1869, Ep. 112 with Carl Weinberg, author of Red Dynamite
4:17PM Oct 21, 2021
scopes monkey trial
Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. This episode we speak with Carl Weinberg, author of Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America. Carl is Adjunct Associate Professor of History and Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also the author of Labor, Loyalty and Rebellion from Southern Illinois University Press. We spoke to Carl about the very real and hidden labor and socialist history of John Scopes of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial; why there's a rational kernel of truth behind Christian conservatives linking the theory of evolution with communism; and why Christian conservatives' main argument against evolution has always been more about its potential impacts on society, rather than the actual science of biology itself. Hello, Karl, welcome to the podcast.
Hey, Jonathan, glad to be here.
Well, we're very excited about your new book, Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America. It's available now in an affordable paperback and also available as a free download from our website, as well as other vendors, you can just click on the free download button and you can download a PDF or EPUB and read it right now. So we're really excited about that. So that in mind, we were curious to know how you got interested in this topic and the backstory to this book?
Sure, that's a great question because I did not study evolutionary biology, in college or graduate school, nor did I focus very much on religion or intellectual history. But through various means I ended up in this field. So a couple of things come to mind. First of all, when I was right out of college, I one day happened into the militant bookstore in Washington, DC, where they were selling Pathfinder books published by the Socialist Workers Party, but also a various books on evolutionary science. And one was by Stephen Jay Gould, the very well known paleontologist and defender of evolutionary biology in the culture wars. And I bought his book ever since Darwin and still have it. And one thing that whole experience taught me is that there are communists and socialists out there promoting evolutionary science. Now, I have to say, another thread that led me to the book was my dissertation research on Illinois labor history, in which I came across some colorful characters, anti socialist activists in Illinois who would chase around socialists from town to town, when they were campaigning, one of the moves guy named David Goldstein, who became a convert to Catholicism. rather conservative one, he was a former socialist and became an anti socialist activist. And in his autobiography, he explained that he turned away from socialism when he read Frederick Engels, origin of the family private property in the state, in which angles openly embrace an evolutionary explanation for human history, and that we had ape ancestors which Goldstein found horrifying. And then the the most immediate spark to the book was I was teaching at North Georgia College in Delano, Georgia. And in 2002, Cobb County, not too far from where I was teaching in the suburbs of Atlanta, issued a new policy, the school board issued a new policy that required a disclaimer sticker on all biology textbooks that explained that evolution is a theory not a fact. And therefore, it should be carefully considered and approached with an open mind. This was, of course, inspired by creationist activists by anti evolution activists, and the school board adopted this and it ended up in a lawsuit. So when this controversy broke up, I decided it would be really interesting to teach a course to trace the history of this controversy. And thankfully, the chair of the history department where I was teaching, gave me permission to create this course. And I called it the history of evolutionary science. And in the course, I was able to have as guest speakers, both Jeffrey Selman, the plaintiff in the lawsuit against Cobb County, and a parent who was supporting the school board. They didn't want to be in the classroom at the same time. They both insisted on that, but my students got to hear both sides. And that was really the germ of the project that became this book.
Wow, that's fascinating. Tell us what is red dynamite? what the title of the book, tell us what you was the term red dynamite where that comes from?
Well red dynamite I have to say I borrowed from a chapter title in a book by creationist geologists George McCready price. I would consider him the godfather of young earth creationism of the kind of creationism we see today at say the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky run by Answers in Genesis, which claims that the earth is roughly 6000 years old. In the early 20th century, people who believe that were outliers actually and George McCready Price, who was a geologist, and at least an amateur geologist, and a 7/7 Day Adventists published a series of books were connected evolutionary science with a variety of social and political and moral evil. And one of these books was called the predicament of evolution published in 1925, the year of the scopes trial. And in that book, he told the story of a socialist activist and Minister, which he was appalled at a guy named Luke White, who, believe it or not started a church in New York City called The Church of the social revolution. White was arrested a number of times for his political activities, and he was also a devout evolutionist, and price quoted an interview with white where white said, that kind of liberal Christianity that included an openness to evolutionary science was social dynamite. Those were book White's words that will blow up the whole apparatus of capitalist civilization. He thought that was a positive thing. Needless to say, George McCready Price did not. And so when he wrote this book, the predicament of evolution, he borrowed from that quote from why he called the chapter read dynamite. And the key statement in his chapter that the captures this idea of red dynamite and why evolution is so horrible for George McCready Price. And then a whole series of figures who followed him in the 20th century, goes like this Marxian socialism and the radical criticism of the Bible, are now proceeding hand in hand with the doctrine of organic evolution, to break down all those ideas of morality, all those concepts of the sacredness of marriage, and of private property on which Western civilization has been built during the past 1000 years. So evolution and socialism are marching together to create this hell on earth. And price is warning about this in his book, and that suggested to me the title of the book.
