There is nothing new about the alliance between American evangelical Christianity and white supremacism, although the party alignment of this alliance has changed over the years. And one of the pleasures of blogging is how one comes across interesting facts, and interesting people. My email today illustrates both these points:
Research query: Billy Sunday
Hello Paul Braterman,
By way of introduction I am the retired bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and retired Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University. I am at work on a book for University of Illinois Press about Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for Billy Sunday in the first third of the 20th century.
A research thread that is currently occupying my interest is the role the Ku Klux Klan played in Billy Sunday meetings.
I came across your blog post: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/tag/billy-sunday/ [the link is to my post, The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences]
In the paragraph below the image of Sunday preaching by George Bellows, you write “There also was a Klan night.”
The image referred to: Billy Sunday portrait by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine 1915, via Wikipedia. Click to enlarge (it’s worth it)
I am aware of a number of occasions when Klan members- both hooded and Read the rest of this entry
Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?
Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.
Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?
Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.
In the run-up to the case, we even have the involvement of Billy Sunday, possibly the greatest of all pre-television evangelists, whose 18 day crusade in Memphis, Tennessee, was attended by some 200,000 people. Billy Sunday told his audiences that Darwin was an infidel: “To hell with the Modernists. Education today is chained to the devil’s throne. Teach evolution? Teaching about pre-historic man? No such thing as prehistoric man.” (Billy Sunday appealed to a broad public. He hosted a “Negro Night”, which 15,000 attended. There was also a Klan Night.)
The facts were not in dispute. Scopes had of course taught evolution, although the law said he shouldn’t. So it was really the law itself that was on trial. The ACLU was hoping to prove it unconstitutional because unreasonable, ambiguous, and an affront to freedom of conscience. Unreasonable because it opposed established science. Ambiguous because the Bible, to which it referred, was itself open to numerous interpretations. And an affront to freedom of conscience, because it imposed a preference for one religion (Christianity), and indeed one school of thought (the Fundamentalist) within that religion. These arguments were, according to the defence, fatal flaws in the prosecution indictment, which should therefore be quashed. The judge, however, was determined not to issue a ruling of that nature, and ordered the case to proceed. Now read on.
The defence case built on the above arguments. According to their interpretation of the statute, in order to be guilty Scopes would have had to do two separate things; (a) teach that humans were descended from lower animals, and (b) by that teaching, contradict the Bible. But the exact text of the Bible, how it should be understood, and even which books should be included in it were matters of controversy. The Bible was not a science textbook, and
[T]here is no more justification for imposing the conflicting views of the Bible on courses of biology than there would be for imposing the views of biologists on courses of comparative religion. We maintain that science and religion embrace two separate and distinct fields of thought and learning.
Accepting the Bible need not (and for the many Christians who accepted evolution did not) imply accepting the literal truth of the Genesis account. Bryan himself had praised Jefferson’s doctrine that governments had no business regulating religion, but that was exactly what the Tennessee Legislature had done by passing this law. In addition, since Scopes was accused of teaching evolution, it was necessary to establish what evolution science consisted of. The prosecution, more than once, had said that according to evolution man  was descended from monkeys. Not so; man and monkey shared a common ancestor, some time in the distant past. The human embryo, at various stages, had gill slits, then a tail, then hair. Evolution played a central role, not only in pure science, but in the applied sciences of medicine and agriculture. All this, and much more, the defence hoped to establish by calling expert witnesses.
None of this was to the liking of the prosecution, who attempted to interrupt even this bare outline, but the judge ruled that he needed to hear what the defence case would be, before deciding whether or not to exclude it. His eventual decision was that while the expert evidence was in his own view inadmissible, and should not be presented to the jury, it should nonetheless be entered into the trial record, for the benefit of the superior courts.
It did not take long for the prosecution to establish its facts. Scopes had reviewed Hunter’s Civic Biology, and in the course of doing so had taught the offending doctrine.
Most (not all) of the defence evidence was submitted in writing, since the judge allowed only part of it to be read out in court, and even that in the absence of the jury. However, I will not differentiate here between spoken and written evidence, and can only give a few samples of the extensive material. Distinguished churchmen testified that one could be flexible in one’s view of the Bible, to the point of accepting evolution, and still be a good Christian. A scholarly Rabbi testified that the King James translation of Genesis was incorrect. In order to counteract rumours to the contrary, former President Woodrow Wilson wrote that
Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.
William Bateson, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term “genetics”, had said at a Toronto conference that
I have put before you very frankly the considerations which have made us agnostic as to the actual mode and processes of evolution. When such confessions are made the enemies of science see their chance. If we cannot declare here and now how species arose, they will obligingly offer us the solutions with which obscurantism is satisfied.
As had indeed happened (see Bryan’s planned closing speech, below), prompting Bateson to submit a letter stating that
We do know that the plants and animals, including most certainly man, have been evolved from other and very different forms of life. As to the nature of this process of evolution, we have many conjectures, but little positive knowledge. The campaign against the teaching of evolution is a terrible example of the way in which truth can be perverted by the ignorant.
