Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Arguing Evolution Under The Oaks

The other day I walked past my daughter who was (as usual - and very much unlike me at that - or this - age) immersed in a book.  I looked at the title and asked her, "What's a 'Scopes Monkey' and why did they put one on trial... for stealing bananas?"  Though not yet a teenager she has already perfected the withering look that  so eloquently says - without saying a word - "Papa you're such a door knob and having half your genes is a burden I struggle to overcome every day."

The trial of John Scopes for violating a recently passed Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution in its schools was a media sensation.  In the sweltering heat of that summer of 1925 in tiny Dayton, TN the issue of faith versus science was debated before a national audience.  Scopes himself was virtually an afterthought, a bit player on a stage that featured celebrated characters like William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darraw and H. L. Mencken.

In reading through her books and printouts on the Scopes Trial I have been struck by four things.

First, how completely manufactured the whole thing was, how staged.  After the Tennessee legislature passed the anti-evolution bill, the recently-formed ACLU placed ads asking someone to violate the law so that the ACLU could challenge it, offering to provide for that person's defense.  Then a bunch of dudes sitting at the drug store in Dayton, TN over coffee cooked up a brilliant scheme:  Biggest philosophical issue of the day + High profile legal battle = Tourism!  If there's going to be an evolution trial, why not here in little ol' Dayton?  Think of the money to be made. 

So young John Scopes was recruited to break the law and get arrested to stand trial.  Bryan volunteers to travel to Dayton to argue, as only he can, for the prosecution, and on hearing this news Darrow immediately volunteers his services to the ACLU for the defense.  Mencken - and about a jillion other reporters - descend on Dayton to cover the battle.

The thought of how CNN would cover the spectacle nowadays is physically nauseating.

Second, after a few days of holding the trial in the county courthouse and carting out a continual procession of fainting spectators, the judge decided to hold the remainder of the trial outdoors in the shade of nearby oak trees (you knew there was an oak angle coming, didn't you?).  There is a delicious irony to holding a trial which was obstensibly to determine simply if a young teacher had broken a well defined law (in his closing remarks Darrow asked that Scopes be found guilty just so the case could be appealed to a higher court) but was actually about the much larger issue of religion versus science, in the shade of oak trees.  Oak trees which are continuously evolving all around us to adapt to continously changing environmental and climatic conditions, forming new species, fusing old species into new ones, mutating.

Third, the irony of holding the Scopes Trial in the shade of oaks is even larger when you think about the facts that 1) what was actually being discussed was interpretation of the Book of Genesis as "Gospel truth" (sorry) versus oral history, when 2) as the brilliant J. Russell Smith has shown us Genesis stands as an almost perfect oral history of man's transition away from a life of peace and plenty eating the fruits of trees provided for him, to a life of sweat and toil coaxing annual grain crops from the Earth.  Genesis stands as an oral history of an absolute truth.

Finally I have been struck by how a man's views and legacy can be simplified and trashed in an instant.  William Jennings Bryan has been characterized, in large part due to the film Inherit the Wind, as a closed-minded buffoon who was made to look silly on the stand by Darrow's brilliant cross examination.  The truth is, as always, considerably more complicated. And much more interesting. 

Part of Bryan's objection to the teaching of evolution in schools was his deep concern about the implications of Social Darwinism, which in his view allowed one group of people to see itself as the pinnacle of evolution while believing other groups of people to be inferior. In fact, the very text book that Scopes taught from promoted the idea that caucasions were more evolved than other races of humans.  Bryan understood, and to his eternal credit argued, that this concept could be used to justify wars and unimaginable mistreatment of fellow humans.  As world events would very soon demonstrate with barbarous clarity and on an imaginable scope, he was correct to be concerned.

Bryan died five days after the trial ended.

No comments:

Post a Comment