03 August 2013

Was Clarence Darrow a Proponent of Eugenics?

Robert J. Richards in his majestic 1987 Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior appears not to think so (below two of the many twitter exchanges that generated this question):

Richards writes, p. 516:

Abstruse genetics may have spoiled the kernel of eugenics theory. But it took a wicked wit, penetrating journalistic analysis, and the horrors of Nazi racial policy finally to crack the movement's hard shell of socially and economically generated racial prejudice. Just back from Dayton, Tennessee, where he defended one version of evolutionary biology, Clarence Darrow took up the prosecution of another. In The American Mercury, in 1925 and 1926, he examined the "Eugenics Cult." He sympathized with the plight of the eugenicists: "The good old Mayflower stock is suffering the same unhappy fate as the good old pre-Prohibition liquor. It is being mixed with all sorts of alien and debilitating substances." Nonetheless, he was bound to find their analyses guilty of both bad logic and worse taste. He compared the line of the Jukeses with that of Jonathan Edwards, the hell fire preacher of Mayflower stock that eugenicists liked to contrast with the Jukeses. Darrow thought the Jukeses' infamous sexual pollutions as a dry stream compared with the enormous drive gushing from the loins of the Edwardses: Jonathan's grandfather had thirteen children; his grandmother was put away for adultery and immorality; and he himself was one of eleven offspring. But of greatness, the family actually had little. Out of the some forty thousand estimated descendants of Edwards's grandparents, Darrow reckoned only six hundred were of any note - about 1.5 percent of the total. And this despite the Edwardses' social and educational opportunities, which were denied the Jukes family, who lived a poor and squalid rural life. Darrow confessed that if he had to choose for a neighbor a man like Edwards - who preached that "the God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked" - or one who lived the simple life of a dirt farmer, well Max Jukes would be his choice.


  1. Darrow was rightly attacking the more extreme eugenicist claims, and 'eugenics' was often used in this exclusively pejorative way (as it perhaps still is today). However, the textbook that Scopes taught from, which Darrow defended, was quite eugenicist in its orientation to evolution. (Remember the book was called, 'A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems'.) Indeed, several of the experts whom Darrow wanted to enter into the trial, including Charles Davenport, were explicitly eugenicist. By today's standards, Darrow did not draw a sharp line between eugenics and evolution the way politically correct people do today. He simply drew a sharp line between sane and crackpot science.

  2. So because an attorney renowned for defending civil rights saw an opportunity to score a secular point on a nationally broadcasted 'show trial' about the creation of man, he was a eugenicist? Any reasonable person could defend the teaching of all books on civil rights grounds (something I'm sure you know) - that doesn't mean that the person agrees with everything the books say. And trying to find expert opinion for a trial - as you of all people should know as well - doesn't mean that all the lawyers, judges, and members of the jury must agree with all of the views the expert expresses in order to reach a decision. Darrow is hardly Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in the passage quoted above. It seems clear to me that Darrow drew an explicit line between religion and evolution in the classroom (that was good) - but what that says about his views of evolution and eugenics is quite another matter entirely. Surely you can actually provide some quotes from his letters, essays, books, or other supporting material to bolster your claim and I'd like to see them. I am more than prepared to be convinced that he was a proponent of eugenics (which would lower my estimation of him). But defending a book in a show trial and trying to find sympathetic witnesses is not evidence of anything save the obvious fact that he was a smart lawyer. I like the red herring that somehow drawing a sharp line between eugenics and evolution is something that 'us' politically correct people do. It is possible to regard evolution as an obvious scientific fact and have serious misgivings about using science to direct evolution. I'm hardly the first person to do it, and I will hardly be the last. And I'm not G. K. Chesterton either simply because I think there are serious reasons for regarding eugenic thinking as loathsome. But I also find it rather interesting that you should suddenly discover crackpot science - this from the author of Kuhn vs. Popper? This from the famous critic of the idea of tacit knowledge in science? As you well know, much of the moral depravity that surrounds eugenics was supported by good science, which only goes to show that science tells us how to do things and not whether we should. By today's standards, we need fairly strong evidence that Darrow supported eugenics and did not change his mind, in order to justify claiming him to the pantheon of Leftists who supposedly supported eugenics.