One other submission, by Professor Horatio Hackett Newman of Chicago, is noteworthy as a summary of the evidence for evolution that can still serve as a model today. As Prof Newman said, we can observe evolution in the present, which entitles us to invoke it as explanation, over much longer periods of time, in the past. The principle of evolution is “the one great law of life”, and stands in the first rank among natural laws because of the range of observational tests it has undergone, in every conceivable way, for more than half a century (remember that these words were written in 1925; we would now say more than a century and a half). As Newman put it,
The evidences of evolution that we shall investigate are contained within the following fields of biology:
First – Comparative anatomy or morphology, the science of structure. Second – Taxonomy, the science of classification. Third – Serology the science of blood tests. Fourth – Embryology the science of development. Fifth – Paleontology, the science of extinct life. Sixth – Geographic distribution, the study of the horizontal distribution of closely similar species upon the earth’s surface. Seventh – Genetics, the analytlc and experimental study of evolutionary processes going on today.
The only alteration a present-day exponent of evolution would make, is to replace serology (a crude estimate of degree of tissue similarity based on immune responses) with the enormously more refined methods of protein and DNA sequencing. The coming together of this new knowledge, undreamt of at the time of the trial, with the other lines of evidence listed, is as breathtaking as the coming together of lines of masonry in the ceiling of a Gothic cathedral.
The anatomical evidence included the homologous structures of the human arm, the whale’s flipper, the wing of a bird and, less obviously until detailed examination is undertaken, the front leg of a horse. Special creation, on the other hand, “implies a slavish adherence to a preconceived ideal plan together with capricious departures from the plan in various instances.”
Comparative anatomy clearly enables us to distinguish between homologies related to common descent, and the merely analogous independent evolution of similar but unrelated organs. Further anatomical evidence comes from vestigial organs, including transient vestigial organs such as the hind limb buds in a whale embryo. Taxonomy gives us nested classifications; dogs as varieties of the wolf species within the canid genus within the order of Carnivora within mammals within vertebrates within chordates within the Animal kingdom. Taxonomy also places man among the primates, another order within the class of mammals. Man is a species with at least four subspecies (present-day science would blur the boundaries, but that does not affect the argument), evidence of a long evolutionary history incompatible with biblical chronology.
Serology in Newman’s time depended on inducing an immune response in rabbits to one particular species, which would then show a similar immune response to a second, related species, and the greater the biochemical similarity between the species, the stronger that response would be. Remarkably, Newman correctly used this evidence to place whales as most closely related to hoofed animals, and specifically to swine, a conclusion that was not generally accepted until the 1990s.
Embryology recapitulates common ancestry (for an outstanding discussion of this, see Alice Roberts’ prize-winning The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being). Thus the human embryo at an early stage has a two-chamber heart, like a fish, and gill slits, and diverges from the anthropoid apes only in the final stages of development. Palaeontology is closely related to geology, with “a general progression toward more highly specialized forms as one proceeds from lower to higher strata.” The fossil record is patchy (I do not think one would say this now; see for example Prothero’s What the Fossils Say and why it Matters). While reasonably complete for the horse it is [was] patchy for humans, but progress is being made. (Newman, interestingly, explicitly reserves judgement on Piltdown Man. Progress was indeed being made, but the Taung Child, mentioned in Part 1, and referred to in other written evidence, seems to have come just too late for Newman’s deposition.)
Newman’s argument from geographical distribution comes straight out of Darwin, but rings as true today as when it was first minted. Continental islands such as the Galapagos are inhabited by species generally similar to those of the adjacent mainland, whereas those of oceanic islands, such as Hawaii, had until human intervention very different flora and fauna, related to such species as might, from time to time, survive a long ocean journey.
Genetics, in brief, shows evolution in action in the present day. And all these signs of evidence come together in supporting the great evolutionary explanation of resemblance as the result of relationship.
For balance, I should at this point summarise the arguments in the speech that Bryan had planned to make at the end of the trial (see below for how this plan was frustrated), and no doubt formed the basis of the speeches that he did give in the days immediately following. It will not improve our opinion of Bryan’s logic, but will help explain his motivation. And if we are not interested in this, we will not be able to reach out to those we most need to persuade.
The law was not a restriction on Scopes’s freedom as an individual, but merely on his actions as a state employee. Christianity welcomes science, but nothing can be scientific unless it is true, and whatever is true must agree with the Bible. Evolution was a mere hypothesis (here he misquoted Bateson, as Bateson had foreseen; see above). No one had demonstrated the transformation of one species into another, and despite the circumstantial evidence in favour of evolution, this was a fatal flaw. Bryan then brought five specific indictments against evolution. First, it disputes the truth of the Bible. Secondly, it leads, as the horrible example of Charles Darwin himself shows, by way of non-literal reading of the Bible towards agnosticism if not atheism, and the denial of revelation and of eternal life. Half of all academic scientists are atheists, and many students lose their faith while at university. Thirdly, evolution diverts attention from pressing problems of great importance to trivial speculation, and deadens the spiritual life of its students:
Christians desire that their children shall be taught all the sciences, but they do not want them to lose sight of the Rock of Ages while they study the age of rocks; neither do they desire them to become so absorbed in measuring the distance between the stars that they will forget Him who holds the stars in His Hand.
