Things Don't Evolve &emdash; They Revolve

By James O. Castagnera

"Life is a circle." "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

Clichés persist because they capture the truth. To wit: 80 years ago in Dayton, Tenn., the world-famous Scopes Monkey Trial took place. During the last week of September 2005 the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District commenced an anticipated five-week trial in the US District Court in Harrisburg, Pa. Both cases involve the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The criminal trial of a teacher named John T. Scopes originated in the enactment of a statute by the Tennessee state legislature on March 21, 1925, which forbade the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution of species. Instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union, Scopes's challenge evolved into a test case of the new law. When the ACLU procured the services of America's most famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, and the county prosecutor appointed three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan to head his trial team, the case attracted international attention.

The Kitzmiller case is a civil suit. Its genesis is a resolution passed in October 2004 by the defendants, the Dover Area School District Board of Directors. The resolution requires that high school students in the district who study evolution also be informed of the competing "intelligent design" theory of creation. The plaintiffs are parents who are opposed to the policy. They are backed by two civil liberties organizations.

In January of this year, Dover school district administrators read a statement to their high school biology students:

"The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution. ... Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. ... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. ... With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves discussions of the origins of life to individual students and families. ..."

Eighty years ago, young John Scopes was convicted of violating the Tennessee law and fined $100. But his side came off by far the best in trial, which turned the town of Dayton into a national joke. By the time the case came to trial, almost seven decades after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, most mainstream Christian religions had reconciled evolution with the Bible. Cynical newspaper men, such as H.L. Mencken whose Baltimore Sun helped bankroll the defense, made fundamentalists and their hero Bryan look like buffoons. The Dayton town fathers came to regret the burst of boosterism that led to their hosting the trial.

Clarence Darrow, the 68-year-old "Attorney for the Damned," had written an essay called "Why I Am an Agnostic," in which he'd asked, "Can any rational person believe that the Bible is anything but a human document?" He replied to his rhetorical question, "The origin of the human race is not as blind a subject as it once was. Let alone God creating Adam out of hand, from the dust of the earth, does anyone believe that Eve was made from Adam's rib ...?"

Pundits like H.L. Mencken lampooned and even slandered William Jennings Bryan at the time of trial. The "Great Commoner," who had electrified farmers and laborers with his "Cross of Gold" campaign speeches a few decades earlier, died right after the trial, probably of exhaustion and heart failure. The damage done to his reputation in the newspapers was immortalized in the script of a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind premiered at the National Theatre in New York City on April 21, 1955. In 1960 Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly (playing the Darrow, Bryan and Mencken characters, respectively) starred in the first film rendition. (Dick York of Bewitched fame portrayed the Scopes character.) In 1999 Jack Lemon and George C. Scott made nearly their final film appearances as the two titanic but aging litigators in a remake of the movie.

The highlight of Inherit is the examination of Bryan by Darrow, an actual occurrence in the real 1925 trial. The difference is that, while Inherit makes Bryan out to be a fool, he was a bright guy who mostly just objected to the direction his country's mainstream culture had taken in the "Roaring Twenties." For instance, Inherit has Darrow's character quizzing Bryan's alter-ego about how long each of the six days of creation might have been. "Could it have been a 25-hour day?" asks Henry Drummond, aka Clarence Darrow. When Matthew Harrison Brady a.k.a. Bryan concedes that it could, Drummond/Darrow presses him to concede it could have been a day that lasted ten million years. Brady/Bryan, driven into a corner, shouts from the witness stand, "He wants to destroy everybody's belief in the Bible, and in God."

Here's how the exchange really went in 1925:

Q: Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?

A: I do not think it necessarily does.

Q: Do you think it does or does not?

A: I know a great many think so.

Q: What do you think?

A: I do not think it does.

Q: You think those were not literal days?

A: I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.

Q: What do you think about it?

A: That is my opinion &emdash; I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does.

Q: You do not think that ?

A: No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

In short, Bryan may have been the mainstream Christian capable of reconciling his Bible with Darwin, while Darrow was the doctrinaire zealot who couldn't see two sides. All the same, the "Attorney for the Damned" would have settled for giving evolution equal time in public school classrooms. And isn't that all that the Dover Area School Board is asking?

Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer and writer.

From The Progressive Populist, Nov. 1, 2005

Home Page

Copyright © 2005 The Progressive Populist