David Greenberg: The Legend of the Scopes Trial (Science didn't really win.)

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Greenberg writes the "History Lesson" column for Slate and teaches at Rutgers University. He is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.]

This has been the summer of "intelligent design." In August, President Bush endorsed this revamped version of creationism, and this week a Pew Forum poll found that fewer than half of Americans accept Darwin's theory of evolution. This widespread rejection of seemingly established truths has shocked many observers. After all, didn't the Scopes trial resolve this 80 years ago?

The anniversary of the "Monkey Trial" provides an occasion to remember that it didn't really settle what we assume it settled. Popular memory of the trial, reinforced by the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, made it seem that evolution was triumphant and fundamentalism vanquished, but in fact the result was much more ambiguous. Anti-Darwinism didn't die in Dayton, Tenn., in July 1925—it just retreated temporarily from the national scene, to which it has now returned.

Like the 1960s, the 1920s witnessed a series of culture wars. After decades in which liberalism and science had gained popular acceptance, a backlash arrived in the '20s. A revived Ku Klux Klan swelled to 5 million members. Feminism, having secured women's suffrage, stalled. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, prohibited the sale of alcohol. Congress restricted the immigration of peoples deemed undesirable.

Evolution marked another front in these fights. Although Darwin's theories had met fierce resistance when first proposed in 1859, in time they secured general approval. Even many Christian leaders, once hostile to evolution, endorsed the theory—one of several trends that split many Protestant denominations into modern (or liberal) and fundamentalist camps. "By the time of World War I," wrote the historian William Leuchtenberg, "an attack on Darwin seemed as unlikely as an attack on Copernicus."

But attack the fundamentalists did. Advocating a literal reading of the book of Genesis, they attained political power in many states, particularly in the rural South and Great Plains. In Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, they passed laws forbidding the teaching of evolution.

In Tennessee, the recently formed American Civil Liberties Union recruited teachers to challenge the so-called Butler Act, which banned teaching "any theory that denies the story of divine creation of man as taught in the Bible." John T. Scopes, a slight, sandy-haired 24-year-old biology instructor at Central High School in Dayton, volunteered. Scopes, reported to the police by a friend for his transgression and promptly arrested, with the help of the ACLU retained a trio of eminent lawyers, including Clarence Darrow (whose recent defense of the brutal child-killers Leopold and Loeb hardly endeared him to pious Tennesseans). Aiding the prosecution was the thrice-failed Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a leader in the anti-evolution movement, who promised a "duel to the death."

And so in July 1925 the Monkey Trial became a national obsession and a media circus. Partisans and reporters invaded Dayton. Horse-drawn carriages, mule-led wagons, and Model T Fords choked the small town's narrow streets. Owners of chimpanzees and monkeys hurried downtown for photo opportunities, while flappers sparked a short-lived fashion trend by donning simian stoles. Radio, rapidly spreading into American homes, brought the trial to people's firesides, and newsreels showed it to moviegoers.

In the courtroom, Scopes never stood a chance: He had broken the law. Instead, the ACLU hoped to send the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the law's constitutionality. The real fight in Dayton was for public opinion.

The trial's turning point came when, in an unorthodox move, Scopes' lawyers got Bryan to take the stand. Darrow declared that he intended to "prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States." Darrow quizzed Bryan on his beliefs, humiliating the onetime hero. Bryan confessed that he believed in the literal truth of such biblical tales as Joshua making the sun stop in the sky, while also conceding, contradictorily, that scriptural passages could be interpreted as metaphorical. The crowd roared with laughter at his confused answers. (In a sad coda, Bryan fulfilled his promise of a duel to the death, succumbing to a fatal heart attack five days after the verdict.)

Bryan's faltering performance—along with the withering reportage of critics like H.L. Mencken, who mocked Dayton's "yokels" and "hookworm carriers"—caused the trial to be seen, simplistically, as a battle between enlightened science and backward religion. In this telling, Scopes technically lost but science and cosmopolitanism actually won. For although the case never reached the U.S. Supreme Court—the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on a technicality—federal jurisprudence embraced the idea that evolution was fact, worthy of teaching in public schools, and creationism was religion, unfit for the science classroom.

Science certainly appeared victorious. After the trial, a slew of states rejected anti-evolution laws while only a couple dared pass them. Collective memory enshrined the episode, particularly Darrow's rout of Bryan, as a victory for free speech over censorship, of reason over faith, of the modern over the primitive. The 1955 play and 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, with their black-and-white depictions of the good guys and bad guys, further inscribed this interpretation of the trial.

In fact, fundamentalist disbelief in Darwin did not vanish, as Edward J. Larson has made clear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods. Many conservative Christians assumed they had prevailed at Dayton. While liberalism ascended in the public sphere, fundamentalism withdrew into local pockets and private subcultures where it thrived. Christian presses churned out anti-evolution books and pamphlets. Ministers warned their flocks of Darwin's folly. In Dayton, fundamentalists established Bryan College "based upon unequivocal acceptance of the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures."

