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I have a theory that much of the modern evolution battle stems from the fact that of the two possible anti-evolutionary narratives the church could have adopted—the scientific and the moral—the scientific critique eventually and unfortunately triumphed.
I first developed this theory while studying the famous Scopes/Monkey trial as an undergraduate. The narrative about the trial I had previously absorbed from the culture and Inherit the Wind proved highly tendentious. People often think of the Scopes trial as one of those classic moments of science/religion conflict, in which the forces of ignorance, cruelty, and superstition squared off against the enlightened, progressive force of science. William Jennings Bryan and his fundamentalist allies sought to squash Scopes’ heroic efforts in the cause of scientific advancement.Yet the facts are much more complicated, even bizarre. The trial was deliberately staged in order to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act, which forbid the teaching of evolution. Scopes was unsure whether he had even ever taught evolution in class, but he was willing to claim he did to give the planned trial a defendant.
Even more interesting, however, was Bryan’s role in the proceedings. The Scopes trial pitted Bryan against the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and Darrow’s questioning of Bryan about evolution and Biblical literalism during the trial has been immortalized as a glorious moment of triumph for science. It’s widely held that Darrow made Bryan’s fundamentalist position look silly and absurd.
But what’s been left out of our historical memory is the fact that Bryan’s primarily opposition to evolution was moral, not scientific. In Bryan’s time, the scientific theory of evolution was mixed up with all sorts of social Darwinist ideologies that favored eugenics and sterilization, advocated racism, and held that the poor deserved to be poor and should not be helped out of their poverty. The textbook Scopes was accused of teaching from itself advocated for the removal of “feeble-mindedness” from the population through eugenics.
Bryan was a politician who spent his life campaigning for the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, for the “common man.”* He was horrified by the ideological and moral uses to which evolution was being put in his time. He was disgusted, in general, by the way the scientific technology refused to be constrained by proper moral boundaries. He wrote up some closing remarks for the Scopes trial, but he was never allowed to deliver them. They contain this remarkable passage: Continue reading