In 1925, the lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan duked it out in front of a packed courthouse over evolution. This has often been portrayed as one of history’s ultimate science-versus-religion fights in which science, of course, won. Except, it wasn’t, and it didn’t.
What “Inherit the Wind” and all the other dramatizations about the “Scopes Monkey Trial” leave out is that the textbook used by John T. Scopes, Civic Biology, contained some science gone seriously wrong. It claimed that evolution “explained” the so-called natural superiority of certain races and nationalities, and it promoted eugenics—creating better human beings through “good breeding.” And the book describes the poor, the handicapped and the insane as “true parasites,” adding, “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”
These ideas were part and parcel of the public face of science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Popular science insisted that we could perfect the human race, or the individual “races,” by encouraging good breeding of people. It was an idea so self-evident, and so promoted by prominent men like Alexander Graham Bell, H. G. Wells and Oliver Wendell Holmes, that anyone who opposed it on moral grounds was seen as dangerously backward.
Any efforts to study and evaluate “superior” human beings are fundamentally flawed. We cannot measure some form of “superiority” in the way that we can measure human height and weight.
Eugenicists among us
Alexander Graham Bell was not just the inventor of the telephone; he was key to establishing one of today’s leading scientific journals, Science. In a 1908 article in National Geographic, he asked whether “we can formulate practical plans that might lead to the breeding of better men and better women,” suggesting a “simple process of promoting the marriage of the superior with the superior.” He also proposed immigration restrictions for eugenics purposes. In 1924, Congress passed such a law, putting a strict quota on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe (immigration from Italy to the United States fell by 90 percent). Worse, the act banned all immigration from Asia.
H. G. Wells, the prolific science fiction writer, claimed to be opposed to the idea of “positive eugenics” (breeding superior people). But he did support preventing certain classes of people from having children. In his 1906 Socialism and the Family, he wrote, “the children people bring into the world can be no more their private concern entirely, than the disease germs they disseminate or the noises a man makes in a thin-floored flat,” and so the socialist state should be concerned about “disease and evil births alike.” In his view, it was “sterilization of failures” that would improve the “human stock.”
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was honored as a “progressive” voice on many topics such as the freedom of speech, and so his defense of eugenics gave support to that idea among intellectuals (who naturally saw themselves as being “superior”). More specifically, his support affected the rise of eugenic principles in the law itself. Under his direction, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 ruled 8-1 in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization on eugenic principles did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” Holmes wrote. Following the Buck v. Bell decision and well into the 1970s, tens of thousands of women (mostly minorities) were forcibly sterilized in the United States in the name of eugenics.
Eugenics is not just repugnant as an idea—it is also scientifically wrong.
Eugenics is not just repugnant as an idea—it is also scientifically wrong. Promoters of eugenics developed tools to statistically analyze masses of data about people and demonstrate conclusively that their ideas worked, only to find that those tools showed their ideas were wrong. The complexity of the human genetic code makes any attempt to achieve an “improvement of the species” through “promoting the marriage of the superior with the superior” hopelessly naïve.
But more important, any efforts to study and evaluate “superior” human beings are fundamentally flawed. We cannot measure some form of “superiority” in the way that we can measure human height and weight. The “eu” in “eugenics” is from the Greek for “good.” What exactly would be the “good” that it is supposed to be looking for? Unsurprisingly, the assumption seems to be that the best of humanity looks an awful lot like those who want to be directing the improving.
In reality, modern science cannot even measure people regarding, say, athletic prowess, much less some sort of general “superiority.” One would think it would be easy to determine who can run or bicycle or swim a certain distance in the least time, or jump the farthest or the highest. But what if someone uses performance-enhancing drugs? How much does a race result depend on who has the best coaches or the best gear? Or consider the importance of a culture that supports a particular sport: There are more than one billion people in India and plenty of mountains with snow, but India has never won a medal in the Winter Olympics.