That's great, that's great. So in the eyes of creationists evolutionary thought promotes immoral social, sexual and political behavior. And Christians, conservatives have been, for decades been demonizing Darwinian thought, believers of evolution, and calling them either satanic or communist. And, you know, in the mainstream culture, that's people think that that well, that's that's crazy. But you said there's actually a rational kernel of truth behind these accusations. Tell us more about that.
Sure, yes, that is one of the major aims of my book is to point out that christian conservatives may be propounding conspiracy theories that I wouldn't necessarily agree with. But there is a grain of truth in what they're saying about the connection between communism and evolutionism. First, the conspiracy theories, there are a range of them that I cover in the book, one of them that was supported for many years by Henry Morris, one of the founders of so called Creation Science in the modern era, and the founder of the Institute for creation research, which still is around today. Morris wrote in a number of books about how the real origin of evolutionary thought does not go back to Darwin, but goes back much further. And you can find the origin in the story of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, in the book of Genesis, and according to Morris, Nimrod, and his minions, built this tower with the idea that man could become like God, and this then made him into a figure who was allied with the other side, that is Satan. And so the idea is then that, through this process, Satan somehow planted seeds of evolutionary thinking. Of course, peoples were then scattered all over the world. God punished humanity for for aspiring to become like Gods but also Scattered were these various evolutionary ideas which initially appeared in mythical origin stories that you that that you hear from different cultures around the world. But according to Henry Morris, these were infected with evolutionary ideas. And he then traced the influence of the satanic elements in evolutionary thinking all the way to the 20th century through through Charles Darwin who was implicated various conspiracies, and even through Alfred Russel Wallace, lesser known but the scientific investigator who came up with the idea of natural selection, almost exactly the same time as Darwin did, and Darwin freely gave him credit for this. In his book, The long war against God, Henry Morris actually makes the argument that Satan was present in the East Indies, when Alfred Russel Wallace hit on the idea of natural selection. And taking the satanic theme further, in a museum that the institute creation research created in San Diego, California. It's it's today in Santee, California, in the suburbs of San Diego, there is an exhibit that claims that Karl Marx was a Satanist as well, that's based on a book called marks and Satan, which I talked about in my book by an interesting character named Richard wurmbrand. In any event, the creationist have seriously made this, this claim that, that Satan is implicated in evolution, and that Marx and Marxist are somehow Satan's. Now, I don't believe Marx was a Satanist. I don't believe Satan created evolutionary ideas. However, there is one aspect of this which is true and and the true part is that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, their followers in the United States, and in many places around the world, were supporters of evolutionary science. That part is true, and it has not gotten much attention from scholars. So as an example, in the family of origin of family private property in the state by angles, he affirms evolutionary ideas. Lenin gave many speeches supporting evolutionary thought, and Leon Trotsky, one of the other central leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, gave an interview with Max Eastman, where he explained that when he was in prison when Trotsky was in prison in Siberia for revolutionary activities, he read Darwin and Darwin, quote, destroyed the last of my ideological prejudices against Marxism. And Darwin, Trotsky told Eastman that Darwin stood for me like a mighty doorkeeper at the entrance to the temple of the universe. I always love that, that statement from Trotsky captures a lot and creationists have quoted it to for for opposite reasons. And I can add a few other things to this in the American socialist movement in the early 20th century. lesser known figures like Arthur Morell Lewis, who I write about in my book, who was working class himself. Louis spoke to workers in large overflow meetings in Chicago about Darwin's ideas and about evolutionary science, he was selling evolution to the masses. So there was this real campaign by socialists and communists to spread evolutionary ideas. And so christian conservatives are not making that up.
