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.
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From Scopes to Dover-9: The Scopes trial begins

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

The 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee was brief, lasting just eight days, much of it involving legal wrangling over technicalities that took place with the jury out of the courtroom. There were only two occasions when Bryan and Darrow were able to make speeches and these occurred in the middle of the trial during legal skirmishes.

The legal backdrop to the Scopes case did not involve the US constitution. Recall that the First Amendment to the constitution (ratified as part of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791) says simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is important to realize that originally the First Amendment was considered to apply only to laws passed by the federal government, since the wording explicitly only barred Congress from passing any law that infringed on those rights. [Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-8: Freedom of speech or science versus religion?

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

What is interesting about the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial’ case is that it was really fought on two levels, both of which have survived to this day. On the surface level, the legal arguments had little to do with the issue of inserting religion into the public schools. Bryan was arguing two points: (1) that the community, through their elected representatives, had the right to decide what should be taught in their local schools, and (2) that since the teaching of religious doctrines had already been eliminated from public schools, so should other unproven doctrines like evolution, especially since the latter doctrine undermined the former. As he said in his essay God and Evolution (New York Times, February 26, 1922, p. 84):

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?
. . .
Our opponents are not fair. When we find fault with the teaching of Darwin’s unsupported hypothesis, they talk about Copernicus and Galileo and ask whether we shall exclude science and return to the dark ages. Their evasion is a confession of weakness. We do not ask for the exclusion of any scientific truth, but we do protest against an atheist teacher being allowed to blow his guesses in the face of the student. The Christians who want to teach religion in their schools furnish the money for denominational institutions. If atheists want to teach atheism, why do they not build their own schools and employ their own teachers?

Bryan was trying to drive a wedge between what he felt were well-established scientific truths like the heliocentric model of the solar system, and unproven theories like evolution. Bryan was also advocating a majoritarian point of view, arguing that elected officials had the right to determine what was taught and to exclude the teaching of those things that were not scientific facts. Darrow and the ACLU, on the other hand, were arguing that this was an issue of academic freedom, that teachers should not be barred by law from teaching what they believed to be true. (Note that this is an interesting reversal from recent battles where it is the advocates of creationism who argue that not allowing the teaching of intelligent design in schools is a violation of the free speech rights of teachers. As we will see later, this switch has occurred because over time, as a result of several US Supreme Court decisions, the legal and constitutional issues involved have shifted considerably from those that were at issue in the Scopes trial.)

But beneath the surface level, there was clearly another level in which both Bryan and Darrow thought that the theory of evolution and religion did conflict, and this was the real fight that was relished by and sought for by both, to determine which worldview was true. This second front in the case caused some consternation to their respective allies, which consisted of state attorney general Tom Stewart for the prosecution and the ACLU for the defense.

The lead prosecutor Stewart wanted to try the case on a simple question of fact, whether Scopes had violated the law by teaching about human evolution. Hence he opposed the introduction of any scientific expert testimony and Biblical analysis, arguing that these were irrelevant.

But Bryan, the much-higher profile prosecution co-counsel of Stewart, felt that when the ideas of evolution were applied to human beings, it led to a devaluation of humanity and was the cause of much evil in the world. Being a political progressive and advocate of peace, he was concerned that the theory of evolution was leading to exploitation, injustice, and wars. He was thus eager to argue a much more expansive case and show that evolution was a false and dangerous theory.

The main strategy of the defense was to exploit the fact that the wording in the Butler Act only prohibited teaching evolution that “denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. This provided them with an opening to examine the role that interpretation played in understanding the message of the Bible and to show that more sophisticated interpretations seemed to make the Bible and evolution compatible. This enabled them to also teach about the theory of evolution, to show that that it was true and had the support of scientists, and that teachers should have the free speech right to teach accepted scientific theories without the threat of punishment. This strategy was what led them to request that they be allowed to provide the expert testimony of scientists and theologians.

But in addition to the free speech case, Darrow was also a well-known militant agnostic who thought that Christianity was just a bunch of superstitions and relished the chance to demonstrate the superiority of science and the absurdity of Christian beliefs.

With the two most famous people in the case, Bryan and Darrow, both eager to extend the case not only beyond narrow questions of fact, but also beyond the issue of free speech, it was inevitable that they would prevail and the case would become a high-profile contest between evolution and religion, just as the civic leaders in Dayton had hoped.

