Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Monkey Trial, monkey business

The advancements of science have sometimes been seen as a challenge to scripture. One of the early issues arose with Copernicus, who in 1543 published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which described a heliocentric universe at a time when earth was thought to be at its center. Serious reaction from the church took some sixty years to develop. That reaction reached its apogee in 1633 when the Inquisition found the astronomer Galileo guilty of heresy for advocating the Copernican view of the universe, forced him to disavow all of his writings on the sun being at the center of the universe, and sentenced him to house arrest for the remainder of his life. In addition, publication of his writings was outlawed. Eventually the accumulation of evidence forced the church to recognize the Copernican model, and in October 1992 Pope John Paul II issued a declaration acknowledging that the Catholic Church erred in its trial of Galileo.

Enter Dayton, Tennessee, and the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial." In 1859, Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, a book based on a voyage to the south Pacific in which he observed species distributions. It and subsequent work developed the idea that species changed and branched over time, leading to new species that differed from their ancestors. In other words, the assemblages of plants and animals seen at present would not have been the same as viewed immediately following the point of creation described in Genesis.

While Charles Darwin gets the credit, or the blame, the point often missed is that the Evolutionary Theory credited to Darwin was already emerging from scientific thought. Darwin was able to incorporate insights from a number of other scientists, most notably Wallace, Lyell, and Hooker. But like all scientific advances, one finding sparks a question and ideas flow outward like waves when a pebble is dropped into a quiet pool. Evolution gained traction for the simple reason that it explained what people were seeing around them. It had utility. So by the early 20th century, evolution was being taught as the most likely mechanism to explain the assemblages of plants and animals around the world, and served as the basis for exploring how changes were accomplished.

In 1925 a Tennessee legislator read in a newspaper that evolution was being taught in the schools that were funded, at least in part, by the state. He later stated that he knew nothing about evolution at the time, but after reading William Jennings Bryan's Is the Bible true?, and Darwin's The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, decided that evolution was a dangerous idea that should not be taught in the schools. He introduced a bill into the legislature to prohibit teaching of evolution theory in all state-supported colleges and schools. The Butler Act, as it became known, specifically prohibited teaching "any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found the law to be offensive to liberty, and ran advertisements in Tennessee newspapers offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to help them test its constitutionality in court. A group of business leaders in Dayton saw the test case as a means of publicizing their town and possibly bringing in new business and industry. They recruited John T. Scopes, a teacher and coach at Rhea County High School, and a trial was scheduled.

William Jennings Bryan volunteered to aid the prosecution. A former two-term U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, and unsuccessful three-time candidate for President of the United States, Bryan was clearly the most famous person involved in the trial. Although known as a liberal politician, Bryan was conservative in his religious views, favoring prohibition and opposing evolution. He was widely thought to be the finest orator of his time.
The defense was led by Clarence Darrow, a lawyer who was said to be able to move both juries and judges to tears with his eloquence. Darrow was the complete liberal, in politics and religion, and a leading figure in the ACLU. As a highly successful criminal defense lawyer, he had little experience in losing cases. With two such famous figures on opposing sides, the trial brought tiny Dayton to national attention. The town saw an influx of the curious, the entrepreneurial, and reporters. Among those who came was H.L. Mencken, and his reporting quickly set the tone of the public's perception. It was "The Monkey Trial."

History has focused attention on Bryan, Darrow, and to a lesser extent, Mencken. John T. Scopes turned out to be a minor character in the drama, never taking the stand in his own defense. After each side had made its case, Darrow asked that his client be found guilty, which would allow him to appeal the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court in hopes of having the law declared unconstitutional. Scopes was fined $100, the minimum allowed under the Butler Act. On appeal, the Supreme Court voided Scopes's conviction on the grounds that the jury should have set the fine instead of the judge. It refused to find the law unconstitutional, but the case was not retried. The law remained on the books until 1967, when a teacher in Jacksboro, Tennessee, was fired for teaching evolution. He sued for reinstatement, which was granted, and continued with a class-action suit to have the law voided. The Tennessee legislature passed such a law within three days after the class-action suit was filed.

Today the Rhea County courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a statue of William Jennings Bryan graces the front lawn. No statue of Clarence Darrow stands on the other side. There is a Scopes Trial Museum in the courthouse basement, where several of these photos were shot.

Displays give a good history of the trial and have excellent visuals. Other displays seek to place Creationism and Evolution on equal footing as competing explanations of modern plants and animals.

Displays and materials placed by Bryan College, a Dayton conservative Christian institution, leaves no doubt where they stand on the issue. Meanwhile, evolution has proven to be a robust theory, meaning that it has withstood the accumulation of new scientific knowledge without having to be revised. Perhaps in another 300 years, the Biblical literalists will have come around. But then, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) still thought the Church's judgement of Galileo was correct as late as 1990.

Writing this I was reminded of a conversation that took place with a religious-conservative co-worker. I had used Noah's Ark as a reason not to take the Bible literally. While of substantial size, it had to carry two of every species. I pointed out that there are at least a million species of beetles on the earth, so the ark would have to include at least two million beetles. My co-worker said, "No, just two beetles." "Just two beetles? Do you mean then that all one-million species of beetles living today are descended from just those two beetles?" "Yes, just those two beetles!" To which I answered, "That, my friend, is evolution!"

1 comment:

  1. Jim,this is one of your best!!! Thanks!I always refer to the 4 minute mile, size of basketball & football players,feed conversion rates & size in cattle, and speed in race horses when people doubt evolution.