Disinheriting the Wind

A Closer Look at the Scopes Trial

The widely misreported and misunderstood decision of the Kansas Board of Education not to require the teaching of the theory of evolution has, predictably, revived memories of the banning of such teaching in public schools by the state of Tennessee, leading to the infamous Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925. Whether or not the creation stories recorded in the Book of Genesis are best understood as myths, the account of the Scopes trial promoted by liberal social commentators and moviemakers is mostly mythical. The core of the myth is that Clarence Darrow, representing enlightenment, humanity, and intellectual freedom, made a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan and the other “boobs and bigots,” as H. L. Mencken dubbed them, who sought to keep the children of Tennessee yoked to ignorance and superstition. The facts, as the self-designated enlightened are fond of saying in other contexts, are “more complicated.”

Textbook Examples

In 1857, two years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, Professor Asa Gray of Harvard, one of America’s foremost botanists, published a high-school textbook entitled First Lessons in Botany. He said, in that work, that “the Creator established a definite number of species at the beginning, which have continued by propagation, each after its kind.” In that same year, however, Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution to Gray, soon making a convert of him. A few years later, Gray arranged for The Origin of Species to be published in America and became one of the most influential defenders of Darwin’s ideas. In 1887, when a new version of Gray’s book was published under the title Elements of Botany, the role of the Creator was altered. Affirming “the tendency to variation which pervades all things,” the text remarked that the “beautiful diversity of forms” was sufficient “to convince the thoughtful botanist that all are parts of one system, works of one hand, realizations in nature of the conception of one mind.” As Edward J. Larson has observed in his 1997 book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Religion and Science, “God still lies behind nature, but the secondary cause of evolution replaced his creative hand as the immediate instrument of speciation.” (In what follows, I rely heavily on the account of the Scopes trial provided in Larson’s splendid book.)

Gray’s colleague at Harvard, Louis Agassiz, the leading American zoologist of his time, was unpersuaded by Darwin’s arguments and never accepted his conclusions. While Agassiz also rejected biblical literalism, his textbook, Principles of Zoology, never revised its claim that “The records of the Bible, as well as human tradition, teach us that man and the animals associated with him were created by the word of God, and this truth is confirmed by the revelations of science, which unequivocally indicate the direct interventions of creative power.”

By the 1880s, however, views like those held by Agassiz had gone the way of the dinosaurs, and textbooks like Principles of Zoology constituted nothing more than a kind of intellectual “fossil record” of the pre-Darwinian era. The generation of scientists trained after the publication of Darwin’s ideas were committed evolutionists, and the textbooks they wrote for use in high schools and colleges fully reflected their commitment. While many of these scientists were Christians, their books tended to omit references to God or the Creator as the force behind evolution. Their accounts were fully “naturalistic” precisely in this sense.

These scientists did not shy away from teaching that man, too, was the product of evolution, having descended as a species from an ancestor common to all vertebrate animals by a process of natural selection, or “survival of the fittest.” In a botany text published in 1903, Eliza F. Andrews taught that “the geological record shows that the simplest forms of life were the first to appear and from these all the higher forms were gradually evolved.” The most influential biology text in the period leading up to the anti-evolutionist political agitation that reached a climax in the Scopes trial, George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology, published in 1918, cites the fossil record, spanning “millions of years,” as evidence of the evolution of complex forms of life from simple forms, with man presented as the most complex form, and the Caucasian race as “finally, the highest type of all.”

Darwinism & Progressive Fundamentalists

Now, while Darwin was getting into, and soon dominating, the biological textbooks, some of his admirers were applying his theory to economic and other sociological issues. So-called social Darwinists defended more or less unregulated free-market (“laissez-faire”) economics as the way to attain maximum productivity and efficiency. They invoked the notion of the survival of the fittest in opposing regulation of the terms and conditions of employment and other proposed social welfare policies. Industrialization was radically altering the social and economic conditions that had prevailed in America and was giving strong impetus to populist and progressive movements to bring government to bear to ameliorate the economic and social dislocations attendant upon rapid industrialization, and to protect the mass of unpropertied working people against exploitation.

These populist and progressive movements were strongly imbued with evangelical Christian religion. America’s most notable progressive, a Nebraska politician named William Jennings Bryan, personified what one historian described as the “merger of Evangelicalism and progressivism.” Born in the year the United States descended into Civil War, Bryan was deeply involved in a host of progressive causes before he became the leading national political figure in the conflict over teaching evolution. He fought for the national income tax, for example, as well as for women’s suffrage and prohibition. According to William Allen White, Bryan “stood for as much of the idea of socialism as the American mind will confess to.” At the same time, he shared the religious commitment and enthusiasm of his fellow progressive and anti-evolutionist, William Bell Riley, founder of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). Riley described Bryan as his “great co-laborer, the mightiest lay-leader associated with the fight against evolution.”

In many respects, this fight was a classic progressive-era battle, pitting the interests, values, and beliefs of an elite against the interests, values, and beliefs, often religiously inspired or, at least, supported, of a populist movement. As Larson describes the pattern of progressive reform movements, they “first encourage others to bring their behavior voluntarily into line with some desired standard and then coerce laggards into conformity by force of law.” According to historians of progressive reform Arthur Link and Richard McCormick, “a familiar scenario during the period was one in which progressives called upon public authorities to assume responsibility for interventions which voluntary organizations had begun.” Drawing on the work of Link and McCormick, Larson concludes that “the anti-evolution crusade fits snugly into both the historical setting and the interventionist pattern outlined [by these scholars] for all progressive reform movements.”

The idea that Bryan was a “liberal” for most of his life, and became a “conservative” later in the battle over evolution, does not hold water. Although Bryan, like many other evangelical progressives, became increasingly radicalized in the anti-evolution cause as more and more children became exposed to evolutionary ideas in classroom instruction, his “increasing preoccupation with Darwinism and evolution did not,” according to biographer Lewis Koenig, “in any way curtail his promotion of political questions and reforms.” In Larson’s words, “the traditional picture painted by H. L. Mencken and Richard Hofstadter, of Bryan as a broken, seedy, and even reactionary figure during his anti-evolution years wilts under recent scholarship.” Anti-evolutionism was of a piece with Bryan’s progressivism, not in conflict with it.

What was true of Bryan was true of many other progressive activists, both clerical and lay. They loathed Darwinism, not merely because they believed that it contradicted sacred Scripture, but also, and not unrelatedly, because it threatened to unleash a social and economic philosophy that licensed cynicism, selfishness, exploitation, and abuse. In the midst of the battle against teaching evolution, John Roach Straton, speaking at the 1918 convention of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association—the original Fundamentalists—proclaimed that Christian ministers, such as himself, “are traitors to their trust unless they battle heroically against such evils as unjust wages, especially to women workers, child labor, and the hell-black social evil, lawlessness, and the shame and disgrace of the liquor traffic.” Straton called explicitly for the redistribution of wealth through both welfare and the progressive income tax.

Between 1913 and 1920, progressives succeeded in amending the Constitution four times. The Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to tax income without apportionment among the several states; the Seventeenth provided for the direct election of Senators; the Eighteenth prohibited intoxicating liquors; and the Nineteenth granted women the right to vote. William Jennings Bryan had been involved in all of these causes. He, and many of those progressives who shared his evangelical faith, were to turn their attention next to the teaching of human evolution, a teaching they found to be threatening to religion, morals, and social justice. And this turn would pit Bryan, and those Christians of like mind, against Christians of a more liberal view, as well as against more secularized Americans, including some who had been their allies in earlier reform movements.

Protection Against Indoctrination

Bryan himself was not an early advocate of anti-evolution laws. His demand, as far as public schools were concerned, was a policy of what he called “real neutrality wherever neutrality in religion is desired.” “If the Bible cannot be defended in [public] schools,” he declared, “it should not be attacked, either directly or under the guise of philosophy or science.” His preference, and the preference of many opponents of evolution at the time, was for a policy of silence in the public schools on the question of the origin of the human species. And he tirelessly promoted this view in speeches to religious and political meetings around the country.

Increasingly, Bryan and his supporters became convinced that legislative action in the states was needed to protect people from having their children indoctrinated with beliefs antithetical to their religion. As far as public education was concerned, he argued that “those who pay the taxes have a right to determine what is taught.” As Bryan and others succeeded in focusing the attention of their constituents on the question of the teaching of evolution in the public schools, momentum began to build for legislation banning such teaching. Interestingly, the first state to enact such legislation was neither Tennessee nor any other state of the old Southern confederacy. It was, rather, Oklahoma early in 1923. In what was in those days an altogether unsurprising combination of anti-evolutionism and progressive support for public education, the ban went through the lower house of the legislature, dominated in those days by the Democratic party, as an amendment to a bill providing for free textbooks.

Although supporters of the ban frequently invoked Bryan’s name, he had no idea that it was being proposed and did not learn about it until after its passage. As other states began to consider such a ban, Bryan warned more radical elements on his side against trying to enforce the ban by criminal sanctions. “I do not think there should be any penalty,” he argued. “We are not dealing with a criminal class and mere declaration of the state’s policy is enough.” Moreover, Bryan maintained that a ban should apply only to teaching that claimed that human evolution was “true.” “A book which merely mentions it as a hypothesis,” he said, “can be considered as giving information as to views held, which is very different from teaching it as fact.”

Here it is worth pausing to observe the similarities between Bryan’s proposal for the treatment of evolutionary teaching in schools and contemporary liberal ideas about teaching religion. Just as many liberals today say that the place for teaching about religion is in the private setting of home, and not the public one of school where students of different religious affiliations are united in pursuit of common learning, Bryan argued that the place to teach about the sensitive question of human origins—a question with profound religious implications on anybody’s account of the matter—is in the home and not in the public school. And just as some liberals today allow that schools should be able to teach about religion (to teach what in colleges is often called “comparative religions”) without teaching a particular theological view as “true,” Bryan allowed that evolution could be mentioned “as a hypothesis” in the context of teaching about “views held” so long as it was not put forward “as a fact.” (As a matter of fact, in good liberal fashion, Bryan had attempted to persuade publishers of science textbooks to “publish books that present [both] side[s], so that students can read both sides and thus reach their own conclusions.”)

Bigots & Modernists

Oklahoma was followed by Florida, and Florida by solidly Democratic Tennessee. As the bill banning the teaching of evolution in public schools worked its way through the legislative process, proponents of evolution, including so-called modernist Christian ministers, began to organize in opposition. Their strategy, in a kind of anticipation of Mencken’s famous coverage of the Scopes trial, was to depict the supporters of the ban as bigots and boobs. And often enough those supporters managed to make themselves fit these roles (though there was a certain amount of bigotry and boobism on the other side, too). Some opponents of the ban, particularly the “modernist ministers,” argued that evolutionary teaching was no threat to religion in general or Christianity in particular, though it was inconsistent with a certain literalist interpretation of the creation account in the Book of Genesis.

Although it seemed important to opponents of the Tennessee ban to show that Darwinism could be squared with belief in a divine Creator and Judeo-Christian morality, many prominent evolutionists today (not to mention critics of evolutionary theory) say frankly, and confidently, that it can’t be. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, says that “before Darwin, we believed that a benevolent God had created us.” Now, though, we know that

. . . no intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature (though Newton’s clock-winding god might have set up the machinery at the beginning of time and let it run). No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.

William Provine of Cornell University goes still further:

Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable. . . . There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society . . . human beings are marvelously complex machines. The individual human becomes an ethical person by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influences. That is all there is. . . . We must conclude that when we die, we die and that is the end of us. . . . Free will as it is traditionally conceived . . . simply does not exist. . . . There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.

Now, Provine’s remarks could have been made by an opponent of evolution warning about its allegedly antitheistic and antimoral implications, or by a candid atheistic supporter. I should probably point out, therefore, that Provine is a candid atheistic supporter. His remarks, if they could have been transferred back in time, would have been very useful to supporters of the evolutionary ban in Tennessee both in the legislative debates and in the Scopes trial.

Testing the Ban

Bryan, the “Great Commoner,” did not come to Tennessee to address the legislature or give public speeches in support of the prohibition of evolutionary teaching, as he had in several other states, though he did communicate with its leading supporters, urging them, for example, to drop the idea of a criminal penalty for teaching evolution. That advice was not taken. The same legislature that passed the ban, however, increased funding for public education and rejected proposals to forbid the employment of teachers who believed in atheism or evolution. The legislature’s goal was to prevent the teaching of evolution, and only that teaching, lest the religious faith learned by students at home be imperiled by teachings they encountered in school.

The debate in Tennessee, and the enactment of its ban on teaching evolution, captured the attention of the nation. The American Civil Liberties Union, which had been active in supporting free speech for political radicals, labor activists, and conscientious objectors to the First World War, sought to challenge the ban with what Larson describes as “a secularized missionary zeal.” Their cause hovered uncertainly between the desire to defend the freedom of expression of teachers, irrespective of their views, and the wish to promote the “progressive” cause of science, in the form of evolutionary doctrine, against the forces of what it perceived as superstition and reaction. In any case, the ACLU’s first move was to advertise for a defendant to represent in a test case it wished to arrange. Its advertisement appeared in a Chattanooga newspaper on May 4, 1925.

We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing the anti-evolution law in the courts. Our lawyers think a friendly test can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job. Distinguished counsel have volunteered their services. All we need now is a willing client.

The idea of “setting up a test case,” so familiar to us, was fairly novel in 1925, and it took supporters of the law by surprise. Governor Peay, who had resisted a good deal of pressure from scientists and liberal clergy in signing the bill, had assumed that it would be neither enforced strictly nor challenged. He was certainly surprised. The strategy made sense to the ACLU for a number of reasons. One possibility was that they could win. A more likely one was that, while losing in the law courts, they could win in the court of national public opinion. It was a chance to ring the alarm about what was, from the ACLU’s viewpoint, a grave threat to freedom, sort of, but, in any event, progress.

Why do I say freedom, “sort of”? Because the ACLU’s position as it developed in the course of the litigation was ambiguous about whether its attorneys wanted the court to hold that teachers could not be barred from teaching whatever they wanted to teach as a matter of free speech, or whether they could not be prohibited from teaching a doctrine, like evolution, which was believed by intelligent, progressive, right-thinking people, or, to use the sociological term, “elites.” To put the issue graphically, does a biology teacher have a First Amendment freedom to teach that human beings were transported to earth by space creatures from Saturn? Or, for that matter, if freedom of speech is absolute, may teachers teach—in violation of William Jennings Bryan’s doctrine of neutrality—the special creation of man as presented in Genesis?

In any event, the ACLU needed a defendant, and eventually one was provided. In Dayton, Tennessee, a businessman named George W. Rappelyea knew an opportunity when he saw it. He conceived the idea of arranging the test case in Dayton as a way of putting the town on the map and gaining for the local economy a nice infusion of cash from visiting partisans, journalists, and curiosity seekers. After reading the ad in the Chattanooga paper, he met with local businessmen, civic leaders, school officials, and lawyers to promote his idea. The group prevailed upon a young science teacher—though not a biology teacher—named John T. Scopes to volunteer to be the defendant. As it happened, Scopes had never taught evolution, so he hadn’t actually broken the law. He had, however, helped students review for a biology examination and, in that connection, used material from the textbook A Civic Biology, which did, as you’ll recall, confidently teach evolutionary doctrine. So, in the opinion of a prosecutor happy to accommodate influential local leaders, that was close enough.

Darrow & Bryan Step In

So now we have Scopes in the case. How do we get Bryan and Darrow into it? Well, just as the ACLU wanted to publicize its idea of a threat to freedom, and the city fathers of Dayton wanted to publicize Dayton, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association wanted to publicize its idea of evolution as, to quote William Bell Riley, “an unscientific, anti-Christian, atheistic, anarchistic, pagan rationalistic . . . theory.” As it happened, Riley’s WCFA was holding its convention in Memphis while the Dayton leaders were cooking up their scheme. Bryan came to address the convention, where he praised the legislature for banning evolutionary teaching, while indicating his qualms about the criminal penalty and, interestingly, his opposition to teaching religion in the public schools.

Neither of these caveats lowered the Great Commoner in the esteem of the Fundamentalists. The leader of the WCFA pressed him to represent the association as interveners in the Scopes trial, and though he had not argued a case in many years, Bryan agreed to return to the courtroom to wage what he promised would be a “battle royal between the Christian people of Tennessee and the so-called scientists.” (The “so-called,” here, is important: Bryan never wavered from his belief that evolutionary theory—relying on inferences he believed to be unwarranted and philosophical premises he believed to be unverified and unverifiable—was, above all, bad science.) This event suited almost everybody, since just about everybody was interested in maximizing the publicity value of the case. Bryan was certainly the most famous anti-evolutionist and probably the most famous progressive political figure of the time. A case that was already bound to get attention was now bound to get even more.

On the other side, the ACLU’s executive director, Roger Baldwin, chose Arthur Garfield Hays as the chief ACLU representative at the trial. It was apparently Hays’s decision to conduct the case, not as a “facial” challenge to a law that restricted Scopes’s freedom of speech—leaving the specific question of evolution out of it—as Baldwin had originally planned, but as a defense of evolution as such and an attack on the law as “conceived in bigotry and born of ignorance—ignorance of the Bible, of religion, of history, and of science.” When Bryan stepped forward to accept the role of special prosecutor in the case, the famous defense lawyers Clarence Darrow and Dudley Field Malone volunteered to argue for the defense. As a defender of labor militants and others in sensational prosecutions, Darrow’s stature and reputation were a match for Bryan’s. Interestingly, like Bryan, Darrow was a supporter of workers’ rights and an active Democrat. Indeed, he had supported Bryan for President more than once. On religion, though, they were radically opposed. Darrow saw the argument between agnosticism and atheism as a close call. He scoffed at Christianity, and was certain of the truth of purely materialistic evolution. (Malone, incidentally, was a lapsed Catholic and secularized liberal, who made his reputation in big money divorce cases. He, too, had supported Bryan’s presidential campaigns.)

Darrow Straitjacketed

For their part, the press—or perhaps we should say the media, since radio and even newsreel coverage of the trial was extensive—certainly did not disappoint the Dayton civic leadership or any of the other publicity seekers associated with the case. Newsmen came from throughout the country as well as from Canada, Europe, and even Australia. They told the story of the great “conflict between religion and science.” As Bryan and Darrow agreed, their readers, listeners, and watchers were the real jury in this case.

From a technical legal point of view, the lead prosecutor, Thomas Stewart, played it smart, in my view, by accepting the advice of Samuel Untermyer, a distinguished New York trial lawyer, and vice president of the American Jewish Congress, who had worked with the ACLU in a major free speech case. Untermyer, who himself rejected evolution, warned against attacking evolutionary teaching straight on, and suggested arguing instead that the state legislature has the right and duty to decide what will be taught in the public schools. Surely, that decision cannot be left to every individual teacher. Any manner of bizarre idea could find its way into the classroom that way. Remember the space creatures from Saturn? So, who is to decide? Obviously, curricular decisions are the province of the legislature that creates the public schools and finances them.

This strategy had the advantage of frustrating Darrow’s desire to put on expert testimony as to the alleged reasonableness of evolutionism and the alleged unreasonableness of any alternative view of human origins. Bryan himself, though itching to take on evolutionism, began to see the wisdom of this strategy as it became clear that more impressive scientific witnesses were prepared to testify for evolution than against it. This, I suppose, is the fate of the populist courtroom warrior in a battle against elites. However that may be, the prosecution succeeded in frustrating Darrow’s efforts to break out of what Larson calls “the fatal straitjacket” which Untermyer’s advice to the prosecution had imposed on the defense.

Darrow’s efforts were two-fold. The first was to attack the law as being so unreasonable as to be unjustifiable as an exercise of the police power of states. Patently unreasonable laws, the defense argued, violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution, at least when they limit liberties protected in that amendment or other constitutional provisions. Hays compared the evolution ban to a ban on teaching that the earth revolves around the sun: “Evolution,” he argued, “is as much a scientific fact as is the Copernican theory, but the Copernican theory has been more fully accepted.” That, he said, is “the only distinction.” Thus, he argued, the defense was entitled to put on expert testimony to show the unreasonableness of views opposed to evolutionism. It was obvious, however, to Judge John T. Raulston that evolutionism was denied by reasonable people, whatever the dominant view among scientists, so he refused to rule expert testimony admissible on this ground.

Darrow’s second line of attack was to take advantage of the imprudent drafting of the statute to place its meaning in question. The law, as written, banned evolutionary teaching as denying the “Story of the Divine Creation of man.” He argued that this aspect of the statute invited expert testimony to show the compatibility of evolutionary teaching with “any interpretation of the Bible that intelligent men could possibly make.” After all, if evolution is compatible with biblical theism, then teaching it, as such, would not violate the law and Scopes should be acquitted. (Of course, Darrow, in all probability, privately held in contempt efforts to render evolution compatible with Christianity.)

This strategy did manage to get one expert witness—a zoologist—onto the stand before the prosecution managed to block it. Judge Raulston ruled that the “ordinary, non-expert mind can comprehend the simple language of the statute.” From this defeat, however, Darrow pulled his famous victory by calling Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Bryan certainly could have declined—and just as certainly should have. The astonished Judge Raulston said to Bryan, “Mr. Bryan, you are not objecting to going on the stand?” “Not at all,” Bryan replied.

Bryan’s Fall

As far as I can make out the psychology of the situation, Darrow shrewdly appealed to both weakness and conviction to lure Bryan onto the stand. The weakness was a certain vanity. Darrow had earlier insulted the intelligence of Bryan and of all disbelievers in the evolution of man. Bryan did not want to look as though he was unwilling to do intellectual combat with the noted agnostic or atheist on key points of religious faith. The conviction was a belief that the truth of his cause would show through and expose error, accompanied by the belief that Christians have an obligation to testify for the faith, even in the face of possible ridicule and embarrassment.

That a Christian apologist could have matched wits with Darrow or even bested him in a public disputation was made plain not long after when Darrow debated Darwinism with the equally intelligent and notably wittier British public philosopher and man of letters G. K. Chesterton in Canada. But Bryan was plainly not up to the task. Although he proclaimed a kind of literalism, Bryan was an “old earth creationist”—interpreting the “days” of creation in the Genesis account as ages in time. Moreover, he was forced to admit his bafflement about how Joshua lengthened the day by making the sun stand still, whether Noah’s flood somehow killed fish too, and how the serpent moved before it was punished for tempting Eve by being made to crawl on its belly.

Bryan’s humiliation became news and then legend. The jury, whose members were out of the courtroom at the time—expert testimony of this sort going to questions of law (for the judge) rather than fact (for the jury)—were probably the last to hear of it. In the end, everybody agreed that on the minimal evidence that had actually gone to the jury, they had no choice but to convict. Indeed, Darrow himself told them so in his closing argument.

As Darrow and the ACLU prepared their case for appeal, the Great Commoner died in his sleep in Dayton, the place of his final effort and his humiliation—a week after the trial ended. In the Tennessee Supreme Court, the defense raised its constitutional challenges to the trial judge’s rulings, all of which were rejected. Darrow, conjuring up the trial of Socrates, argued that what was at stake in this case as in that was “nothing but the question of the intellectual freedom of man.” The state, by contrast, depicted the matter as a question of whether we would have the anarchy of “every teacher his own legislature” in the public schools.

To have their constitutional claims rejected at this level was no special loss for Darrow and the ACLU. Their goal was the Supreme Court of the United States. And for that, all they needed was to have Scopes’s conviction upheld. This, however, was ingeniously denied them by the justices of the state’s highest tribunal. For they reversed the trial court’s conviction of Scopes—not on lofty constitutional grounds, but on a technicality in sentencing (the judge, rather than the jury, imposed the $100 fine)—thus depriving Scopes (and his lawyers) of standing to take the matter any further. Scopes was free to go, though Tennessee could, of course, retry him. (The Tennessee Supreme Court had wisely requested that the prosecution drop the issue in the interest of “the peace and dignity of the state.”) And thus the circus in Dayton ended.

Darwinism Still on Trial

From there, the story of evolution and creation in the courtroom took a series of interesting twists. An uneasy truce lasted until the early 1960s when the Supreme Court of the United States began removing officially sanctioned religion from public schools. In 1967, the Court invalidated an Arkansas law against teaching evolution, not on free speech grounds, but as a violation of the no establishment of religion provision of the First Amendment. As the issue shifted to whether states could require equal time, or indeed, permit any time, for creationist alternatives to (or criticism of) evolution to be taught, the Court made clear its willingness to scrutinize legislative history and other data for evidence of impermissible religious motives for legislation. On this basis, equal-time statutes were struck down in the 1980s. And thus the teaching of creation, once mandated by legislatures, has been forbidden by the courts; and the teaching of evolution, once forbidden by legislatures, has been granted by the courts exclusive standing in the classroom.

It remains to be seen, however, whether evolutionary theory as traditionally taught will survive in the long run—with or without the special protection of the courts. Darwinian and even neo-Darwinian accounts of “evolution” are coming under attack as implausible and outmoded ways of thinking—ideological dogmas propped up by an entrenched and sometimes rather ruthless establishment bent on denying students and, to the extent possible, the public at large, access to ideas that challenge its hegemony. No longer is the threat merely the potential political power of believers in biblical literalism and “young earth” creationism. Secular thinkers such as David Berlinski, philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, and even scientists such as Michael Behe have cast grave doubt on the methodological assumptions and many of the key inferences on the basis of which mainstream biology continues to embrace one or another species of Darwinism.

Increasingly, Darwinists are feeling the pressure to show that their belief in random mutation and unguided natural selection as the mechanisms driving “evolution” follows from the fossil record and other observable facts, rather than from philosophical assumptions derived from a decidedly nonscientific materialist (or “naturalist”) view of the world and brought to the enterprise of science before the inquiries begin. The interesting question today is whether Darwin will follow the other two great secularist system builders of the nineteenth century, Marx and Freud, onto the ash heap of history. If, in the end, Darwinism proves unfit to survive, somewhere the Great Commoner will be enjoying the last laugh.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University (web.princeton.edu/sites/jmadison). His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI Books). He has served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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