Indeed, large numbers of Americans continued to doubt Darwin and subscribe to literal readings of the Bible, some quite passionately. Anti-evolution sentiment was sufficiently strong in enough regions of the country to lead many biology-textbook writers to paint Darwin's teachings as less definitive than they are. Even George W. Hunter modified his Civic Biology—the book from which Scopes had feloniously taught—to make it palatable to scriptural literalists.

Yet for decades historians, national reporters, and educators failed to notice these subcultures or credit their numbers. Reviewing the film Inherit the Wind, the New Republic wrote, "The Monkey Trial is now a historical curiosity, and it can be made truly meaningful only by treating it as the farce that it was." "Today," echoed the historian Richard Hofstadter in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), "the evolution controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era to intellectuals of the East."

As Hofstadter was writing those words, however, fundamentalists began to end their voluntary exile from the national culture. Disturbed by relaxed sexual standards and social codes, and angered by Supreme Court rulings limiting the government's entanglement with religion—including Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), or "Scopes II," which finally ruled anti-evolution laws unconstitutional—they enlisted en masse in the burgeoning conservative movement.

By the 1970s, conservative Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye had built powerful political armies that helped elect Ronald Reagan president and put evolution and creationism back on the political agenda. Reagan supported the teaching of creationism in public schools (as did Bush in his 2000 campaign). Like the recent Pew poll, a 1982 Gallup survey found the public "about evenly divided" between Darwinists and creationists. In 1983 Steven Jay Gould wrote that "sadly, any hope that the issues of the Scopes trial had been banished to the realm of nostalgic Americana have been swept aside by our current creationist resurgence."

Today, a debate is occurring about whether intelligent design represents a significant variation on the version of "creation science" that fundamentalists and other evangelical Christians began embracing in the 1960s (explained in the New Republic by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne). To my mind, Coyne, Bob Wright in Slate, and others have persuasively shown that intelligent design contains no significant changes from "creation science" except its success at gaining a hearing in the mainstream media.

Either way, however, believers in science are now wondering how the rejection of Darwinian evolution, once presumed to be discredited, keeps returning to claim a place in high-school biology classrooms and in popular thinking. The answer is that we're in thrall to the powerful legend of the Scopes trial. For anti-Darwinist beliefs aren't returning; they've just never gone away.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 9/19/2005

Mr Matzko,

First of all, science does not ask people to believe in it, as all religions do, and therefore there are no "science believers", so your purported irony is self-defeating.

Secondly, the so-called, creationist "arguments" have been not only "answered", but proven absurd million of times to any rationally/logically thinking individual based on the miriad of material evidence humans encounter in

Thirdly, scientists cannot, in principle, prove anything (and therefore they won't argue with) to religious mythologists
on one simple reason: religion is based on Faith (ultimately emotions), science - on observation of natural phenomena and reason/intellect ("satisfactiction", look below, as one of the emotional experiences, exluded.)

As far as your reference to philosophy
is concerned, there is three-proned argument against its false "satisfaction" claim: some great philosophers of 19th and 20th century did support evolution theory;
already some great ancient Greek philosophers came up with materialistic philosophy, that being much later vastly developed into so called materialistic dialectics, denies any Divine interference in Nature in general, and creationism, in particular;
any philosophy, in difference with modern anthropololgy and biology, did not produce anything materially/practically beneficial to mankind, while the former led to many great successes in
medicine and criminalistics, the successes, that saved and continue to save the lives of many millions of people around the world, including perhaps you Mr. Matzko, or someone you know personally.

I'm not mentioning already that religious believers reject (or rejected until very recent time) theories in practically all Sciences, the existence of modern civilization has been the application of.

But since you are definitely a "believer" (judging by your comments), I'm also 100% sure that no amount of Rational arguments will make you change your contempt for science, in general, and theory of evolution, in particular, which coincidentally one more reason why
Science publicly bothers to argue with
Religion/Faith only when being directly attacked.

John Austin Matzko - 9/18/2005

“Believers in science” should step up to the plate and try answering creationist arguments instead of cowering behind their presumed victory at Dayton and their virtual monopoly of the academy. Creationism is more philosophically satisfying than evolution, and unless evolutionists can do more than beg the question, the battle against us troglodytes will never be won.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/17/2005

The real science believers are, above
all, realists; therefore, given the changing socio-political and power structure realities they were aware that the US reactionary forces won't give up without a fight.
Their actual goal, as it has been known for decades, is not as glorious as the religious renaissance and even less the search for the Truth, their goal is the preservation and affirmation of the present socio-economic status-quo, which is historically, and naturally so, has been challenged by the better educated masses of population.
Thus, it is not coincidental, that the religious myths and indirectly derived from them the societal myths, (such like universal struggle of good and evil and what is good for Big Business - good for common Americans), pseudo-scientific concepts and ideas experience boom of reintroduction in to the public life, educational system included, under the most conservative (read reactionary) US goverments.
However, their attempts are not a bit
interesting for the rest of the civilized world (for humorists, perhaps, they are) that does not consider the US the center of the world (especially in the development of sociological and historical sciences), and does consider the
Evolution-Creation settled in favor of science.
They actually laugh at the ignorance
and intellectual backwardness of the American majority.