Now consider the problems of measuring “intelligence,” which for so long has served as an unspoken stand-in for “superiority.” “Intelligence Quotient” tests assume that intelligence is a single one-dimensional concept that can be measured objectively. But to anyone who has been around a variety of people, that is contrary to common sense.
Why would anyone think that we could “scientifically” determine who is “superior” when it comes to intelligence?
We both have experience with a broad range of students, having taught at Harvard and M.I.T. as well as at community colleges. Certainly the students who are found in one sort of institution may have different skills, different abilities, different cultural assumptions and different problems to be overcome from those at another. But we know firsthand that these differences cannot be ranked as “superior” or “inferior.”
One of us, Brother Consolmagno, once got a lesson on this when teaching at Le Moyne College, a small Jesuit school in Syracuse, N.Y., whose students are often in professional programs like nursing. They were certainly different from his students at M.I.T.
Once, when a Le Moyne student was making a class presentation and happened to mention a certain principle from Aristotle, another student let out a loud groan followed by a pronounced roll of the eyes. Did she not care for philosophy? Why was she being so rude?
But then the student sitting next to her leapt from his desk, grabbed her and gently laid her limp body on the floor. Another pulled out his cellphone and called campus patrol, describing the kind of seizure she’d had and reporting the building and classroom where they were. Within five minutes, medical help was on hand.
If that had been a classroom full of his M.I.T. students, Brother Consolmagno thought, that poor woman could have been dead before anyone noticed what had happened. Even if they did notice, no one would have known what to do. But a classroom with nursing students knew how to respond.
Chris Graney had a similar experience when he was a young professor teaching “technical physics” at a satellite campus of his community college, located in a small town in Kentucky. As a “fun project,” he assigned his physics students to build catapults that would throw vegetables as their projectiles. He envisioned modest devices made of wood and PVC pipe. But he underestimated his students. Most of them worked in local industries and had skills he never thought of. They convinced their employers to loan them welders, torches and other supplies, then proceeded to put their skills to work in an arms race that resulted in large, truck-mounted engines of war…and safety hazards to the community!
We all know that there is a difference between intellectual attainments and street smarts. So why would anyone think that we could “scientifically” determine who is “superior” when it comes to intelligence?
Even today, with eugenics itself discredited, the desire to see yourself as smarter than average can be found everywhere, from childhood taunts to internet memes.
Secret and unearned knowledge
The appeal of eugenics was its unspoken assumption that surely “I am one of the superior people.” Even if I am not gifted with an athlete’s prowess or a model’s face, my superior intelligence clearly means that I must be among the favored few who get to pass on our gifts to future generations.
Even today, with eugenics itself discredited, the desire to see yourself as smarter than average can be found everywhere, from childhood taunts to internet memes. The desire to have “intelligence,” and to display it for all the world to see, has become a cult.
One way this shows itself is in the form of a broad skepticism of the sort that says that the really smart person doesn’t fall for the stuff that everyone else believes. Of course, skepticism has been a hallmark of modern science since Galileo’s time. He taught us to believe the results of experiments above the pronouncements of academic authorities, or so we’re told. But compare this with the “skepticism” that we witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic from those who thought that defying the vaccine-promoting authorities was following in the footsteps of Galileo. Such skepticism is not Galileo’s; it is not a desire to run experiments, publish the results so others can replicate them and thus put authoritative pronouncements to the test. Rather, it is a tribal marker, a way of saying, “I am one of these people, one of the intelligent people who think for themselves—not one of those people, who don’t.”
Why would people who regard themselves as intelligent be skeptical of the best science of the day and instead trust their health to, for example, something they found on the internet? Perhaps it happens because, in our society, skepticism of authority runs alongside a desire for certainty that leads to an excessive credulity in science—the same sort of credulity that led to acceptance of eugenics.
