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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:
Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endangers its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane — the earth’s surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times a bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene….
Despite the old moralistic theological liberalism that infects that last time (it’s Jesus, and not his moral code, that will save), this passage is magnificent. When he said that the “contest between evolution and Christianity is a dual to the death,” Bryan did not mean, as we might today expect, that there was some empirical contest between the two. He meant rather that society had to choose between a moral and social ethic that was primarily defined by solicitude toward the weak and one that celebrated a “might makes right” ideology. Neither can live while the other survives.
That choice is still before us today. Much of the evil that evolutionary theorists spouted remains, as today’s perpetrators of injustice still use science as a cover for their actions. We are today faced by a seemingly scientific and technological commitment to sex-selective abortion, drone warfare, physician-assisted suicide, gender and disability based abortion, and torture. Science cannot provide a moral compass for itself, and the times when it has been most confident in its ability to do so have also been the times when we have seen some of its worst abuses. Science and technology are wonderful gifts, and they deserve all the respect we afford them in contemporary society. But armies of statistics and facts cannot alone provide us with moral direction, nor can evolutionary-implanted inclinations tell us how to live our lives.
In light of these continuing challenges, we should re-appropriate the real legacy of the Bryan-type fundamentalists. The Scopes case would only be just another incident in the poorly understand history of the interactions between science and religion were it not for the crucial lessons it teaches us today about simultaneously creative and destructive nature of science, and the need for a deeper social ethic to guide it.
*I have since come to learn that much complicates his moral and political legacy. Still, I have great respect for him.
Peter Blair is the editor-in-chief of Fare Forward, a journal of Christian thought for the next generation. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 2012 with a degree in politics and philosophy.