Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Mythical Monkey Trial

The Scopes trial, or “Monkey” trial in the early 20th century is one of the most famous modern clashes between science and religion. Specifically, it was a clash between progressive, educated liberals and a bunch of religious ignoramuses over whether evolution should be taught in public schools. At least that’s the usual story, most famously portrayed in a play (and movie) called “Inherit the Wind.” In this version of the trial of John Scopes, in trouble for teaching evolution, we witness a brilliant agnostic lawyer take on a foolish religious bigot, John Scopes sent to jail, and mobs of angry Christian folk antagonizing anyone who disagrees with them. If one wishes to discover the real story, Edward Larson’s Pulitzer prize (in history) winning book Summer for the Gods is there to help.

In the 1920’s there was indeed a push (misguided, in my opinion) by religious fundamentalists to pass laws that would ban the teaching of evolution. The reasons for the stronger negative reaction from religious folk are complex, but included a growing scientific acceptance of Darwin’s particular naturalistic mechanism of evolution, natural selection (which had been almost universally rejected by scientists throughout the 19th century), the perception that naturalistic evolution would lead young folk astray by convincing them that the human soul and morality are illusions, and a growing discomfort with the teachings of eugenicists. This latter reason was one of the most important to William Jennings Bryan, the politician who famously represented the prosecution in the Scopes trial, defending the Bible and Christianity from the perceived evils of evolution and dying a few days after the trial ended. He is generally portrayed as an ignorant religious bigot and fundamentalist, but this is hardly an accurate description. He was of course a Christian, and he was not exactly a sophisticated intellectual, but he was a champion of the common people (his nickname was “the Commoner”), an advocate of women’s rights, an advocate for peace, an anti-imperialist, and he frequently railed against what he saw as the growing, rampant greed of capitalist corporations in America. In fact, his most famous moment was a speech delivered to the Democratic National Convention in the late 1800’s where he argued against policies that would only help larger businesses to the detriment of the average businessman. But of course you’d never know any of that from his portrayal in “Inherit the Wind.”

Bryan saw evolution (specifically the evolution of mankind) as an idea that undermined morality. He was particularly opposed to eugenics (sometimes called “social Darwinism), that idea that it would be wise for humans to exterminate the “inferior” members of their species while encouraging the reproduction of intellectuals and other “more fit” members in order to further the evolution of mankind. Bryan saw this as morally despicable; the rest of the world came to agree with him after the atrocities of Nazi Germany. He therefore became involved in the movement to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools.

What most people don’t realize about the Scopes trial is that it was in fact simply a publicity stunt. Organizers in the little town of Dayton, Tennessee were looking for a way to increase business and publicity for their town. A law banning evolution had been passed but had not really been enforced. They contacted the ACLU to set up a test case. John Scopes, who was not actually a science teacher but a substitute teacher and coach, volunteered to be the defendant despite not even being sure he had actually taught evolution. So, far from being an example of religion persecuting science, it was actually an example of a small town purposely stirring up controversy for its own benefit. John Scopes ended up convicted of breaking the law and was fined $100. Whoop-de-do. Bryan even offered to pay the fine himself. While I can appreciate people being opposed to the ban on evolution in the first place, this episode is hardly the clash of science and religion that it is commonly assumed to be, and the play and movie “Inherit the Wind” is quite simply a deceptive piece of propaganda (regardless of the original intent of the film's creators) that Draper and White would be proud of (see earlier post on the flat earth). This film is still shown on college campuses, and I'm guessing most people in the audience have no clue just how much artistic license was taken by its creators.

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