Fourthly, evolution deadens the urge for reform, and denies the possibility of individual redemption. “Evolution makes a mockery of the Lord’s Prayer!” Bryan’s fifth indictment is that evolution is based on the survival of the fittest, militates against compassion, and justifies eugenics and the politics of force. It devalues human life, as had been so apparent in the Great War, and is even associated (Bryan never explained the association) with sexual permissiveness. Science had made war more terrible than ever, so that our need for the moral guidance that Christianity offers was greater than ever. But evolution degrades the Saviour’s name,
For, carried to its logical conclusion, it robs Christ of the story of a virgin birth, of the majesty of His deity and mission and of the triumph of His resurrection. It also disputes the doctrine of the atonement.… The case has assumed the proportions of a battle-royal between unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science and the defenders of the Christian faith, speaking through the legislators of Tennessee. It is again a choice between God and Baal.
Bryan is not attacking a straw man. In his speech he quotes from The New Decalogue of Science, by Alfred Wiggam, typical of the highly influential eugenicist literature of the time, which warns that compassionate social policies would lead to a weakening of the race, and states eugenics as the highest duty of government (for samples of his text see here and here). Wiggam himself was actively campaigning into the 1940s. More than 30 US States passed compulsory sterilisation laws. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which mingles evolution, racism, and eugenics, was influential in the passage of the 1924 US Immigration Act, just one year before Bryan drafted this speech. This book described the Nordic race as the most advanced, and helped justify a policy that excluded Jews and other Eastern European immigrants.
Bryan is also appealing to religion as the basis for morality. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that such reasoning is logically unsound does not reduce its psychological appeal, and as Kenan Malik argues in his The Quest for a Moral Compass, we have been struggling with this tension, with doubtful success, for over 2000 years. Finally, Bryan is searching for the comfort of certainty in an uncertain world, and like other creationists he points to the uncertain and provisional nature of scientific knowledge, as if that were a crucial weakness rather than, paradoxically, its greatest strength.
Many of the detailed points raised by Bryan are still being raised today. The claim that evolution is only a theory, that it speculates when jumping over missing links, that plant breeders had only produced varieties within species (“microevolution”), that unnamed great scientists are divided about evolution, that scientific disputes about mechanisms imply doubt about the basic fact of evolution, that if you teach children they are animals they will behave like animals, that evolutionists are intolerant when they demand that their views should be the only one taught, and that schools should teach according to the wishes of the taxpayers who fund them.
The enduring interest in the Scopes trial comes mainly from the final afternoon of evidence, when Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand (actually, by this stage, a wooden chair on the courthouse lawn) to testify regarding the contents of the Bible. This testimony also would be entered into the trial record, but heard in the absence of the jury, who missed one of the most dramatic episodes in legal history. One hardly knows where to begin when discussing this manoeuvre. The strangest thing of all is that Bryan rose to the bait. Judge Raulston made it very clear that he was under no obligation to testify. The cross-examination had nothing directly to do with the point at issue; no possible relevance to what Scopes may or may not have taught in the classroom, and Darrow’s questioning made no reference to the subject under discussion, namely human evolution. Bryan was placing himself at Darrow’s mercy, where Darrow, as one of the world’s best cross-examining lawyers, had total control over what questions would be raised. Indeed, Bryan had on an earlier occasion refused such an asymmetric contest, saying that he would answer Darrow’s questions only if Darrow would agree, turn by turn, to answer his. Bryan did ask whether he would be allowed to call Darrow to the witness stand, but any such idea must have been forgotten long before the afternoon was over.
After some preliminary generalities, Darrow asked whether Bryan believed that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale. A big fish, rather than a whale, otherwise yes. Then a revealing statement of Bryan’s attitude to miracles:
Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another. When you get beyond what man can do, you get within the realm of miracles; and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.
Darrow moved on to some deeply searching questions about the biblical passage that describes how Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, until the Israelite victory was complete. How could this be, when we know that it is not the Sun but the Earth that moves? With great reluctance, Bryan admitted that it must have been the Earth that stood still, and that the Bible was “using language at that time that the people understood.” Yet Bryan denied that this was his interpretation of the passage; to admit that the Bible could be open to different interpretations would undermine the entire Fundamentalist case.
He conceded slowly, under questioning, that actually it must have been the Earth that stood still. At this point, Attorney-General Stewart, the lead prosecutor, interrupted to object that this cross-examination had nothing to do with the trial. Bryan, however, insisted on ploughing on, and did not seem to have even anticipated Darrow’s rather obvious follow-up question:
Q– Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?
Q–You have not?
A– No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.
Q– I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?
Q–Don’t you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?
A–I would want to hear expert testimony on that.
Q–You have never investigated that subject?
A–I don’t think I have ever had the question asked.
Q–Or ever thought of it?
A–I have been too busy on things that I thought were of more importance than that.
