From Scopes to Dover-2: How the Scopes myths originated

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

From the beginning the Scopes trial captured the popular imagination as symbolizing the conflict between science and religion, on a par with the trial of Galileo for his support of Copernican views. But just as the myths about the Copernican revolution have supplanted the actual history, so have the myths about the Scopes trial obscured the more fascinating real account. (See here and the links therein for my posts on the Copernican myths. The December 2007 issue of Physics Today will also carry an article by me on this topic.)

The 1925 Scopes “Trial of the Century” became shrouded in myth and the stuff of legend from the very beginning. How could it not be so when the subject matter of the case aroused strong passions nationwide, when the two main protagonists William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense) were flamboyant and high-profile characters, and when the national media and commentators (especially the acerbic H. L. Mencken) covered the trial? From the beginning, the spectacle overshadowed the facts.

After 1955, public perceptions of what happened at the trial and its implications were distorted even more by the long-running Broadway play Inherit the Wind, later made into a hit 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. The play’s authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were not really seeking to produce a docudrama of the trial itself. They fictionalized the events of the Scopes trial in order to make it into a vehicle to warn of the dangers of McCarthyist blacklisting that was going on in their own time, using the religion and science conflict of the trial as a proxy for the fight to retain freedom of speech and freedom of association.

The writers of the play did not claim that it was an accurate history of the trial and even tried to distance themselves from that charge by changing the names and places and the dates of the people and events, adding new characters, and tweaking some details such as introducing a love interest for Scopes. But the thin veil they drew over the real trial was ignored. Despite their intention of using the Scopes trial for purely allegorical purposes, their portrayal was too close to reality and has become the foundation of the modern folklore surrounding the Scopes trial, forever confusing people as to what really happened and what did not.

Largely because of the film and play, the trial is now recalled as an epic clash between the forces of narrow religious dogma and obscurantism (represented by famed orator and three-time Democratic candidate for president William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution) and the forces of science, progress, enlightenment, and secularism (represented by famed trial attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense). In the fictionalized legal contest, in a vivid scene towards the end which has left the most lasting impression, Darrow (called Henry Drummond in the play and film) puts Bryan (now called Matthew Harrison Brady) on the witness stand and with a withering cross-examination shows the foolishness of holding on to literal Biblical beliefs in the face of science, reducing Bryan to a mass of babbling and blubbering incoherence, making him a laughing stock in the courtroom and nationwide. Bryan soon after collapses and dies on the courtroom floor.

While the real trial did end with Darrow putting Bryan on the stand, what happened during the questioning was more complex, and Bryan died peacefully in his sleep five days after the trial. As is often the case with great epic myths though, when looked at closely the actual events behind them are often less sharply drawn than the legend, but fascinating nonetheless.

In order to get behind the myths and see how the Scopes trial came about, we have to note that Darwin’s theory was first proposed in 1859 and had been taught in American schools for some time before the Scopes trial. So why, in 1925, did the little town of Dayton, Tennessee suddenly become the focal point for the ‘trial of the century’?

That will be the topic of the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Campus Freethought Alliance at Case

Case has started its own Campus Freethought Alliance (of which I am the advisor) and its next meeting will be on Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 7:30pm in Thwing Atrium. They have two guest speakers, philosophy professor Patricia Princehouse (who I think will speak about her own area of expertise which is evolution) and geology professor James van Orman who will talk about the science of radiometric dating. The meeting is open to all interested people.

The CFA is dedicated to “promoting and defending reason, science and freedom of inquiry in education, and to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.”

These campus groups are affiliated with the nationwide Center for Inquiry.

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