Confronting the Tree of Life: Three Court Cases in Modern American History
Like few other concepts in the history of science, Darwinian evolution prompted humans to question their most basic assumptions about themselves. Among the theory's most controversial implications, the principle of common descent insisted that humans were kin to other species. As such, common descent challenged the previously unquestioned tradition of anthropocentrism, which held that humans were distinct from and superior to other species.
In order to discern common descent's impact on anthropocentrism, I will examine three court cases from an eighty-year span of American history, where resistance to common descent was especially virulent. Courtrooms provided the nation's leading critics of common descent an arena in which to protest the theory's most egregious offenses. As common descent garnered increasing support from scientists and educators, however, anthropocentrists modified their position accordingly. Initially, they stigmatized monkeys and apes precisely because those animals were the most genealogically proximate to humans. As common descent became more accepted, however, this position became increasingly difficult to defend. Accordingly, many anthropocentrists abandoned their obsession with primates and instead engaged the entire tree of life, including its mysterious origin. By the turn of the millennium, even as some anthropocentrists increasingly accepted humanity's kinship to other species, many continued to cite human intelligence as legitimate grounds for anthropocentric behavior. Thus, while anthropocentrism survived the threat of common descent, it had to accommodate the Darwinian onslaught in order to do so.