Editor’s note: Peter Blair is editor of Fare Forward, one of the best new sites to hit the interwebs in a while.  I’m on record saying that it’s like us at Mere-O, only better.  I’m thrilled to steal him away for the day.  Subscribe to Fare Forward and support the excellent work they are doing.  — MLA

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.

Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor pro...

Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. [2 of 4 photos] (Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution)

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.  

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  1. Fantastic piece. Minor grammatical note: it’s duel you’re looking for, rather than dual, methinks.


    1. We got it fixed, Chris. Thanks.


      1. My pleasure! You’ll note that there’s also a usage in the antepenultimate paragraph (‘When he said that the “contest between evolution and Christianity is a dual to the death,” Bryan…’)


        1. “Antepenultimate”! You’re just showing off!


  2. Great post! What a great closing statement by Bryan. Tragic that he wasn’t able to deliver it…

    I do wonder if this battle between evolution and Christianity is as explosive (or even divisive) as it was in the past century. Even though Christian skepticism of evolution is still despised by most, it seems Western culture is very hesitant to follow evolution all the way to its social conclusions — especially in light of the genocides of the 20th century. Thankfully, it seems wildly unpopular to advocate for the elimination of the “feeble-minded” today.

    Perhaps this awkwardness will continue to drive the wedge between modern man and evolution. One can only hope. At least until something as bad (or worse!) captivates the modern imagination.


    1. Would it surprise you to know that Clarence Darrow, Bryan’s opponent in the Scopes trial, argued against eugenics too?

      Eugenics is not a reasonable “conclusion” of evolution any more than anti-Semitism is a reasonable conclusion of Christianity. There are, in fact, very good evolutionary arguments against eugenics.


  3. I think at the heart of the battle between creation and evolution is really an epistemological assumption that can’t (or shouldn’t) be taken for granted.

    What we call “science” (not taking into account the etymology of the word, which used to declare Theology as the Queen of Sciences) really is the “scientific method.” In other words, the scientific method declares that “fact” or “law” is determined when something is both observable and repeatable.

    This really hearkens back to the old divide between the rationalists and the empiricists. Though, as Christians, we don’t side with either camp TOTALLY in that philosophical divide, the empirical worldview is what is behind the modern primacy of what we call “science.” We assume the Science “trumps” reason, logic, revelation, etc.

    The question I often pose to evolutionists — is if you are essentially an empiricist, and you adopt the scientific method, how can you claim authority over questions dealing with original causes, origins, or any “historical” claim without the inherent ability to observe and repeat such claims. In other words — evolutionary “science” never really is subject to itself, that is, the scientific method… because it essentially can’t carry that baggage.

    On the other hand, questions of origin, can be dealt with rationally, and particularly, theologically. Perhaps the better question isn’t, “how can we make revelation fit science” (which presumes that their field is the right one to play on), but how do we take what science observes and understand it in the light of logic, philosophy, and theology (revelation). That’s the reason, frankly, why Theology used to be deemed the queen of sciences… it transcends the observable, but also embraces it.

    Just a few mid-day thoughts spurred on by the article (though not altogether relevant to the article).


    1. @ Ryan,

      Well put, I was going to say something similar myself. The naturalistic worldview disregards all other disciplines (Philosophy, Theology, etc). This creates a great error in their attempt to answer questions they are not able to answer; “where did we come from?” and so on. This is a real issue and leads to our moral decay.


      1. But doesn’t much of the creationist response do much the same thing but in reverse. Just trying to use the tools of science to prove meaning? I am a bit uncomfortable with some of the attempts to merge science and religion. But at some point we either have a science that has no ability to evaluate things ethically, or we have a religion that has no ability to speak empirically or we find some way to walk a line that takes seriously both science and religion.

        I think it is not coincidence that many of the scientist that work on ethically more stable grounds like adult stem cells or astronomy seem to have a greater likelihood of having christian faith than those that work on more ethically challenging areas like cloning.

        This is purely antidotal, but in my experience I have know quite a few hard science Christians. But for the most part they have had a hard time with the church that rejects them fairly out of hand.


    2. “In other words, the scientific method declares that
      “fact” or “law” is determined when something is both observable and
      repeatable… how can you claim authority over questions dealing with
      original causes, origins, or any “historical” claim without the inherent
      ability to observe and repeat such claims[?]”

      quote Wolfgang Pauli… “That’s not even wrong!” :-) First off, ‘facts’
      are quite different from ‘laws’, and hypotheses are different from
      theories, and… well, the vocabulary is kind of muddled.

      science doesn’t depend on “observable and repeatable” so much as it
      does on “testable“. I don’t have to have been there
      when, say, a painting was painted to be able to confirm that it uses
      pigments that weren’t formulated until the 1950s. If an heirloom chair
      was supposed to have been carved out of wood chopped down in the 1700s
      in a particular forest… well, do the patterns of growth rings in the
      wood match those of other trees in the same area?

      Based on what
      we find today we can in fact test many claims “about
      “original causes, origins, or any ‘historical’ claim”. (For an
      evolutionary example, see endogenous

      (A claim that is unfalsifiable and
      untestable is, of course, beyond the purview of science. But, if you say
      something is unfalsifiable and untestable, you are saying that it can
      have no effect on anything we can observer or test. You are saying that
      even if it’s true, it will never make a difference in anything we can


  4. […] A Moral or a Scientific Critique? Peter Blair, Mere Orthodoxy […]


  5. Drone warfare? Why does that have to do with evolution? Drones are a weapon and cause less destruction then many, like long-range artillery, that we have come to live with. Warfare existed long before the theory of evolution,


  6. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins assert that Science, including Evolution, demands that every thinking person reject religion. I have yet to see Dawkins offer an alternative objective standard of morality. If we are independent agents able to define the meaning of our lives, there is no reason to expect anyone to agree with us on wgat is moral behavior.


    1. Two points.

      C.S. Lewis had his devil Screwtape say that he wanted humans to think of creeds like, “Believe this, not because it’s true, but for some other reason.” In other words, just because an idea would have consequences you don’t like… that doesn’t mean it’s false.

      Besides which, it was said that there were four ‘horsemen’ of New Atheism, one of which was Sam Harris.


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