"the extent of anyone’s knowledge of the degenerate ape"

This is, of course, a cynical play on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) marked a major development in scientific thought with its then-revolutionary argument that, through a process of natural selection, modern humans had evolved from chimpanzees. Though Darwin did not make any value judgements, this process has typically been viewed as a progression from inferior to superior. In keeping with his nihilistic tendencies, Mr Compson sees the reverse pattern.  


Darwin’s theory was hugely controversial in the South at this time. Though moderates assimilated it into their Christian beliefs through a figurative reading of select Biblical passages and by reassuring themselves that the human soul, at least, was created by God, fundamentalists saw it as an attack on traditional religious thought. Following the precedent set by Tennessee, Mississippi introduced an Act banning the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals” in 1926. These laws were not repealed for over forty years and even today evolution remains highly controversial in the South.