[We resume the serialization of my talk on the cultural hurly-burly that greeted Darwin's theories. As we open this section, our animal friends are really going at it.]
Lions and tigers make ligers and tigons; camels and llamas make camas; antelopes give taxonomists nightmares. Mules have been known to foal baby mules; yaks, bison, and cattle pop out fertile hybrids. It’s a free-for-all out there.
Charles Fort was particularly drawn to an earlier model of evolution, orthogenesis: that all nature tends to perfection. Darwin argued instead for variation and adaptability: that all life benefits from change — of diet, climate, soil — and that life adapts to the changes, rather than clamping onto a static ideal.
For perfection isn’t perfect; because it’s static, and stasis is sterile.
For the true fundamentalist, however, change and evolution imply that creation needed overhauling, and this was not an appealing idea. That had something to do with the public outcry over Darwin, but it wasn’t the main gripe. Nor, surprisingly, was the sheer amount of sex in Darwin.
It was when he extended evolution into that chip off the old God, homo sapiens, that people really got miffed. It was fine that horses used to be smaller, or armadilloes bigger, or elephants had fur. Nobody cared. But the idea that men came from monkeys was a no-go. Those awful little animals that dance to organ-grinders! An anti-evolution tract title put it succinctly: God or Gorilla? Obviously, God was the more flattering option; you never saw him cramming his face with bananas, or masturbating in the zoo.
And, just as obviously, evolution had to be booted from the classroom. By the 1920s, states started to pass laws banning the teaching of evolution. There was some problem with this, because of that pesky Constitution, with its tiresome separation of church and state. Some states, like Oklahoma, prohibited evolution, only to repeal the law within a few years.
In Tennessee, John Washington Butler, a Baptist farmer newly elected to the legislature, introduced a bill banning evolution from schools. It passed only after his colleagues introduced farcical bills to ban teaching that the earth is round. The governor signed Butler’s bill because he assumed it was only symbolic, and he wanted support from rural voters for other programs. This was in 1925.
(Posted by Doug Skinner; to be continued.)