The two desires are, of course, antithetical to one another. You cannot at the same time demand perfect truth while also rejecting any authority that would claim to lead you toward that truth. What results instead when our brains are faced with these two diametrically opposite desires is that we wind up squirting off sideways. We reject “officially sanctioned” authority in favor of a secret source of knowledge available only to a hidden few. And even though something that can be found online is, by definition, available to everyone who can get on the internet, the experience of discovering it by yourself on the computer in your basement creates the illusion that this is a private and hidden discovery, open to those intelligent enough to find it…one that by its hidden nature appears to have value beyond that received via more public media.
This temptation to easy private discovery is one we should recognize. It is the allure of Gnosticism, a desire to embrace “secret knowledge.” It was a prominent movement that the church fathers had to deal with in the second and third centuries. But well before then, you could see it in the esoteric Eleusinian rites of ancient Greece. And “I’ll tell you secret knowledge that God doesn’t want you to have” was the temptation of the snake in the Garden of Eden. This secret knowledge would come easily; Adam and Eve only had to eat an apple, not build their own garden.
It is instructive to see how this desire for secret knowledge can manifest itself even among those who might legitimately be thought to be highly knowledgeable already. People educated in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (like the authors of this article!) are particularly tempted to think of themselves as superior—the “smartest people in the room.” They are, after all, highly trained at their own work, which the average person usually does not understand. They can sometimes extrapolate from their experience with their own abilities in science to a perceived superiority in the knowledge of all subjects.
And what is the point of being superior if all you do is agree with everyone else? With that attitude, you almost have to be a contrarian. This makes such folk easy prey for the peddlers of modern forms of Gnosticism: U.F.O.s, the “face on Mars,” faddish diets, strange new religions—none of which stand up to Galileo’s form of skepticism.
The urge toward such an attitude has serious consequences for our society. What have we gotten from people demanding perfect truth while rejecting any authority that would claim to lead them toward that truth, and yet are unwilling to do the hard work needed to get to the truth or to at least contribute to the search for the truth? The “post-truth” age. In it, what I accept as true is only that which agrees with my biases, with my tribe, with my identity, with what I want to hear (and in the internet age, I can always find, easily, what I want to hear). Those who think otherwise will seem to me as lacking in intelligence; or worse, as malevolent enemies.
Rather than heaping scorn on those who fall prey to such urges, though, maybe we should look at the origin of these ideas.
In our society, skepticism of authority runs alongside a desire for certainty that leads to an excessive credulity in science.
What are we worth?
If we assume that scientists or self-proclaimed experts deserve to be followed because they are more intelligent than the rest of us, then implicitly we equate “more intelligent” with “superior.” That was the root temptation behind much of eugenics, and it is at the root of the temptation to Gnosticism: letting your sense of self-worth come from thinking that you are more intelligent than the average person.
Contrast the identification of intelligence with superiority to what we find in Matthew 11:25, which quotes Jesus saying, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” In 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:7, Paul insists that the wisdom of the Gospel looks very different from what the world considers wise.
This is not to demean intelligence or any other ability. After all, we are professional astronomers; we think we are intelligent. But it does mean that intelligence cannot be correlated with “worth” any more than strength or speed can be. The value of whatever intelligence, education or even wisdom that we have does not lie in those attributes themselves. Whatever we do has value only insofar as it is a form of praise to our Creator.
We all have our own God-given talents and abilities, whether they are academic or something else. It is certainly legitimate to measure how people differ from one another, just as it is great fun to test our athletic abilities or participate in other sorts of contests. But our worth does not derive from the results of such tests. Any science that seeks to measure our worth by measuring one trait or another is science gone wrong.
Engaging our abilities makes us more authentically the person whom God created us to be, and thus able to encounter God more fully, each in our own way. For the authors of this article, astronomy happens to be the playing field where we have been given an opportunity to come to know God. Others find God in places that we cannot reach. As children of God, created in the image of God, and thus of immeasurable worth—we find God in all things, and do all things for God’s greater glory.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in When Science Goes Wrong: The Desire and Search for Truth, to be published in October 2023 by Paulist Press.