POST SCRIPT: The Beagle project

As I have mentioned before, 2009 will be a big Darwin year, commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. I came across The Beagle Project which seeks to create a replica of The Beagle, the ship on which Darwin made his epic voyage, and recreate the path taken on the original trip, starting in 2009 and ending in 2011.

The trip is not meant to be simply a joy ride. It will also carry out scientific experiments.

From Scopes to Dover-7: The Scopes trial goes national

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

Once Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act and the event publicized, things started moving extremely rapidly.

On May 9, 1925 “the county’s justices three justices of the peace formally held scopes for action by the August grand jury, in the meantime releasing him without bond” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 95). In mid-May, the 65-year old William Jennings Bryan, who had been campaigning across the nation against the teaching of evolution, volunteered to appear for the prosecution for free, thus guaranteeing the delighted city leaders that the trial would get the national publicity that the instigators eagerly sought. The local civic leaders, eager to get as many headliners as possible involved, even tried to get famous English author H. G. Wells, a supporter of evolution, to make the case for evolution at the trial. They considered that his distinguished literary presence would lend a certain cachet to the proceedings, but Wells declined to get involved (Larson p. 96).

Fearing that other cities, belatedly realizing the business boom that would result in having a nationally prominent trial, would try to take the trial away from Dayton, the local leaders decided not to wait until August for the trial but to move even more quickly. So the district judge, “acting with the consent of both prosecution and defense, called a special session of the grand jury for May 25 to indict Scopes before any other town could steal the show.” (Larson p. 96)

When the eventual lead attorney for the defense Clarence Darrow was initially approached about whether he would defend Scopes, he declined the offer because he had just retired at the age of 68 and was not interested in taking on new cases. But when he heard that Bryan was appearing for the prosecution, the agnostic Darrow changed his mind and offered to appear for Scopes for no fee, relishing the chance to argue, on a national stage, against one of the most visible proponents of religion. This caused some dismay to the ACLU that was underwriting the defense case. They wanted to focus the case on the issue of academic freedom and felt that Darrow’s militant agnosticism would alienate otherwise sympathetic potential religious allies. But Scopes chose Darrow to be his lawyer and stuck with him, feeling that an experienced defense lawyer was better than the constitutional lawyers that the ACLU wanted (Larson, p. 102).

Clarence Darrow was the perfect foil for William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was famous for his successful defenses of several high profile criminal cases but he also “delighted in challenging traditional concepts of morality and religion.” He called himself an agnostic but was effectively an atheist, in which respect he was very similar to Charles Darwin. According to Darrow’s biographer “He regarded Christianity as a ‘slave religion,’ encouraging acquiescence in injustice, a willingness to make do with the mediocre, and complacency in the face of the intolerable.” (Larson, p. 71)

Good intentions underlay Darrow’s efforts to undermine popular religious faith. He sincerely believed that the biblical concept of original sin for all and salvation for some through divine grace was, as he described it, “a very dangerous doctrine’ – “silly, impossible, and wicked.” Darrow once told a group of convicts, “It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment.” During a public debate on religion, he added, “The origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. . .The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith.”
. . .
Darrow readily embraced the antitheistic implications of Darwinism. (Larson, p. 71)

Since both Bryan and Darrow were itching to square off against each other on the grand issue of science and religion, it was almost guaranteed that the trial would extend well beyond issues of free speech. The stage was now set for the ‘trial of the century,’ which would reverberate and color all future discussions on this topic.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Lewis Black on Biblical literalism

From Scopes to Dover-6: The Scopes trial conspiracy

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

Although Inherit the Wind, the original play and film based on the events of the Scopes trial, was made as a drama, it would have been more accurate to portray the actual events leading up to and through the trial as a comedy.

Right from the beginning, rather than being a bitter adversarial contest between science and religion, the whole prosecution and trial was staged by the local civic leaders of the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tennessee as mainly a public relations exercise, with both prosecution and defense sides working together to create a show trial and thereby benefit the town by increasing its visibility because of the resulting publicity.

