published, his bible titled Mein Kampf.
Bryan’s Fight Against the Degradation of Humans and Racism
Among the first persons to become aware of the racism lurking quite undisguised behind these passages in the Hunter Textbook was the three-time Democrat presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan opposed evolution primarily because it was the foundation of Social Darwinism and eugenics. A major concern of Bryan was the degradation of humans by evolution. The Hunter text illustrated Bryan’s concern because it was “laced with the racism of the day.”
Hunter used the same reasoning that Hitler used to justify his eugenics programs. For example, under the subheading “Parasitism and its Cost to Society,” Hunter wrote that 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.
Hunter then quotes the now-notorious American eugenicist Charles Davenport (and the expression that Hitler later made famous: “blood tells”), writing eugenics has documented that families which produce brilliant men and women did so because they received good inheritance from their ancestors. The text then used an example from Davenport’s Heredity in Relation to Eugenics to illustrate the claim that greatness is due to genes. They used selective evidence to make their case, such as the life of Elizabeth Tuttle, a woman “of strong will, and of extreme intellectual vigor” who married Richard Edwards, a man of high repute and great erudition.” This union produced Jonathan Edwards and many influential educators, judges, college presidents and physicians. Today, we know that many great intellectuals and high achievers arose from minority races and grew up in poverty, such as world-class surgeon Ben Carson, supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, economist Thomas Sowell and many others.
These studies discussed in the Hunter textbook advocating genetic breeding to cultivate better humans and eradicate inferior humans have now been thoroughly debunked. They were debunked by a reevaluation of the data used to support the studies’ original conclusions that genetics is the main cause of inferior humans. The studies were the “product of a powerful idea”—Darwinism—and they created “a social myth” that the Hunter text did much to spread worldwide. One study, the Kallikak family study, was translated into German in 1914, and the full text appeared in the German academic journal Friedrich Mann’s Pedagogishes Magazin. Its publication had a significant impact in Nazi Germany. One outcome was the infamous July 14, 1933 sterilization law that began the murder of millions of persons judged “inferior” by the eugenists.
Olasky and Perry wrote that “Hunter’s view of eugenics, widely accepted early in the twentieth century, was a common deduction drawn from and associated with Darwinian theory.” Hunter had first explained Darwinian evolution in five pages, they observed, then moved on to the meat of the book, the section on
“heredity and variation” that included eugenics. This popular connection between natural selection and social engineering would soon fan the flames of opposition to teaching Darwinism, particularly in light of the “remedies” that had “been tried successfully in Europe” on the eve of World War I, including sterilizing mental patients, criminals, and other genetic “contaminants.”
Hunter openly advocated the infamous “negative genetics” solution to what he saw as the main social problem in society today, namely genetically-inferior persons. The solution was:
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.
Many Tennessean’s, especially African Americans, objected to the implications of the entire evolution doctrine that were made explicit in the very science text required by their state. Even the title of the book, A Civic Biology, had a eugenical flavor because the lesson it implied is that it was the nation’s civic duty to apply eugenics to achieve racial improvement.
The ACLU Becomes Involved
Soon after the Tennessee “anti-evolution law” was passed, the American Civil Liberties Union began advertising for volunteers to challenge the law in court. The city of Dayton, Tennessee saw this as an opportunity to attract both attention and tourism. The politicians then urged a new teacher, who once substituted for a biology teacher, to claim that he had violated the law during his substitute teaching stint. Bryan’s major critic, ACLU supporter, H. L. Mencken, was not only anti-Semitic and anti-Black but “a staunch defender of evolution.”
Prominent scientists from major universities soon flocked to Dayton to challenge the right of the state to regulate the teaching of human evolution in its public schools. A critical point is the expert witnesses for Scopes never once distanced themselves from the many inflammatory racist passages in A Civic Biology. Indeed, some of them, such as David Starr Jordon mentioned above, were active supporters of the eugenics movement as taught in Hunter’s text.
A major concern of Bryan was that Darwinism had been used to justify German racism and militarism based on the survival-of-the-fittest philosophy. It had been translated into the might-makes-right ethos that had engulfed Germany and threatened to spread to other countries. Bryan was fearful that other nations would soon emulate the German war machine by using “the martial view of Darwinism [that] had been invoked by most German intellectuals and military leaders as a justification for war and future domination.” As Tontonoz concludes,
The immediate context for Bryan’s anti-evolutionism was the increasingly popular eugenics movement. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s cousin), the term eugenic means, literally, ‘well born.’ It referred to the use of the science of heredity to improve the racial stock of populations through selective breeding, enforced segregation, and sterilization … at its height the eugenics movement spanned the political spectrum … by the 1930s, it seemed that few people in the US had not jumped on the eugenics bandwagon.
Clearly “eugenics was quickly becoming a scientific religion in America: this was the context in which Bryan opposed the teaching of evolution in public schools.”
