Scopes Trial: Interpretation 3

John Higham

Strangers in the Land

Finally, historians such as John Higham have pointed to nativist undercurrents to explain the trial. Indeed, the trial was situated at the center of a larger struggle to define an American identity. For Higham, ethnic tensions were at the heart of American nation-building, and the theory of evolution raised unspoken questions about race and ethnicity. For example, Higham conceptualized a “national heritage,” whereby Americans looked to their European ancestry to explain their prosperity and innovation. Evolution challenged this national pride because it made success almost arbitrary—or at least biological. As well, ascribing American success to accidents of biology meant that continued success was neither inevitable nor assured. In short, it challenged the fundamental proposition that heritage somehow trumped environment.

In addition, acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution placed humans at the same level as animals. Indeed, it made humans subject to the same struggles as the animal kingdom, and essentially made human life less noble, since mankind was not substantially different from all the other beasts.

John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (1955), (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).