In 1926, John T. Scopes was put on trial in Dayton, Tennessee and was convicted for violating the state law which forbade the teaching of evolution. The popular narrative says this was the time Americans began to understand that science, not religion, was the reliable guide that students should be encouraged to follow. There is, however, more to the story. Most people in our country continue to reject the idea that either the universe as a whole, or human life in particular, came into being without any type of “intelligent designer.” There are very important questions about implications of neo-Darwinian evolution which science does not seem capable of answering.
The textbook Scopes used in his classroom back in 1926 was Civic Biology by George Hunter. This book taught not only Darwinian evolution, but also argued that science dictated that we should sterilize or even exterminate those groups of people who weakened the gene pool by spreading “disease, immorality, and crime.” This was the mainstream scientific perspective of the Progressive era, and other science textbooks at that time taught the same thing. Though I know of no one who would advocate such a practice today, it is important to note that “science” did not repudiate this position. As Dr. Tim Keller says, “It was the horrors of World War 2, not science, that discredited eugenics.”
From a scientific standpoint, eugenics still makes sense. Heredity is often a primary factor in disease, addictions, and other negative behaviors. As Keller says, “It is perfectly logical to conclude that it would be more socially and economically cost effective if those genetically prone to nonproductive lives did not pass on their genetic code. However, the (Nazi) death camps aroused the moral intuition that eugenics, while perhaps scientifically efficient, is evil.”
But aren’t there ways genetics can be used more “humanely,” in ways which are not evil? I certainly think so. However, “science” cannot tell us what those ways are, because it is incapable of making the moral judgments necessary to distinguish between good and evil. How can we know what a “good use” of genetics would be? Not by looking to science but by looking to religion. Jurgen Habermas, a prominent philosopher who through most of his career rejected religion, now has changed his mind. He says, “The ideals of freedom, conscience, human rights, and democracy are the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. To this day, there is no alternative.”
This truth was summed up well by William Jennings Bryan in a statement he prepared for the Scopes trial but never presented. “Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. Science does not and cannot teach brotherly love.”
Rev. Dan Erickson
Senior Pastor, Chisholm Baptist Church