From Scopes to Dover-10: And on the seventh day, no one rested

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

In the Genesis account of creation, after six days spent in creating the universe, god rested on the seventh day. But in the Scopes trial, day seven (Monday, July 20) was when the fireworks occurred.

The written testimony prepared by experts over the weekend was accepted into the record, along with a two-hour reading of excerpts by defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays. All of this was kept from the jury. It was then that the surprise event occurred that forever after defined the Scopes trial. Darrow said that he would call the prosecutor William Jennings Bryan as a (hostile) witness for the defense in the afternoon. Although the rest of the prosecution team saw no good coming from this and objected, Bryan relished the opportunity to have a verbal duel with Darrow, to fight for Christianity against the militant agnostic, and he said he would testify, provided he could put the defense team on the stand as well.

Finally, the clash of titans the entire nation following the trial had been waiting for occurred. When word got around of what was going to happen that day after lunch, huge crowds gathered to see the spectacle and the judge had to order that the trial be moved outdoors to accommodate the crowd, partly because of the sweltering heat indoors and partly because he feared the floor would collapse under their weight. Bryan took the stand for the defense on Monday afternoon and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bryan’s testimony did not go well. While Bryan could hold his own in grand debates over the big ideas of evolution and religion, the constraints of being a witness in a court case worked against him because the scope of his responses was limited by the questions that Darrow chose to ask. In his questioning, Darrow did not allow Bryan to make sweeping statements on the nature of science, humans, god, the soul, and evolution. Instead Darrow pressed him on very narrowly focused questions based on specific assertions made in the Bible: Did Jonah actually live in the whale for three days? How could Joshua lengthen the day by ‘stopping the Sun’ when it is the Earth that rotates about its axis? When did the great flood occur? How old is the Earth? Do you believe the first woman was Eve? Do you believe she was made from Adam’s rib? If the serpent in the Garden of Eden was compelled to crawl on its belly as punishment for tempting Adam and Eve, how did it move about before that? Did it walk on its tail? Where did Cain get his wife? (For a fascinating transcript of the questions and answers, see here.)

None of these questions had anything to do with human evolution but challenged Bryan on Biblical literalism and put him in a quandary. If Bryan stuck to the literal truth of the Bible in every detail, Darrow could make him look ridiculous by showing him to be completely out of touch with modern ideas, a prisoner of medieval thinking, thus discrediting the entire fundamentalist movement. If Bryan denied the literal truth and allowed for interpretation of at least some parts of the Bible as metaphors, then he weakened the prosecution’s case since the defense was arguing that the law only forbade teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. Since other modernist theologians had said that the Bible could be interpreted so that it was compatible with evolution, the defense could argue that Scopes had not violated the law since there was no way of saying for certain what the Bible was saying about creation.

Modernist theologians and religious scientists who opposed Bryan’s crusade against evolution have criticized Darrow’s line of questioning because it was based on old-fashioned views of Christianity and merely designed to make Bryan look foolish, and that if Darrow wanted to explore the important philosophical issues in the evolution-religion debate, he should have based his questions on a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible. But I think that Darrow, canny and experienced trial lawyer that he was, knew exactly what he was doing. He had zeroed in on the weakest point of his opponent. He must have known that religion is at its strongest when it is making grand sweeping statements on the nature of life and the universe, because those are vague and hard to pin down. It is at its weakest when trying to explain concrete details. (See here and here for previous postings on this where I elaborate on the difficulties that religion has in explaining details.)

Under Darrow’s questioning, Bryan faced the same problem that religious people have to this day. It is easy to proclaim faith in grand beliefs but when applied to things like Noah’s Flood or Jonah or a woman being created from Adam’s rib, it becomes harder to explain how such things could possibly be literally true and if not, why you believe some things in the Bible and not others. As Darrow said later, his strategy was meant to force Bryan to “choose between crude beliefs and the common intelligence of modern times. . . or to admit ignorance.” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 188)

If the trial took place with today’s knowledge, Darrow might have asked additional questions like: If Jesus was a man born of a virgin, from where did he get his Y-chromosome? Whose genetic information was contained in it? How did Mary’s egg get fertilized? If life begins at conception as some claim, does the human soul enter that very first fertilized cell? When that first cell divides into two, what happens to the soul in it? Does it stay within the first cell, does it split in two also, does it double, or does it somehow straddle the two cells? Since the majority of human embryos spontaneously abort, why does god cause that to happen? What happens to their souls and why did god bother to give them souls in the first place if he knew he was going to abort them later? And so on.

Confronted with Darrow’s relentless questioning that focused on such very narrow questions of fact, Bryan chose the option of ignorance, saying that he was not interested in finding answers to the questions posed by Darrow, and thus could not answer them, although he believed that for god all things were possible, and that answers would be forthcoming some day. In other words, he resorted to that faithful old religious standby, the ‘mysterious ways clause.’ But since he had agreed at the beginning of his testimony that he had studied the Bible extensively for fifty years, having to repeatedly claim a lack of curiosity about such obvious questions, and pleading ignorance of scientific facts that were common knowledge, meant that he came across as an incurious know-nothing. This enabled Darrow to suggest that adopting Bryan’s position on teaching would be to condemn students to ignorance, in contrast to science that advocated active curiosity and the search for answers. When Darrow said during his questioning of Bryan that “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does [not] believe in your fool religion …I am [examining] you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes”, he was not making his case to the jury but to the larger world.

The other members of the prosecuting team saw the damage being done by this line of questioning and repeatedly objected but Bryan bravely, and perhaps foolishly, insisted on continuing until the trial adjourned for the day, saying that he did not want to be accused of being afraid to answer questions. He also probably felt that he could repair any damage during his closing statement in the case, where he would have full rein to make the kind of grand arguments in favor of god and the Bible and against evolution that had proven so successful when he gave public speeches.

But as we will see in the next posting in this series, Darrow thwarted him there too.

POST SCRIPT: Courtroom climax in Inherit the Wind

Here is a clip of the climactic scene in the film on the Scopes (who was called Cates in the film) trial in which Darrow (Drummond) questions Bryan (Brady) on the witness stand. In order to maintain the intensity, the entire scene was apparently shot in one take. It is a terrific piece of filmmaking.

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