Bryan Takes on the Scopes Case
Bryan recognized that many professors of his age were drawing from Darwin’s theory, including not only eugenics, but also the “superior” race belief. This includes the justification of Germany during World War I to overpower the weak races. Bryan was awakened to this last concern by reading a book by Stanford University biologist Vernon L. Kellogg that related his conversations with the German General Staff in Belgium in 1914. In short:
In 1925, when Bryan opposed the teaching of evolution, he did so on the grounds that evolution was breeding dangerous political tendencies—namely, Social Darwinism and eugenics. In Bryan’s estimation, Darwinism functioned as a convenient justification for the laissez-faire, ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality that ruled big business and endorsed both militarism and eugenics.
Bryan was also very concerned about other effects of Darwin’s racism teachings, such as the following passage from The Descent of Man: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated.” Bryan made his concerns about the dignity of humankind very clear in the presentation he gave to the court:
Darwin reveals the barbarous sentiment that runs through evolution and dwarfs the moral nature of those who become obsessed with it. …Darwin speaks with approval of the savage custom of eliminating the weak so that only the strong will survive, and complains that “we civilized men do our utmost to check the process of elimination.” How inhuman such a doctrine as this! He [Darwin] thinks it injurious to “build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick” or to care for the poor. Even the medical men come in for criticism because they “exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment.”
The ACLU has never apologized for their support for the racism, not only that was part of the Scopes case, but the racism that Darwinism supported for close to a century. If they did I would be very surprised. Although the ACLU did defend some blacks early in its history, such as Dr. Ossian Sweet, this does not excuse their effective historical defense of both eugenics and racism.
It is clear from his writings that Bryan was very concerned about racism and eugenics, and this concern was a major reason he opposed human evolution. It is also clear historically that the ACLU fought tooth and nail against Bryan. Thus, in the 1920s, they were fighting to maintain not only the teaching of racism in the public schools, but also the preservation of racism and eugenics in society. Thus, of all those persons and institutions castigated today for their support of racism, the ACLU should be at the top of the list.
Anecdote from our Baloney Detector about loaded words: The defenders of Darwinism at the Scopes Trial were shameless in their portrayal of their side as scientific progressives and their opponents as religious dogmatists. We quote from Evolution and Christian Faith by Bolton Davidheiser about the behavior of Dudley Field Malone at the Scopes Trial:
“We do not fear all the truth they can present as facts. We are ready. We stand with progress. We stand with science. We stand with intelligence. We feel that we stand with the fundamental freedoms in America. We are not afraid. Where is fear? We defy it!” Turning and pointing a finger at William Jennings Bryan, he cried, “There is fear!” According to a report, “the crowd went out of control – cheering, stamping, pounding on desks – until it was necessary to adjourn for fifteen minutes to restore order.”
References and Notes
- Viglione, Giuliana and Nidhi Subbaraman. 2020. Universities scrub names of racist leaders. Nature. 584:331-322, August 13.
- Viglione, and Subbaraman, 2020, 322.
- Viglione, and Subbaraman, 2020, p. 332.
- Hunter, George. 1914. A Civic Biology. New York: American Book Company, p. 196.
- Hunter, 1914, p. 261
- Hunter, 1914, p. 261.
- Dershowitz, Alan. 1990. “Introduction to the Scopes Trial.” Birmingham, AL: Gryphon Notable Trials Library Series, p. 2.
- Dershowitz, 1990, p. 2.
- Giberson, Karl. W. 2008. Saving Darwin. New York: HarperOne, p.86.
- Hofstadter, Richard. 1955. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 200.
- Tontonoz, Matthew J. 2008. “The Scopes Trial Revisited: Social Darwinism versus Social Gospel.” Science as Culture 17(2):121-143, p. 136.
- Dershowitz, 1990, p. 2.
- Darwin, Charles. 1871. Descent of Man. London: John Murray, p. 162.
- Tontonoz, 2008, p. 121.
- Larson, Edward John. 1997. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, p. 23.
- Hunter, 1914, p. 263.
- Hunter, 1914, p. 263.
- Hunter, 1914, pp. 263-264.
- Smith, J. David. 1985. Minds Made Feeble: The Myth and Legacy of the Kallikaks. Rockville, MD: Aspen Systems Corp.
- Smith, 1985, p. 193.
- Smith, 1985, pp. 161-162.
- Olasky, Marvin and John Perry. 2005. Monkey Business. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, p. 70.
- Olasky, and Perry, 2005, p. 70.
- Hunter, 1914, pp. 261-263.
- Tontonoz, 2008, p. 133.
- Gilbert, James. 1997. Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 31.
- Gould, Stephen Jay. 1991. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Chapter 28: “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” pp. 416–431, pp. 421-422.
- Tontonoz, 2008, p. 136.
- Tontonoz, 2008, p. 136.
- Tontonoz, 2008, p. 140.
- Darwin, 1871, p. 168.
- Bryan, William Jennings. 1980. The Last Message of William Jennings Bryan. (A Reprint Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Bryan College, 1930-1980). Dayton, TN: Bryan College, pp. 24-25.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.