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Darwin in Dayton

In 1925, the Scopes trial—“the trial of the century,” reporters said at the time—pitted Fundamentalist Christianity against Darwinian evolution in a sweltering courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee. The event was the basis of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s mid-1950s play, Inherit the Wind. Edward J. Larson observes in Summer for the Gods that the immensely successful play “all but replaced the actual trial in the nation’s memory.” Stanley Kramer’s film version, which appeared in 1960, had strong performances by Fredric March as the character representing William Jennings Bryan, the enemy of teaching evolution in the public schools, and Spencer Tracy as the one representing Clarence Darrow, Scopes’s rumpled, shrewd, free-thinking lawyer. The cynical and caustic journalist based on H.L. Mencken was played by Gene Kelly. In the opening scene, with Leslie Uggams singing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” in slow, drum-beat cadences, three stern-faced officials and a preacher in a small Southern town march to a schoolroom to arrest the John Scopes character while he is teaching his high school biology class about the descent of man. The high points of the film are still dramatically effective, particularly Darrow’s humiliating cross-examination of Bryan on the believability of the literal text of Genesis and the climactic moment after the trial ends with a guilty verdict, when Bryan, seeking to justify his views, is ignored, collapses in mid-speech, and dies.

Unlike the historical films of Oliver Stone, Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be history. In their introduction to the published version of the play, the authors say that it refers to events that took place “not too long ago,” noting that it could have been yesterday or might be tomorrow. Nevertheless, the movie leaves a strong impression that, while the real Scopes lost his case, the real Bryan, subjected to ridicule, lost the argument over evolution. Fundamentalist Christianity, exposed as close-minded, was discredited. The country’s classrooms were made safe for the teaching of the Darwinian theory of evolution, including the evolution of human beings. Larson notes that most secular observers at the time would have agreed with the novelist Irving Stone’s judgment in 1941 that the Darrow-Bryan confrontation “dealt a deathblow to Fundamentalism.”

In fact, however, whether as play or film, Inherit the Wind is misleading about the events of the Scopes trial and its wider implications.1 Bryan died not at the trial but five days later while taking a nap. He spent his last days issuing statements to the press and preparing a 15,000-word stump speech that would continue his battle against Darwinism and Darrow. Nor was Bryanite religiosity shattered by the trial, Larson points out, drawing on Trial and Error, his earlier, groundbreaking book on the teaching of evolution.2 Fundamentalists blamed Darrow for Bryan’s death and made Bryan a martyr to their cause. “Scopes songs” celebrated Bryan’s victory. The consensus of the press, which gave the trial enormous publicity, was not that the confrontation was decisive but that it marked the opening skirmish in a battle between religious fundamentalists and religious modernists. At least in the South, Bryan’s followers kept gaining power. Within a few years of his death, Mississippi’s legislature enacted a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the schools and Arkansas did the same by popular referendum. School boards throughout the South imposed local restrictions on the teaching of evolution.

In Texas during the fall of 1925, Governor Miriam (“Ma”) Ferguson—the South’s first woman governor—instructed the state textbook commission to delete the theory of evolution from the state’s high school biology texts, a policy that Louisiana soon adopted as well. The publisher of George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology, the text in which Scopes’s students read about human evolution, eliminated the six-page section on that subject from editions for the Southern market. Anti-evolutionism, though remaining strong only in the South, had a chilling nationwide effect on high school biology texts. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evolution had been taught in American high schools without controversy. In 1930, Larson tells us, an estimated 70 percent of public high schools did not teach evolution, a bowdlerization of the curriculum that continued past World War II. Post-Scopes textbooks tended to downplay material on changes in species, omit mention of human origins in subhuman species, and downgrade natural selection—if they discussed it at all—to a theory that Darwin had “suggested” or “believed.” In the 1950s, Truman Moon’s Biology for Beginners, the dominant text in the market, did not even mention the word “evolution.”

Attempts to repeal the anti-evolution law in Tennessee failed in 1935—“A law that was good enough for William Jennings Bryan is good enough for me,” a legislator remarked—and again in 1952, when the president of Bryan College, a Fundamentalist institution opened at the time of the trial, wrote to every member of the state legislature, “The arguments advanced by Mr. Bryan [are] as sound today as when presented twenty-five years ago.”

Fifteen years later, the law was finally erased from the books, and by then several United States Supreme Court decisions had gone a long way toward forcing religion out of the schools, which eased the task of putting Darwinism into them. Nevertheless, by the 1980s Christian conservatives were demanding equal time in the schools for biblical creationism as a branch of “science.” Many people who had seen Inherit the Wind would probably have been surprised to find that the campaign to contest the teaching of evolution in the schools had neither died out nor given up its claim to national legitimacy.

