I sometimes wonder what goes through the mind of an American child faced with an afternoon of science classes. Does the prospect of an evolution discussion create a simmering sense of expectation, a trembling hope that something special is about to happen? Does the explosiveness of the topic and its contested history charge the classroom with electric excitement?

I doubt it. But there is no shortage of angst amongst American adults over just what goes on in those generally soporific science classes. Right now, 83 years on from the Scopes trial, the air is heavy in sleepy Louisiana, where the state legislature has ratified a bill to: “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment… that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied, including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning…”

The most important point here, according to the widely-read magazine New Scientist, is that teachers in Louisiana can present topics related to evolution as scientifically questionable. Exasperated editors of science journals continue to fret over the fact that 45 percent of Americans ascribe to Young Earth Creationism, that is, that the Bible account of creation should be taken literally and that the intervening millennia could be counted on one’s fingers.

Are these evolutionary recusants merely religious fanatics either unwilling or unable to follow a relatively simple train of evidence? Perhaps some of them are. But the history of the popular debate on evolution demands a more nuanced consideration. The Scopes Monkey Trial is a case in point. This has become a touchstone for debate over evolution in the US ever since 1925. John Scopes was a teacher in Tennessee who defied a state law which banned evolution in the classroom. He was found guilty in a trial which riveted America and was even made into a classic film, Inherit the Wind.

At the centre of the controversy was the 1914 textbook which Scopes used, Civic Biology. The case for the prosecution was derided at the time (and ever since) as “theological bilge” from backwoods buffoons, partly because the defense team succeeded in turning the event into a trial of the historical and scientific value of the Bible. Time magazine described it as “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war”. But what about the book itself? Everyone remembers the “degraded nonsense which country preachers are ramming and hammering into yokel skulls” (to quote the dyspeptic H.L. Mencken), but what about Civic Biology? What were its views on evolution? From a contemporary perspective, they, too, were bilge. Take for instance the author’s comments on race:

At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

The author offers forceful recommendations regarding the problem of criminality:

Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents. The “Jukes” family is a notorious example…. In seventy-five years the progeny of the original generation has cost the state of New York over a million and a quarter of dollars… 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.

He is clear on the limits of reproductive choice:

When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, that dread white plague which is still responsible for almost one seventh of all deaths, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

And he makes quite explicit the link between his views and those of evolutionary science:

If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, 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. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part.

Objections, anyone?

One reason for the failure of evolution education at the popular level is that both sides have depicted evolution as inextricably linked to scientific materialism (clearly false), and one side of the debate has taken ethical anti-humanism to follow from scientific materialism (quite a sound conclusion). Scientific materialism may have expunged the eugenics movement from its pamphlets and websites, but it advocates eugenics under a new names like abortion, sex selection, genetic screening, and euthanasia. Note that both incarnations of the eugenics movement lay claim to a paradoxical ideal of compassion: we must be anti-human for the sake of humanity.

Materialists have claimed the discovery that man is 60 percent fruit fly, genetically speaking, is the basis for a radical new equality. What it really means, working from their philosophy, is the foundation for a radical new inequality. Souls are always equal, but genes are never. If the foundation for our deepest understanding of the human person is genetics, then the conclusions of Civic Biology, and the most radical of modern sociobiologists, are valid. And as long as evolutionary theory carries the baggage of a materialistic worldview imposed by its chief proponents, it will be opposed by many on the grounds of humanistic intuition independent of theological concerns.

Phil Elias studies Medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.