That's fascinating. Yeah, I mean, it's you hear that famous quote from Marx, who I'm sure probably pulled it from someone else, but that religion is the opium of the masses. So this is, seems to be part of the culture wars of science versus religion. And the the communists were taking aside the side of science, you know, the new scientific man, ideas like this, I can see how this would be a call to war for christian conservatives. And your book details a lot of these battles. I thought it was interesting in the very beginning, you focus on the Scopes Monkey Trial, and how they went after Thomas Scopes, the father, and then John Scopes, who was in the trial, as rabid socialists, and there was that I don't know if they were rabid, but they certainly were in the socialist spectrum. So it fit really very well into that narrative. Tell us tell us more of what you uncovered with the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Yeah, indeed, I had not originally planned to start the book with the scopes trial. But I was asked to do something on that by the series editors at Cornell and I'm so glad that asked me because I ended up discovering a whole dimension of the background to the scopes trial that most people have never heard about. Well, it's certainly been noted by scholars that kind of scopes, john scopes. His father was a socialist and a labor organizer, but the full story hasn't been told. And I looked a bit into that. I mean, he was really a central activist in the, in the Socialist Party in the Midwest. And he, he knew all the major figures in the party people like Eugene Debs, he introduced Eugene Debs, on the stage when a Debs came through town he was living in he organized he was the organizer, the branch of the party, in a number of places. And he arrived with several books under his arm, one of which was Darwin's on the origin species. And so socialism and evolutionism ran in the family. John Scopes is often portrayed as a kind of hapless, naive victim of circumstances in Dayton, Tennessee. But it turns out that his upbringing was highly relevant. The fact that his father was an evolutionist, a socialist, a labor organizer, all those things were relevant. The other piece concerns Dayton, Tennessee itself, which normally is simply a placeholder for a southern town that wants to get some attention to boost business. And that's all we really learned about. But it turned out that Dayton, Tennessee itself was an industrial boom town based on coal mining for the steel industry. Their coal mines, were powered by investments from English industrialists, who poured millions of dollars into developing this part of the country, part of the New South that people learn about when they study American history. And what that meant as well was that Dayton, Tennessee, featured class conflicts that we've seen all over the country, whenever there are mining towns and coal miners risking their lives to dig coal and dynamite coal out of the earth, that you're going to get conflict. And in fact, that happened there as well. There were a whole series of strikes in the 1890s and early 20th century, the United Mine Workers of America union local was formed in Dayton and the Dayton miners were very much in support of a, a widespread revolt by East Tennessee miners against the convict lease system that existed in Tennessee, the state of Tennessee had after the Civil War, when slavery was no longer illegal. The mine owners had gotten the state to agree to a system where those who were imprisoned could be leased out to the mine owners for a fee, and the miners would be paid nothing. They were predominantly African American, although not entirely so. And this became a kind of continuation of, of slavery immensely profitable for the Mayan owners. It also served to divide workers so that primarily white coal miners and black miners were set against each other. And so the union movement took this up as an issue and launched the campaign which eventually became in some places in armed rebellion against convict lease. Well, miners in Dayton, were very aware of this, and they actually signed a petition in support of this campaign. And so what you start to see is that Dayton, and the scopes family are part of this whole world of industrial capitalism of labor revolt, and a really big moral questions posed about what kind of society do we want to live in. And to me, this is the proper background for the trial, rather than an isolated sleepy town in which all people are mindlessly supportive of fundamentalism, and really don't know anything else that's going on in the world. It's an entirely different picture. And especially if you have a basic knowledge of the of the of the trap, as so many of you will have, by the movie, Inherit the Wind, which really accentuates all these features. So once you start to understand the true context, the trial then the rest of my book, which address continually addresses these issues of the relationship between the fighter revolution with basic questions of power relations in society, and labor and revolt and all the rest, that that connection makes much more sense.
Interesting. Interesting. Yeah. So what you're saying is that the central question is, what kind of society do we want to live in, and that's where the attacks are coming from. And the arguments and essential premise of the creationist standpoint is that ideas have consequences for the future of our society. Tell us the evolution of this idea that it is the word evolution in the wrong context. But tell us the evolution of this idea and how prevalent this view is today in the year. 2021.