When word got around that the ACLU had issued a press release to the Tennessee newspapers looking for someone willing to test the Tennessee law barring the teaching of evolution, Dayton resident George Rappleyea, who personally opposed the anti-evolution law, saw the opportunity to make the sleepy town of Dayton get national headlines and publicity. He felt that this ACLU challenge gave Dayton the chance to hold a trial with well-known figures that would draw the national media and tourists to the city, leading to an economic boom. So he and other enterprising entrepreneurs set about planning to create such a trial. Working with Fred Robinson (a local businessman and also chair of the county school board), the school superintendent (who supported the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution), two city attorneys who agreed to prosecute the case, and a local attorney to handle the defense, they put all the ingredients into place. (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 89-91)

All they needed now was someone to charge with breaking the law. They did not want anyone’s life or career to be harmed by being charged in what was essentially a show trial created for publicity. The team looked around for a suitable candidate to accuse and found one in 24-year old John T. Scopes, a general science instructor and part-time football coach. Although he was not the regular biology teacher, he made a good candidate because he was single, not a local, had no ties to the region, no intention of staying permanently in Dayton, and thus had little to lose from the case. This made him preferable to the regular biology teacher, who was married and was also the school principal and thus would have had a lot more at stake.

In the film, Scopes was arrested in his classroom by grim-faced city leaders while teaching his class about evolution, and then flung into jail where he had to stay until the trial. While there, he had to listen to hostile citizens marching around the jail carrying banners and chanting slogans vilifying him, flinging bottles through his cell windows, and seeing himself burned in effigy, while in the evening the clergyman preached fiery sermons condemning him to hell for his evil act of teaching evolution.

In reality, Scopes was a cheerful co-conspirator in the staged trial. The chummy nature of the whole proceeding is illustrated by the fact that all these friendly discussions took place in the local drugstore owned by the school board chair. The prosecutor, who happened to be Scopes’ close friend, said he would be willing to prosecute Scopes as long as Scopes didn’t mind. (Even during the heat of the trial, the prosecutors and the defendant went for a swim in a pond during a lunch recess.) Scopes was invited to these discussions and asked whether he would be willing to be prosecuted. Scopes believed in evolution and disagreed with the law so he said he was willing to go along. The group then called over the waiting justice of the peace to swear out a warrant for Scopes, and the waiting constable served him the warrant immediately. Rather than being hauled off to jail, Scopes then went off to play tennis while the others set the publicity machine in motion by wiring the state’s newspapers with the news that they had charged someone with violating the Butler Act. (Larson, p. 91)

The little secret behind the trial was it was never firmly established that Scopes had even taught evolution at all and thus actually violated the law. He himself could not definitely recall teaching that particular topic. He never took the stand in his defense and thus was not forced to swear under oath on this issue. He and his students also seemed hazy on the entire concept of evolution. But everyone, including Scopes, decided to go along with the idea that he had taught it in order that the trial could take place. Since Scopes had filled in occasionally when the regular biology teacher was absent, and had used the assigned textbook that included a section on human evolution, this was enough for the friendly gang of conspirators to decide that they could reasonably charge him with violating the law. During the later grand jury proceedings, Scopes even had to urge his reluctant students to testify against him and coached them on how to answer in order that the grand jury would have grounds to indict him. (Larson, p. 108)

Thus from the beginning, the normal antagonism that characterizes the two opposing sides in highly charged trials was absent. It was said that the ACLU, eager to have a test case on the freedom of speech in the classroom, even volunteered to pay the expenses of the prosecution, but the offer was declined. The generosity was not all on one side. Anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan had not even wanted a penalty provision inserted in the law since he only wanted to make a point about what should be taught, and did not want to actually harm anyone, financially or otherwise. In fact, Bryan later offered, if Scopes were to be found guilty, to pay the fine himself (unlike in the film, where an outraged Bryan wanted an even stiffer sentence meted out). Everyone fully expected Scopes to be found guilty and even the defense wanted such a verdict so that the case could be appealed to the higher courts and the constitutional issues fully addressed.

The Scopes trial in Dayton was to be merely the first step in a case that was supposed to have much broader implications.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers ask what should be done about Iraq

In a comment to the previous post, Nicole expressed incredulity that anyone could be oblivious to the infamous history of tattooing people of particular groups for identification purposes. Alas, such people do exist. There are many people out there who not only have no idea of the basic elements of history or current affairs or geography, they also have no empathy at all for people who are not like them, which leads them to say the most outrageous things.

The Chasers regularly exploit this dangerous combination of ignorance and bigotry for humorous purposes.