In Summer for the Gods, the first full study of the Scopes trial to be published in forty years, Larson, a historian of science and professor of law at the University of Georgia, incisively examines the myths surrounding the Scopes trial. His treatment is fresh and authoritative, making good use of the record of the trial, the extensive newspaper and magazine coverage it received, and the private papers of several of the main figures and organizations involved in it. He doesn’t discredit the main theme of Inherit the Wind; intellectual intolerance was a central issue in the case. Rather, he restores attention to aspects of it that are commonly overlooked and that reverberate in the contentions of our own day over science and religion in the schools. The originality of his book arises in large part from its thoughtful, evenhanded treatment of both sides in the confrontation—and the seriousness with which he takes the opposing convictions about religion, science, and their relationship to the law that clashed in Dayton.

Larson devotes the first third of his book to the background of the trial, explaining how several trends converged in it. One was the growing antagonism of Fundamentalist Protestants to the attempt of modernist Christians to reconcile theology with the findings of scholarship and science ranging from biblical criticism to cosmology. The reaction to Christian modernism led to the founding, in the summer of 1918, of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WFCA) under the leadership of William Bell Riley, a prominent Baptist minister in Minnesota. Another trend, Larson argues, was the growing rapprochement in biology between evolution and the new field of genetics. In the United States early in the century, many biologists had grown skeptical of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection because it was not evident how changes in organisms occurred on which natural selection could act. The problem left room for evolutionary change to be brought about in a Lamarckian or even theistic fashion, and those possibilities colored high school treatments of the subject. By the early 1920s, however, accumulating genetic knowledge suggested that evolution might work by means of the natural selection of chance mutations, a process that Larson argues, not altogether convincingly, was difficult to reconcile with Christian apologetics.

Although the Fundamentalist dissent from Christian modernism was initially theological, it increasingly concentrated on Darwinian evolution, which many modernist religious believers continued to take, in the words of one, to be “the method of divine intelligence” in creation. Demographic trends encouraged Fundamentalists to turn their attention to the schools. Ten times as many students were attending high school in 1920 as in 1890, which meant that ten times as many were vulnerable to exposure to Darwinian doctrines. Tennessee followed the national trend, enrolling 50,000 students in high school in 1925, five times more than in 1910. Riley committed the WFCA to battle the teaching of evolution in the schools. While campaigning across the country against religious modernists in 1922 he offered to debate with them the theory of evolution. Early in 1923, he told Bryan, “The whole country is seething on the evolution question.”

Bryan himself was seething, too, often aloud, and when William Jennings Bryan spoke, people listened. He was an irrepressible evangelist of social reform, twice a presidential candidate, enough of an apostate from Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy to have resigned his office as secretary of state. He regularly attacked the teaching of human evolution from the platform—Bryan delivered some two hundred speeches a year—in books and articles, and in his syndicated “Weekly Bible Talks,” which reached fifteen million newspaper readers. Larson contends that Bryan was not a hellfire-preaching philistine. He loved politics, travel, and food, which he consumed in huge quantities (Darrow cracked that he died of “a busted belly”). Although he quarreled with teaching evolution as a “proven fact” rather than as “a hypothesis,” he acknowledged that the biblical account of creation might be interpreted to be consistent with the view that the earth and its plants and animals had evolved over long periods of time.

What angered Bryan was the extension of Darwinian evolution to human beings. To his mind, Darwinian theory made human beings too much the product of a material process that invited their degradation through eugenics; by seeing people as competitors in a struggle for survival, moreover, Darwinism, he said, justified rapacious business relations and war between nations. He wrote:

I object to the Darwinian theory because I fear we shall lose the consciousness of God’s presence in our daily life, if we must accept the theory that through all the ages no spiritual force has touched the life of man and shaped the destiny of nations. But there is another objection. The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.

Bryan deplored the teaching of evolution in addresses before nine state legislatures in the South and the Midwest, emphasizing everywhere that the core of the issue was democratic control of the schools. “The real issue is not what can be taught in public schools, but who shall control the education system,” he claimed, insisting that “a scientific soviet is attempting to dictate what is taught….” In 1923, he told the West Virginia legislature, “Teachers in public schools must teach what the taxpayers desire taught. The hand that writes the pay check rules the school.”

  1. 1

    The real story of the trial was ably laid out in the first scholarly study of it: Ray Ginger’s Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (Beacon, 1958). Stephen Jay Gould called attention to the misrepresentation of the trial’s larger significance in his essay, “A Visit to Dayton,” published in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (Norton, 1983), pp. 273-289.

  2. 2

    Edward Larson, Trial and Error: The American Legal Controversy over Creation and Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1985).

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