Yeah, I would say, and I say this in the book, that the main concern creationist has always been social evolution, not biological evolution. That is the idea that morality can evolve and our moral standards can change over time that's most disturbing, to creationists and to christian conservatives. The idea is that evolution undermines a belief in God and thereby undermines the idea of eternal stable moral codes. Because if you don't have the Bible, and God as the anchor for those codes, you have nothing. As a result, a christian conservatives say anything goes. And when they say anything goes in there, there are two sides to that, which I could summarize by sex and death, or sex and violence, the kinds of evils they say, flow from an evolutionary way of thinking. Another way of summarizing this idea is, if you teach people that they descended from animals, they'll act like animals. And to your question about To what extent this idea is still prevalent today, I would point to a piece Answers in Genesis published in 2011, where they say that today we're seeing the consequences of evolutionary teaching. When you teach generation after generation of children, they're nothing more than evolved animals, why should it surprise us that they begin to act like animals, and then they give examples of the kinds of behavior they see as evolution inspired, or in my book, I talk about animalistic behavior, or beastial behavior, which are terms that continue continually come up and the cover the lovely cover of the book that Cornell did, with a scary looking gorilla very powerfully conveys the the horror of this beast chill behavior that christian conservatives have been learning about. So Answers in Genesis points to things like school violence, lawlessness, homosexual behavior, pornography, abortion, and as they say, quote, many other destructive behaviors. So they found a way to make this ideas have consequences, concept very relevant to ordinary people's lives. And that's one of the points that I make in the book is that this way of arguing you could describe it as moral consequentialism. That is, you judge things by their effects, by their practical effect. It's, weirdly is a kind of pragmatist idea. And that's odd, because one of the people they demonize, they are one of the people they've demonized. Over the years, John Dewey, of the great pragmatists, who also had some sympathy for socialism. So they, they tend to include them in that same net, with communists, and socialists, any of that. The idea then is that you judge ideas by their practical effects. And so, one example from history that I include in the book and there's a nice political cartoon in chapter three about this, it shows a monkey in a tree, and the monkey says, I refuse to claim a blood relationship with such people, such people being humans. Evolution is the bunk, the things the monkey attributes to evolution are a reflection of the ideas of Gerald wind rod, one of the best known creationists the 1920s. And the things that things that when rod attributes evolution include murder, divorce, crime, war, gangsterism Bolshevism, what the parties, not exactly sure what they are, but I think we get the idea. And greed and bootlegging. So there's a again, there's a real populist task to this idea of ideas have consequences. And any number of times in the creationist literature and I point this out in the book, we get a rhetorical move where creationists will spend a lot of pages talking about the alleged inadequacies of evolutionary science. Or they'll talk about how evolutionary science contradicts the book of Genesis. But if they're but they also are aware that their own followers and readers may not want to spend a lot of time reading about the intricacies of biology and they also may not be biblical experts. But your ordinary person does know about murder, divorce crime, war, gangsterism, etc. So that way of thinking that ideas have consequences strategy, which is really the frame for the whole book gives them the ability to talk to ordinary people in a compelling way.
Well, you've done a great service by bringing this information to the Academy to scholarship in the spirit of further understanding yet when it once you read The the rationale behind this critiques of evolution and thought evolutionary thought it makes sense yeah, like we would the the culture wars make sense that that both sides you know as a species not to go down the road of evolution but as a species we we are tribal in nature and it's, it's easy for us to to find an other to put problems of of humanity onto and both sides are multiple sides point the finger at some bigger cause that that needs to be reckoned with or part of some larger war of good versus evil. And you able to flesh out the argument from creation aside in a way that's understandable to people and and reduces the amount of tension between this, this ongoing battle of ideas. And the more we can, you know, put walk in someone else's shoes, the easier we can live together rather than say this is either my way or the highway or this. It's us versus them. Your your book brings understanding to this topic in a way I haven't seen before. And so I want to thank you for writing this book and bringing this information to light.
Well, you're very welcome. And I certainly hope that it helps people think through what we're really facing here. And I would add to what you said that I personally think that deep conflicts will continue. But if we start to understand that where the creationists are coming from here is really a concern about the world they're living in. Yeah, even though they may, they may talk primarily in terms of the Scripture, or may claim that evolutionary science is bad science. But anybody who studies science seriously knows that's not credible. It's not to say that evolutionary science is perfect. But But, but their critiques are not scientifically serious. But what but what we, what we all have in common is that we care about the world we live in. Yeah. And they're the issues that they're concerned about are tough issues, the cultural issues of gay rights, gay marriage, transgenderism, abortion rights, but they're also things that deal with this world we're living in, which gives us potential basis for for progress. They that understanding that makes me more optimistic about eventually resolving this conflict in a positive way.
That's good. That's good to hear. That's what I'm hopeful that we can diagnose the problem and come up with some potential solutions. So that's that's what we want. So I again, want to thank you for coming on to the podcast and discussing your new book, red dynamite, creationism, culture wars and anti communism and America. It's been a fascinating talk. And I encourage anyone listening to there's a, as I said earlier, there's an affordable paperback but there's also a free version of this book that you can just go to our website, download it, start reading it right now. So we encourage you to do that. Carl is a pleasure talking with you.
It was a pleasure being here. Thanks for having me on.
Thank you. That was Carl Weinberg, author of Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America.. Follow Carl on twitter @Euclid585. If you'd like to read Carl's new book, you can download a free open access ebook on our website at Cornell press cornell.edu. You can also use the promo code 09POD to save 30% on the new paperback. If you live in the UK, use the discount code CSANNOUNCE and visit the website combined academic.co.uk Thank you for listening to 1869,The Cornell University Press Podcast