From Scopes to Dover-4: Bryan’s views on religion and evolution

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

In order to understand what happened to Bryan during his testimony in the Scopes trial, it is necessary to understand something of Bryan’s religious views. In those days, as now, there were splits among religious believers between those who took the Bible as an inerrant literal record of historical events, and those who allowed for some level of interpretive license, whereby some events could be interpreted metaphorically so as not to clash with scientific truths.
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From Scopes to Dover-3: The role of ‘social Darwinism’

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

As far as the legal issues were concerned, the famous 1925 ‘Scopes monkey trial’ did not actually resolve anything and did not even deal with the same weighty constitutional issues that now surround the issue of evolution in the classroom.

The issues involved in the trial arose as a result of the collision of two trains of events, one emerging from the rising unease with the implications of Darwinian thinking for Christian beliefs, and the other with concerns about infringements on the fundamental right of free speech that followed the creation of the Soviet Union following World War I and the ‘Red Scare’ that followed.

Unease over the implications of the theory of evolution for religious beliefs had been simmering for some time, even since the full implications of Darwin’s theory had become recognized. While some people were willing to tolerate the idea of all species other than humans being evolutionarily linked, the idea that human beings were also part of the great tree of evolutionary descent was repugnant to many because it seemed to imply that we were no different from other mammals and thus not in the image of god nor possessors of an immortal soul.

Williams Jennings Bryan was a devoutly religious Christian and also a populist, supporting many progressive causes while championing the underdog and fighting for the rights of the poor against their exploiters. Because of this, he was often referred by the nickname of The Commoner, in addition to the name of The Boy Orator, which he had acquired early in life because of the skill he displayed as a public speaker. He had basically a majoritarian democratic view that held that people, through their collective voice, had the final say in how they were to be governed. As such, he opposed elitist ideas, and he saw evolutionary theory as one such doctrine that was being imposed on people by a scientific elite.

In fact, while one reason he opposed Darwinian thinking was because of his religious beliefs and his fears that the theory left no room for god, another of the sources of his opposition to Darwin’s theory were the claims of the so-called ‘social Darwinists’ like Herbert Spencer, who tried to extend Darwinian natural selection to explain human society and argued that ‘survival of the fittest’ meant that harsh social conditions were inevitable and maybe even desirable since that would weed out those who were ‘unfit’, thus improving humanity in the long run. The ‘robber barons’ of that time, people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who had made enormous fortunes at a time of widespread poverty, also took comfort from social Darwinism since it seemed to bestow a seal of approval on them and their actions, suggesting that their success was due to them being exceptionally ‘fit’ for the world of business and innately gifted at it, and not because of their exploitative business practices. Bryan saw Darwin’s ideas as being at the root of that particular evil, saying “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 the weak.” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 39).

Bryan was a humane and peace-loving man, who even resigned in 1915 from his position as Secretary of State in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson when it looked like Wilson was taking the country into World War I. That war gave Bryan yet another reason to oppose Darwinism because he was strongly influenced by some books written at that time that argued that the war was due to Darwinian principles at work among nations.

Another factor at play in the popular opposition to Darwinism was the rise of eugenics and its suggestion that the human race, just like livestock, could be improved by selective breeding, such as by segregating those people who were seen as ‘defective’ and preventing them from having children. Many viewed this as an abominable practice and those opposed to evolution saw this as a direct consequence of Darwinian thinking applied to humans, and dangerously close to playing god. Their linking of Darwinian evolutionary theory with eugenics was buttressed by the fact that one of the founders of this new field (and the person who coined the term) was the British polymath Francis Galton, who happened to be Darwin’s cousin and one of the earliest supporters of Darwin’s theory.

Bryan was opposed to the excesses of both capitalism and militarism and also rejected social engineering at the expense of the poor. He saw Darwinian thinking as the source of all those evils and thus as a pernicious idea that should be defeated and definitely not taught to students in public schools.

Next: Bryan’s views on religion and evolution.

POST SCRIPT: How to get into any nightclub

Do you have trouble getting into selective bars or nightclubs? The guys from The Chasers tell you the secret of getting in that works every time. Well, almost.

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.)
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From Scopes to Dover-1: Overview

I have always been interested in the law, especially constitutional law. And given my interest in the subject of evolution, I was intrigued by how the teaching of that subject has been, at least in the US, the focus of so many court cases, involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the US constitution. This week begins a fairly long series of posts that attempts to clarify this issue, although the series will be interrupted from time to time with posts on other topics.

It is almost impossible to think of the evolution-religion controversy (or the larger science-religion issue) in America without immediately thinking of the famous ‘Scopes monkey trial’ of 1925, where a high school teacher John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the state of Tennessee. That event has become a touchstone, framing the issue in a way that is hard to shake off.
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