Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Summer for the Gods: A review

Summer for the GodsI finished this yesterday, and it is truly a remarkable book. The author, Edward J. Larson, won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1998 for this book, and it is well deserved. It is a scholarly work, with fascinating details about the Scopes trial, and it is meticulously researched.

First of all, if your opinions on the Scopes trial are based on pop culture, such as the play and movie “Inherit the Wind,” you should probably read more about it, and this book is a great place to start. The trial became mythologized starting in the 1930s, and it continued through the 1950s, when “Inherit the Wind” debuted on Broadway in 1955, and the movie was released in 1960. As much as I loved the movie (and would love to see the play one day), it is a distortion of the truth of the trial and the sentiments of many involved. It is entertaining and moving, but it’s not entirely accurate.

The trial was actually brought about by the newly-formed ACLU and a few townspeople in order to stage a “test case” for Tennessee’s recently enacted bill that barred the teaching of evolution in public schools. Contrary to popular belief, teacher John Scopes was not removed from his classroom in handcuffs; the trial was all pre-arranged, and Scopes agreed to be part of the test case. The ACLU wanted to test their chops against the bill, and the townspeople involved wanted some publicity for their sleepy little town of Dayton.

Publicity they got, especially when two of the more famous lawyers in the country, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, became involved. (Oddly enough, both Darrow and Bryan were considered to be progressive reformers; the difference was that Bryan was a fundamentalist and Darrow was an agnostic and/or atheist.) Unfortunately, the town of Dayton and the state of Tennessee didn’t fare well in public opinion nationally; they were seen as backwards and ignorant, and the horde of journalists who descended upon the town both perpetuated and put to rest such sentiments. Although the anti-evolution statute was still considered to be ignorant, most out-of-towners found the town to be friendly, clean, and welcoming.

In the years soon after the publication of Charles Darwin’s theory, there was widespread acceptance of evolution, not only among scientists, but among many in the religious community, many of whom found it perfectly compatible with their religion. It wasn’t until the rise of fundamentalism in the early 1900s that the split began, due to the tenets of fundamentalism:

  1. The accuracy and divine inspiration of scripture
  2. The virgin birth of Christ
  3. Salvation only through Christ’s sacrifice
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ and his followers
  5. The authenticity of biblical miracles

Once these tenets were in place and accepted by fundamentalist sects, there was no room for evolution and no compromise.

Darrow and BryanAt the time, the argument in court was framed as majoritarianism vs individual freedom. Bryan argued that the people of Tennessee had the right to decide what their children were taught in public schools; Darrow and the ACLU argued that teachers had the right to their freedom to teach accepted scientific principles. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the trial began to be reframed as fundamentalism vs skepticism/Modernism.

To make a long story short, Darrow and the ACLU lawyers defending Scopes’ right to teach evolution lost. The success of the anti-evolution bill in Tennessee prompted several other southern states, including Mississippi and Arkansas, to pass such laws. The anti-evolution movement didn’t gain much ground anywhere other than the south and west; any attempts to pass such laws in the north and east were defeated. It wasn’t until the mid- to late ‘60s that anti-evolution laws began to be overturned as unconstitutional.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and it seems we’re heading right back to the fundamentalist, anti-science attitude. It was astonishing to me to read these arguments from almost 100 years ago and realize that I have seen the exact same arguments against the teaching of evolution—and very recently, when my own state of Indiana considered a bill that would open the door to teaching creationism in our science classrooms. A local station posted a question on Facebook concerning the bill, and there were several people that said the parents should get to determine whether or not evolution is taught! I wonder if they realized they were making the same arguments from a century ago?

Of course, the tactics have changed now. Rather than laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution, fundamentalists are trying to pass laws to allow the teaching of creationism alongside. Never mind that this is a religious belief rather than any sort of scientific theory...they want to “teach the controversy.” For anyone who has ever studied science, there IS no controversy. You can decide whatever you want in terms of how evolution happened—if you have decided that there was a divine presence guiding it, that’s your right. But the denial of the fossil record, anthropological finds, and most recently, genetic testing, is a rejection of all science.

Among many other pertinent points and quotes, here are a couple that especially struck me. I suppose it should have been self-evident to me, but the main problem the anti-evolutionists had with evolution was that it would lead to questioning and an eventual disbelief in God the creator. Bryan charged that it would lead to an abandonment of divinely inspired morality. Nothing has changed, because we still see these same arguments today. According to an editorial in the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

“The thing we got from the trial of Scopes” was that most “sincere believers in religion” simply wanted to avoid the origins dispute altogether. “Some have their religion, but they are afraid if they go out and mix in the fray they will lose it. Some are afraid they will be put to confusion. Some are in the position of believing, but fear they can not prove their belief.”

In the appeal before the Tennessee State Supreme Court, Darrow stated:

...that religion was a personal matter “that ought to be the affair of the individual,” and science as a public activity that “is the cause of progress...and everything that makes civilization today.” In accord with his viewpoint, he asserted, “The schools of this state were not established to teach religion. They were established to teach science.”

Let me make a very important distinction here, because there are many who say that those of us opposed to such ‘creationism’ bills want to eradicate all mention of religion from schools, and even any religious belief itself! That is not the case. If there is some sort of a comparative religion class, or a literature class that focuses on religious texts, that is the appropriate place to discuss creation myths. (But keep in mind that Christianity is not the only religion out there. Any and all creation myths could be addressed.) It does not belong in the science classroom. Yeah, that gets italicized and boldicized. (Emboldened?)

Scopes trialCreationism is not a scientific theory. It cannot be tested; therefore it cannot be proven. (If you counter with “evolution is a theory and cannot be proven,” you need to read more about it and understand the concept of a scientific theory. It is being proven every single day, with every additional piece of data.) There is nothing to test, no results to be duplicated and peer-reviewed. If you want to teach your kids about it, teach them at home, teach them at church, or send them to a parochial school and teach them there. It has no place in our public school science classrooms. It just doesn’t. You can try to spin it and justify it in any way you want to, but it. is. not. science.

It’s hard for me to believe that a trial that happened almost a hundred years ago still has such pertinence today...and that this argument is still happening. I actually find it shameful. This book was a wonderful read and a wonderful resource for future debates (and I’m sure there will be some). We hear far too often lately about a “war on religion.” There is no war on religion. There certainly seems to be a war on scientific progress and academic freedom, however!


  1. I'll read it! Fascinating!

  2. This was an excellent book. It helps to put a great deal of America's political culture in perspective.


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