For what it’s worth, Darrow was mistaken here. The kinetic energy of the Earth’s rotation would be enough to heat it up somewhere between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius, not to melt it. However, the inertia of the oceans would have generated continent-size tsunamis, and making the Earth stand still would have required a temporary suspension of the most basic laws of physics. This is not a problem for Bryan, who thinks that God’s capacity for miracles is boundless.
It gets worse. When asked whether he accepts the date for the Flood [sic] of 4004 BC, Bryan waffles and does not seem to know what that date was based on, although all that is involved is simple arithmetic based on the biblical genealogies. Regarding the age of the Earth, he initially refuses to say whether he accepts Bishop Ussher’s date or not, although he was in fact perfectly ready (as becomes clear later in the cross questioning) to treat each biblical “day” as an age. Here Bryan is fighting on two fronts. He did not want to admit that it is legitimate to impose an interpretation of the Bible, because that would concede too much to the Modernists. On the other hand, he needed to play down the deep division between his own Old Earth creationism, and that of extreme Adventist literalism. He claimed widespread scientific support for his views, but when pressed could only name one; George McCready Price, whom he described as a Professor of Geology at Lodi College near Lincoln, Nebraska. In fact, Price had left Lodi (which was just a boarding school in California) in 1915, was at the time teaching at a Seventh Day Adventist College in England. and had almost no formal training in geology. Pricewas a fierce Young earth creationist, who argued that fossils could not be dated, and that all the sedimentary rocks were deposited during Noah’s Flood.
While Bryan was stumbling over the day-age issue, the judge himself intervened, questioning the relevance of the testimony, but Bryan insisted on continuing, not, as he said, for the benefit of the appellate court, but to show his willingness to defend the Bible against detractors.
Bryan had already affirmed his belief in a literal tower of Babel, at which peoples had first been divided by language, and his lack of interest in the evidence that distinct civilisations with different languages had existed before the time specified in Genesis for this division. When questioned, he also affirmed his belief in a literal Adam and Eve, and in Eve having been made out of Adam’s rib. When asked if he knew where Cain got his wife, he replied “No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.” Somewhat belatedly, he defended on purely textual grounds his day-age interpretation of Genesis 1, admitted to believing in a literal serpent that crawls upon its belly as punishment for its role in the Fall, and interrupted shrewd questioning about the origin of the rainbow to say that Darrow was trying to use the court to slur the Bible. With the words “I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on Earth believes”, Darrow concluded his cross questioning, and the court adjourned.
I am amazed by how poorly both sides conducted themselves here. Bryan comes over as ill-prepared for questions that any defender of the biblical text should have been well aware of, while Darrow has scored a pyrrhic victory, by ridiculing his opponent and all his supporters. There is nothing unbiblical or subversive in interpreting the story of Jonah as a parable. One can imagine atmospheric lensing that would make the observed Sun, as source of light, stay in place in the heavens (incredible perhaps, but less incredible than Bryan’s alternatives). And had he really not thought about where Cain’s wife came from? (We are told that Adam and Eve had other children, and there was as yet no law against incest.) Bryan would also have done well to explain at the first opportunity, rather than having it wormed out of him, the day-age interpretation of Genesis. He made a few wisecracks that went down well with his own supporters in the crowd but, surprisingly for an experienced politician, he seems to have been quite oblivious of how his performance would appear to the 200 newsmen present at the trial, and refused repeatedly opportunities to bring his ordeal to an end, something that only happened when, eventually, even Darrow had had enough.
Darrow, a highly experienced trial lawyer, I find even more puzzling. Ridicule is a powerful weapon, but not if one wants to win over those who will identify with its victim. Repeatedly, Darrow insults the crowd; “bleachers”, “down here in the hills”, “your fool religion”, “where have you lived all your life? [Answer: Not near you] Nor near anybody of learning?” The only excuse I can offer is that he may have been so afraid of the spread of Fundamentalism that he was willing to play on northern prejudice in order to quarantine it in the deep South.
Bryan still had one powerful shot in his locker; his closing speech on behalf of the prosecution. But he would not be allowed to deliver it. When the court convened the next day, Darrow suggested, and it was agreed, that the judge instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty on the basis of the evidence offered, and then summed up for the defence by saying that he could offer them no reason to do otherwise. This, of course, made any further proceedings unnecessary. Scopes was duly found guilty, and Judge Raulston, after discussion with the jury, imposed a $100 fine, the minimum the law allowed.
The appeal was an anticlimax. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that, since the fine had been imposed by the judge, when by law the amount should have been decided by the jury, the penalty should be quashed, and, on the grounds that Scopes had by then left the employ of the State, directed that the case be allowed to lapse.
Bryan, an overweight diabetic, travelled hundreds of miles in the blistering summer heat, and made two major speeches, in the days following the trial. Then, on the following Sunday, he died in his sleep during an afternoon nap. Scopes, who took no pleasure in his brief celebrity status, won a scholarship to the University of Chicago and became a professional geologist. Darrow retired from full time practice shortly after the Scopes Trial, but appeared in a few further high profile cases, and died in 1938.
A whole series of cases (Epperson v Arkansas, McLean v Arkansas, Edwards v Aguillard, Kitzmiller v Dover) have by now established that under the First Amendment separation between Church and State, evolution should not be suppressed, and creationism (including such variants as Creation Science and Intelligent Design) should not be taught, in US publicly funded schools. In addition, new national standards in the US and in England (but not yet in Scotland) require the teaching of evolution to all schoolchildren. Yet increasingly US school boards and States are finding their way round this, by giving parents vouchers that can be used to pay the fees for nominally independent creationist schools.
Deplorable that they do this; even more deplorable, perhaps, that they even want to. The key here lies in the 2011Science article, “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, but not in the Classroom“, which found that only 28% of high school teachers gave lessons on evolution, while 13% refrained because they were themselves creationists. As for the remaining 60%, they wanted to avoid controversy with parents or with children who had been taught creationist arguments, were themselves often unsure about how to handle questions on the subject, and simply avoided teaching it.
Within creationism, Intelligent Design supplies intellectual topdressing, but is increasingly blatant in its tactical alliance with biblical creationism, and within biblical creationism, on the principle that the most uncompromising claim is the most authentic, the dominant school is now Young Earth creationism, reinforced by the Flood Geology of Whitcomb and Morris. This is itself a retreading of the Adventist views of George McCready Price, whom we have already met (see Part 1), and who seems to have been the real long-term beneficiary of the trial.
Price, a Seventh day Adventist, regarded Darwin as having been inspired by Satan. While this post was being revised, his view was echoed by fellow-Adventist Ben Carson, currently running for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US Presidential election. Carson is neither stupid nor ignorant; on the contrary, he is a distinguished neurosurgeon, former Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and led the first team of surgeons to separate twins born joined at the skull. My friend Michael Roberts’ post, which I reblogged yesterday, explores the historical origins of this Adventist creationism. I can only wonder at the power of such a faith.
1] I have not attempted to use gender-free language. Such language would not be appropriate for the time and place of this trial, where all the active participants, including attorneys, witnesses, and jury, were male.
2] Wallace, of course, made major contributions here, and the line separating Asiatic from Australasian fauna is still known as the Wallace Line.
Sources as in Part 1. Billy Sunday portrait by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine 1915, via Wikipedia. Scopes photo from Smithsonian (public domain). Darrow and Bryan chatting, author unknown, via Wikipedia. Forelimb homology image from Monroe W. Strickberger, Evolution, Third Edition. Human foetus from babycenter photo gallery. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.
What is the purpose of this examination?
We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and that is all.
Inherit the Wind, the prism through which the public sees the Scopes Trial, is a travesty. William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes, was neither a buffoon nor a biblical literalist but moved by deep concerns that continue to merit attention. He did not protest at the leniency of Scopes’s punishment, but offered to pay the fine out of his own pocket. Nor did he collapse in defeat at the end of the trial, but drove hundreds of miles, and delivered two major speeches, before dying in his sleep a week later. Scopes, on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee state school, was never at risk of prison. He was no martyr, but a willing participant in a test case, actively sought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and his subsequent career was as geologist, not school teacher. He was found guilty, quite understandably given the wording of the law. On appeal, his conviction was quashed on a technicality, bypassing the need to rule on the deeper issues, much to the dismay of his supporters. Worse; on what we would now regard as the crucial issue, whether the law against teaching evolution in State schools violated the constitutional separation of Church and State, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that
We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship.
The law prohibiting the teaching of evolution affected textbooks for a while, but its impact was fading within a decade. However, it was not repealed until 1967, when Soviet accomplishments in space were forcing Americans to examine the state of US science education. A similar law, passed in Arkansas through citizens’ initiative, survived until 1968, when in Epperson v Arkansas, the US Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on teaching evolution was based on religion and therefore unconstitutional. As for the doctrine that creationism itself is religion, not science, and therefore should not be taught in public schools, that was not established in the US courts until McLean v Arkansas,1982 and at Supreme Court level Edwards v Aguillard, 1987, Justice Scalia dissenting.
The play does not even claim historical accuracy. It was written in 1951, and the preface (free download from here, p.11) states
Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during a scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely of its own.
Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes Trial.
…The collision of Brian and Darrow at Dayton was dramatic, but it was not a drama. Moreover, the issues of their conflict have acquired new dimension and meaning in the 30 years since they clashed at the Rhea County Courthouse. So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as “Not long ago.” It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.
“Could be tomorrow”, in 1951, when there had been no monkey trials since 1925? Clearly, the play is not about those events in Dayton, but a comment on the anti-intellectual mob rule of the McCarthy era. Despite this, the play, and the various film versions from 1960 onwards, have shaped public attitudes to the trial and, to my mind, lamentably coarsened debate.
And yet the exchanges between the Scopes trial prosecutors, and Clarence Darrow speaking for the defence, remain as topical as ever.
Darrow, the best remembered of the defence team, was not the ACLU’s choice, but they could not but follow Scopes in accepting his services, on this, the only occasion on which he offered them without a fee. He was an outspoken and abrasive agnostic, of whom the humanist Edwin Mims, Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, and theological Modernist, commented, “When Clarence Darrow is put forth as the champion of the forces of enlightenment to fight the battle for scientific knowledge, one feels almost persuaded to become a Fundamentalist.” In his famous cross-examination of Bryan, Darrow comes over as a condescending bully. And yet any sympathy one might feel for Bryan quickly evaporates on reading the speech he had prepared for the court, but was prevented by defence manoeuvres from delivering. Bryan’s position presented defenders of science with a dilemma, to which I would dearly love to find a good resolution: one does not win over opponents by ridiculing their position and humiliating their champion, and yet what else is one to do when faced with ridiculous beliefs presented by a crowd-pleasing and truth-distorting blowhard?
This summer sees the 90th anniversary of the trial, widely regarded as an example of reason defeating obscurantism. My friend the historian geologist Michael Roberts argues, and I agree, that this popular view is damaging, as well as mistaken, and that the only long-term beneficiaries of the affair were the Flood Geology pseudoscientists, at the time of the trial itself no more than a fringe group within Young Earth creationism. What follows draws on Michael’s work, and on the trial transcript, the Pulitzer Prize winning account Summer for the Gods by the lawyer and historian Edward J. Larson, and other sources.
In the early 1920s, America’s churches were deeply divided between Modernists and Fundamentalists. Bryan, his once-promising political career now over, placed himself at the head of the Fundamentalist faction and its campaign to ban the teaching of evolution. The Governor of Tennessee was in favour of such a ban, but wisely recommended that the law should not specify a penalty. Even without one, it would make the State’s position sufficiently clear to its teachers, whereas if it could result in criminal prosecution, it would invite the controversy of a test case. That of course is exactly what happened.
As one might expect, some universities were highly critical of the law. The University of Tennessee itself hesitated to take a position, dependent as it was on state funding for its planned expansion, but Vanderbilt University, a private institution in Nashville, Tennessee, took a clear stand in favour of evolution. There was even a proposal to bar graduates of Tennessee State schools from Columbia University, leading school Superintendent White to suggest that Dayton found its own university, named after Bryan. This happened. The Bryan College Statement of Belief maintains “that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis”, and since 2014 the teaching Faculty have been required to believe in the special creation of a literal historical Adam and Eve.
By 1925, when the Tennessee law was passed, the evidence for evolution was reasonably conclusive, but not yet as overwhelming as it is today. Molecular phylogeny, which places common ancestry beyond all reasonable doubt, was still decades in the future. Genetics was in its infancy, but Thomas Hunt Morgan was already working out how Mendelian inheritance, combined with mutation, could drive evolution, and these developments were referred to in Hunter’s Civic Biology, the standard text from which Scopes had taught. The fossil record was meagre by today’s standards, giving some appearance of substance to the creationist claim that Darwinism was based on extrapolation and conjecture, rather than observation. The record of human evolution was particularly scant, depending largely on Neanderthals, Heidelberg Man, and the now discredited Piltdown Man. All of these had cranial capacities not too different from modern humans, so it was still possible to argue that there was a “missing link” between us and what we choose to call lower animals, and the fact that the crude Piltdown forgery was able to survive in the scientific literature for several decades, albeit with heavy question marks, shows how underdeveloped physical anthropology was at that time. If we had to choose a date for when the “missing link” argument lost credibility, I would suggest February 1925, just a few months before the Scopes trial, when the first Australopithecine, the “Taung Child“, was described in the journal Nature. This find attracted major publicity, and the defence planned to use it in evidence.
Evolution was not the only topic that divided (and divides) the American churches. Of comparable significance was the challenge presented by the Higher Criticism, which argues that Genesis did not have a single author, but was the result of joining together two or more disparate and at times mutually contradictory texts. This view leaves room for regarding the Bible as inspired, but not for the traditional doctrine of word-for-word perfection and infallibility. Modernisers within the churches were willing to accept both evolution and textual criticism, and Fundamentalism, historically speaking, can be seen as a reaction to this Modernism.
Some legal features must be noticed, if we are to understand the trial in the context of its time. The statute specified what might or might not be taught in State universities; this would nowadays be regarded as violation of academic freedom. The constitutionality of the statute was at that time largely a matter of State, rather than Federal, law; it is now accepted that the State constitutions are fully subordinate to the freedoms guaranteed by the Federal constitution. And under the 1971 Lemon Test, a statute must not advance or inhibit religious practice (i.e. religious practice in general), and must serve a secular purpose. The Tennessee Supreme Court, in its judgement cited above, was using a much more restrictive test than this. We should also remember that Darrow and Bryan were personal friends, and had campaigned as allies on behalf of unionised labour.
Finally, and of the most enduring interest and importance, we have a conflict between two different concepts of democracy. The prosecution appealed repeatedly to the right of the majority, as the teachers’ paymasters, to specify the content of their teaching. Contrast this with what I might call the principle of liberal democracy, which guarantees freedom of expression, and when it comes to the content of education requires the public to defer to expert opinion.
The facts of the case were not in dispute. Scopes had taught from Hunter’s Civic Biology (the State’s own prescribed textbook!), and in so doing had taught about human evolution, and broken the law. So the case was not really about this, but about the status of the law itself. The defence case would be that Scopes should not be found guilty because what he did should not be called a crime.
Nor was the outcome difficult to predict. Judge Raulston was a devout Christian. Educated at a Methodist University, he was probably not himself a Fundamentalist, but was an elected official within a Fundamentalist-leaning state. In any case, he may very reasonably have thought that the broader issues should be decided by the higher courts, rather than at district level. So he could be expected to use all his ingenuity to block the defence’s claims.
The Tennessee statute, passed into law just one month after the Nature paper appeared, stated
That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals. [Emphasis added]
Hence one prong of the defence strategy, as spelt out by defence attorney Malone:
The narrow purpose of the defense is to establish the innocence of the defendant Scopes. The broad purpose of the defense will be to prove that the Bible is a work of religious aspiration and rules of conduct which must be kept in the field of theology. [Emphasis added]
Malone is, in my view, one of the few protagonists whose reputation is enhanced by the trial. A Catholic but a divorce lawyer, himself remarried after divorce, he was a Modernist at a time when his Church was still undecided about evolution. His subsequent career involved serving as legal adviser to 20th Century Fox, and occasionally appearing in their films.
The other prong of the defence case would be to establish that the law was unconstitutional because unreasonable, since it flew in the face of the established scientific fact. So the trial involved both the main issues separating the theological Modernists from the Fundamentalists: evolution, and the proper use, by believers, of Scripture. Regarding the latter, the defence adopted the position later associated with the name of Stephen J Gould and his doctrine of “non-overlapping magisteria“. To interpret the Bible literally was to fail to understand it. Science and religion could not possibly be in conflict, because they were talking about different kinds of thing. Thus the defence hoped to call as witnesses both scientific experts, and leading Modernist theologians. Also, during jury selection, Darrow took care to ask each potential juryman what he thought about evolution. Clearly, many knew nothing about the subject, strengthening the case that they should hear evidence explaining it.
For the prosecution, Bryan tried to summon opposing scientific opinion, but could not find anyone of stature willing to testify against evolution. The prosecution therefore changed its tactics, aiming instead to restrict the trial to the simple fact of Scopes’s breach of the law. However, Bryan’s intended closing speech, which defence tactics (see below) prevented him from delivering, was to be a broadside against evolution using all the creationist devices of quote mining, misrepresentation of fact, and claims that evolution was unbiblical, atheistic, and morally corrosive.
The defence, as we have seen, was based entirely on discrediting the law, and indeed that was the reason why the ACLU had helped arrange for the case be brought in the first place. As a result, almost all the trial, spread over eight working days, was devoted to matters of law, not fact. Was the statute constitutional? Would it be deemed unconstitutional if it violated freedom of conscience, placed restrictions on how the Bible should be interpreted, or was contrary to established science, and what kinds of evidence could be introduced to decide these questions? Since the law was a matter for the judge alone, almost all the case was heard in the absence of the jury. In addition, numerous briefs supporting the defence were never heard at all, but simply placed on record for the benefit of the appeals courts.
At the outset, the defence argued that the indictment should be quashed because the law and the indictment based on it were defective, for a mixture of reasons. The State had a constitutional duty to cherish science, and science could not be taught without including evolution. The law was contrary to the State’s own establishment clause, by favouring a particular religion, and thereby violating freedom of conscience. In addition, it was so vague as to be meaningless, since it referred to what was thought in the Bible, but the Bible was open to numerous different interpretations.
Such arguments might seem strange to a reader from the United Kingdom, where Parliament is sovereign. But they are familiar in the United States, where both State and Federal Governments derive their legitimacy from written constitutions.
Hays for the defence argued that the law was intrinsically unreasonable, and therefore exceeded the policing rights of the state, as would a law against teaching that the Earth went round the Sun. “Evolution is as much a scientific fact as the Copernican theory.” The State could determine what subjects should be taught but could not reasonably demand that they be taught falsely.
Attorney General Stewart for the prosecution countered that the statute was about the proper use of state funds, and therefore within the State’s proper jurisdiction. The citizenry paid for their schools and therefore had a right to decide what those schools should teach. There was no violation of conscience, since Scopes was free to hold and advocate whatever opinion he chose, but that did not entitle him to propound evolution in opposition to state policy in the State’s own classrooms.
The defence had, as we shall see, decided on a strategy that would prevent lengthy closing statements, usually the highpoint of a criminal trial. And so Darrow presented his strongest arguments at this point. His speech, which took two hours to deliver, was considered the finest of his career. It was witnessed by over 200 newspaperman, as well as the judge and courtroom spectators. So millions of people knew what Darrow said, but not, ironically, the trial jury.
The speech was reprinted in full in the New York Times. Space, obviously, will not allow me to do the same, so I must make do with a bald summary, and a few quotations that may convey the flavour.
The Tennessee State constitution protected religious freedom, and therefore stated that “no preference shall be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” The law violated this principle, and was a law inhibiting learning. It established a specific religious standard because it gave specific status to the Bible, rather than any other sacred text. Evolution had been taught in Tennessee for years. Bryan “is responsible for this foolish, mischievous and wicked act… Nothing was heard of all that until the fundamentalists got into Tennessee.” As for the Bible, it contained different accounts of creation, making the law unworkable in its vagueness. It was a book of morals, not science. The law was unconstitutional because it violated the great Jeffersonian principle of freedom of conscience, vital to a civil society.
Here, we find today as brazen and as bold an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the middle ages. That is what was foisted on the people of this state, that it should be a crime in the state of Tennessee to teach any theory of the origin of man, except that contained in the divine account as recorded In the Bible. But the state of Tennessee under an honest and fair interpretation of the constitution has no more right to teach the Bible as the divine book than that the Koran is one, or the book of Mormons, or the book of Confucius, or the Budda, or the Essays of Emerson, or any one of the 10,000 books to which human souls have gone for consolation and aid in their troubles.
The Bible is a book primarily of religion and morals. It is not a book of science. Never was and was never meant to be. They thought the earth was created 4,004 years before the Christian Era. We know better. I doubt if there is a person in Tennessee who does not know better. They told it the best they knew. And while science may change all you may learn of chemistry, geometry and mathematics, there are no doubt certain primitive, elemental instincts in the organs of man that remain the same, he finds out what he can and yearns to know more and supplements his knowledge with hope and faith. That is the province of religion and I haven’t the slightest fault to find with it.
My friend the attorney-general [prosecuting] says that John Scopes knows what he is here for. Yes I know what he is here for, because the fundamentalists are after everyone that thinks. I know why he is here. I know he is here because ignorance and bigotry are rampant and it is a mighty strong combination, your honour.
The state by constitution is committed to the doctrine of education, committed to schools. It is committed to teaching and I assume when it is committed to teaching it is committed to teaching the truth.
Can [the legislature] say to the astronomer, you cannot turn your telescope upon the infinite planets and suns and stars that fill space, lest you find that the earth is not the center of the universe. Can it? It could – except for the work of Thomas Jefferson, which has been woven into every state constitution of the Union, and has stayed there like the flaming sword to protect the rights of man against ignorance and bigotry, and when it is permitted to overwhelm them, then we are taken in a sea of blood and ruin that all the miseries and tortures and carion of the middle ages would be as nothing.
If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightment and culture to the human mind.
The judge was having none of it. In a ruling slightly longer than Darrow’s speech, he gave his opinion that the law was perfectly clear, and legitimate in its scope. The offence consisted in teaching that man was descended from a lower order of animals, and the references to evolution and the Bible merely provided additional context. Later on in the trial, he was to rule on more or less the same grounds that evidence concerning evolution, and about different ways in which the Bible could be interpreted, were beside the point.
The judge no doubt intended his point by point rebuttal of the motion to quash to be dramatic. Unfortunately, before he delivered his ruling, it had already been published in the newspapers. He was furious and ordered the assembled pressmen to trace the source of the leak. They had little difficulty. The source was Judge Raulston himself. One reporter had asked him, with affected casualness, whether the case would be resuming directly after he delivered his opinion, and he had said that it would. But if he had accepted the motion to quash, there would have been no case left to resume.
The defence next quoted the Governor himself as having said that the law was consistent with the existing States textbooks, would not put Tennessee’s teachers in any jeopardy, and would probably never be applied. In response, the judge quite correctly pointed out that under the American doctrine of separation of powers, the Governor as head of the executive branch had no right to impose his own interpretation on the law, this being the role of the judiciary. He also ruled that expert evidence concerning evolution, and about different ways in which the Bible could be interpreted, were irrelevant and inadmissible, but allowed the defence to place such evidence in the trial record for the benefit of the appeals courts.
In my next post, I will describe this inadmissible evidence, Darrow’s famous dialogue with Bryan, Bryan’s intended closing speech and why it was not delivered at the trial (although Bryan did deliver two very similar speeches in the days immediately following), how the case was settled, and subsequent legal battles. I will also give my own view on who won, who lost, the extraordinary errors of judgement displayed by both the main protagonists, and the implications for us today.
1] The trial transcript and related documents are freely available as PDF photocopy (readable but not suitable for cut-and-paste, although PDF readers such as Nuance can convert much of it to edit-ready MSWord). In addition to these, and Michael’s account, I have used that given by the constitutional lawyer Douglas Linder (Professor at University of Missouri Kansas City Law School) here. . The fullest account, however, is by the lawyer and historian Edward J. Larson, whose Summer for the Gods earned a Pulitzer Prize. I have also used other sources, such as Ronald Numbers’ authoritative study, The Creationists; Numbers has also posted much of his research on line here, as part of the Counterbalance science in context project. I acknowledge special help from Alastair Arthur, of Glasgow University Library Services.
2] Full text at http://moses.law.umn.edu/darrow/trials.php?tid=7 Here, I have for ease of reading omitted ellipses, and added some half dozen words for continuity.
Dayton courthouse courtesy Michael Roberts. Darrow by Mobius, public domain. Taung Child image by Didier Descouens via Wikipedia. This piece appeared earlier in 3 Quarks Daily.