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The Antievolution Crusade of the 1920s

Despite widespread criticism of evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, no group mounted an organized crusade against it until after World War I. Several factors contributed to this development. The widespread acceptance of naturalistic evolution within the scientific community prompted some secularists to use Darwin’s theory as a weapon against supernaturalism of any kind, including Christianity itself. Such aggression inflamed many Christian leaders, who felt that evolution was invading their cultural realm. Evolution was also moving into the schools of America. Public high schools and colleges boomed in the postwar years, and the biology textbooks they used often gave American young people their first introduction to evolution. This exposure alarmed not only conservative preachers and politicians but parents as well. Looking into the matter, the Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan "became convinced that the teaching of Evolution as a fact instead of a theory caused the students to lose faith in the Bible, first, in the story of creation, and later in other doctrines, which underlie the Christian religion." Indeed, social scientists confirmed that college attendance endangered traditional religious beliefs.

During World War I the news media carried numerous stories of the German military engaging in barbarous acts, from poisoning children to gassing soldiers. What, some people asked, could possibly have prompted the most scientifically advanced nation on earth to behave so badly. Bryan, the U. S. secretary of state at the beginning of the war, explained that "The same science that manufactured poisonous gases to suffocate soldiers is preaching that man has a brute ancestry and eliminating the miraculous and the supernatural from the Bible." A popular book by the Stanford biologist Vernon L. Kellogg, Headquarters Nights (1917), reported firsthand evidence of German officers discussing the Darwinian rationale for their declaration of war. The high-profile trial in 1924 of two young Americans, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, for kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks likewise spotlighted the purported relationship between the teachings of Darwin and criminal behavior.

Antievolutionists took comfort from rumors that even within the scientific community Darwinism lay on its "death-bed." The rumors were untrue but understandable. Despite antievolutionist claims to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of biologists had come to believe in organic evolution (commonly called Darwinism), but until the 1930s few of them saw natural selection as the exclusive, or even primary, mechanism of evolution. Only if one equated Darwinism with natural selection specifically, and not evolution generally, could it be said that Darwinism was dying. Fundamentalists frequently compiled lists of prominent scientists who rejected evolution, but most of the persons named were deceased or their views were misrepresented. After the turn of the century, and for years to come, Albert Fleischmann, an obscure German zoologist at the University of Erlangen, stood alone as the only biologist of any repute to oppose evolution.

Fundamentalist-inspired efforts to outlaw the teaching of human evolution in the public schools of America began in the early 1920s, and before the decade ended, twenty-three state legislatures had debated such legislation. Only three states—Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas—made the teaching of human evolution a crime, although Oklahoma prohibited the use of textbooks that promoted evolution, and Florida condemned the teaching of Darwinism as "improper and subversive." By 1928 legislators, weary of debating the merits of evolution, were increasingly turning their attention to other matters. Local school boards and state textbook commissions occasionally took up the issue, but antievolution bills remained off legislative agendas until the late 1960s, when the U. S. Supreme Court declared the Arkansas law to be unconstitutional.Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), pp. 37-53. See also Maynard Shipley, The War on Modern Science: A Short History of the Fundamentalist Attacks on Evolution and Modernism...

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The Antievolution Crusade of the 1920s

Creationism History: Topic Index
The ‘Ordinary’ View of Creation
Assessing the Fossil Record - Louis Agassiz
The Meaning of Genesis 1
Antievolutionists and Creationists
Darwinism Comes to America
George McCready Price and ‘Flood Geology’
The Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’
The Creationist Revival after 1961
Creation Science - Henry M. Morris
Intelligent Design


Dr. Ron Numbers
Dr. Ron Numbers

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Where did we Come From?
Was the Universe Designed?
Science and Religion in Conflict?
Have Science and Religion Always Been in Conflict?
Background on Creationism
How was Evolution Perceived Historically?
Charles Darwin