Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Monkey Trial, monkey business
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.
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!"