Monday, July 13, 2015

Monkey Trial

Upon arriving this Sabbath at the church where we worship we discovered that our usual location had been taken over as a dressing room by a group performing "Inherit the Wind," a play based on the Scopes trial. That trial took place ninety years ago last week. (The following was previously posted on this site):

In early July, 1925, in Dayton, Tennessee, the trial of John Scopes began. He was charged with violating a Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution in the public schools. He was guilty — he had intentionally violated the law. In this essay, "Revisiting The Scopes Trial," Peter Berger contends that one consequence of the trial "was to fortify a secularist worldview in the American intelligentsia, with a concomitant perception of Evangelicals as backwoods illiterates. The intellectual decline of Evangelicals has stopped. The secularist bias of intellectuals has not. It may be a good time to revisit the event."
The Scopes Trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was tried for having violated the state’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution. It was a staged event, with Scopes volunteering to test the constitutionality of the law. The American Civil Liberties Union (then as now an ardent defender of free speech and of the separation of church and state) played an important role in the staging. It organized his defense. It recruited the star defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), who stole the show. To counteract Darrow, the prosecution recruited William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)—a leading Evangelical with an impressive political profile, and a liberal who had three times been a Democratic candidate for the presidency, as well as having served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Darrow was widely known as a brilliant lawyer, an outspoken agnostic, and a strong opponent of capital punishment.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan
Not surprisingly, the trial attracted wide attention. It became a regular media circus. .... An army of journalists descended on the obscure provincial town, including some from Europe. H.L. Mencken reported on the trial for the Baltimore Sun (which, by the way, paid Scopes’ bail). Mencken’s account has become iconic, although (perhaps because) it was very prejudiced. He described the denizens of the town as “yokels” and “morons” (initiating what has been an elite view of Southern Evangelicals ever since). He called Bryan “a buffoon”, spouting “theologic bilge”. By contrast, he was full of admiration for the eloquence and wit of Darrow. Mencken and Darrow not only shared a contempt for the unwashed masses. They also had similar views of religion. Darrow once remarked that he did not believe in God for the same reason he did not believe in Mother Goose. Mencken wrote that the world was a gigantic ferris wheel, man a flea sitting on the wheel, religion as the flea’s belief that the wheel was constructed for the purpose of transporting it. Mencken’s account of the Scopes Trial formed the basis of a successful Broadway play, “Inherit the Wind” (1955), and of an even more successful film of the same name (1960 – there have been at least two later films).

Darrow was the clear winner in his duel with Bryan. History is written by the victors. Mencken’s narrative, enormously enhanced on stage and screen, has become dominant—a dramatic victory of reason over superstitious ignorance. There is another way of looking at this. ....

A year before, in 1924, Darrow headed the defense of the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago. That trial too has become well known. It concerned the murder of a fourteen-year old boy by two affluent young men who fancied themselves “supermen” as (they thought) glorified by Nietzsche. (Curiously, this was also a philosopher greatly admired by Mencken.) They wanted the thrill of committing the perfect crime. In this, they failed—they were promptly caught. Darrow realized that he had a “hanging jury” to contend with. .... Darrow’s main argument for the defense, an eloquent plea for mercy, has been deemed one of the great speeches in American legal history. He succeeded in avoiding a death sentence....

I find it very interesting that Bryan actually referred to Darrow’s role in the Leopold-Loeb case during the Scopes Trial. He quoted a rather revealing sentence from Darrow’s argument in the earlier trial: “This terrible crime was inherent in his [that is, one defendant’s] organism, and it came from some ancestor”. Bryan rightly saw this as a reference to evolution. Bryan then proposed that such crimes are the logical result of teaching children that humans are just one species of mammals, descended (he added sarcastically) “not even from American mammals, but from old world monkeys”. Let me paraphrase Bryan’s understanding of Darrow’s argument: We are all animals. Therefore, we should be merciful, and we should not impose the death penalty. ....

...Bryan was right for a very profound reason. Religious faith is not the necessary foundation for the quality of mercy. Darrow’s agnosticism did not prevent his passionate conviction about the inhumanity of capital punishment. But this conviction cannot be derived from science. It is derived from a distinctive perception of the human condition that can neither be validated nor falsified by science. Faith is not the only source of this perception. But it is an important one (historically a very important one). The Biblical view of the human condition, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, teaches the dignity of every human being as created in God’s image. Bryan, with all his untenable fundamentalist views, understood this. Darrow (and Mencken) did not. [more]
An excellent history of the trial is Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.

Re-posted from another anniversary of the trial: 

Glenn Reynolds notes the anniversary of the Scopes Trial: "...what you think you know about it is probably wrong — especially if what you think you know about it comes from watching Inherit The Wind. One of the comments to his post asserts that the controversy "wasn't about evolution but eugenics" and in support links to a selection of passages from the textbook that caused the controversy. For example:
The Races of Man. — At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Eugenics. — When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. — Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

Problem: Should the feeble-minded be allowed to marry?
The Remedy. — If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country. [more]
Revisiting The Scopes Trial | Religion and Other Curiosities, Instapundit » Blog Archive » WITH PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE SCOPES TRIAL, let me just note that what you think …, The Scopes Trial: