Daily Archives: 4 May 2014

May 4, 1925 (a Monday)

George Rappleyea in June 1925

On this date, George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at Fred Robinson’s drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map. Listening to Rappalyea, the others – including School Superintendent Walter White – became convinced that publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their town, whose population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890’s to 1,800 in 1925. Thus, the “Robinson’s drugstore conspiracy” to put Dayton, Tennessee on the map was put into motion.

The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore. As Scopes later described the meeting, Rappalyea said, “John, we’ve been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.” Scopes agreed. “That’s right,” he said, pulling a copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology – the state-approved textbook – from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks). “You’ve been teaching ’em this book?” Rappalyea asked. Scopes replied that while filling in for the regular biology teacher during an illness, he had assigned readings on evolution from the book for review purposes. “Then you’ve been violating the law,” Rappalyea concluded. “Would you be willing to stand for a test case?” he asked. Scopes agreed. He later explained his decision: “The best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.”

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May 4, 1825 (a Wednesday)

T. H. Huxley

On this date, the English physician and biologist Thomas Henry Huxley was born in Ealing (then a village in Middlesex).  He received his medical degree from Charing Cross School of Medicine, becoming a physiologist, and was awarded many other honorary degrees. Huxley spent his youth exploring science, especially zoology and anatomy, lecturing on natural history, and writing for scientific publications.

Huxley earned the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” when he debated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in Oxford in 1860. When Wilberforce asked him which side of his family contained the ape, Huxley famously replied that he would prefer to descend from an ape than a human being who used his intellect “for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into grave scientific discussion.” Thereafter, Huxley devoted his time to the defense of science over religion.

Darwin danced around human evolution in On the Origin of Species in 1859, not addressing the topic until 1871 in The Descent of Man. Yet Huxley wrote about human and primate paleontology in Man’s Place in Nature in 1863. He examined the similarities between humans and apes and noted that greater anatomical differences separate gorillas and chimpanzees from the lower apes than separate gorillas from people. He also mused:

Is [the philosopher or poet] bound to howl and grovel on all fours because . . . he was once an egg, which no ordinary power of discrimination could distinguish from that of a Dog? . . . Is mother-love vile because a hen shows it, or fidelity base because dogs possess it?

Huxley coined the term “agnostic” (although George Jacob Holyoake also claimed that honor). Huxley defined agnosticism as a method, “the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle . . . the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him.” Huxley elaborated: “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without any other consideration. And negatively, in matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable” (from his essay Agnosticism).  In his Essays on Controversial Questions (1889), he wrote:

Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.

Huxley was president of the Royal Society of London, and was elected to the London School Board in 1870, where he championed a number of common-sense reforms.  His other essays included Agnosticism and Christianity (1889).  Huxley, appropriately, received the Darwin Medal in 1894.