Trial and intellectual error

A 20th-century battle between science and religion rages to this day, says Simon Underdown

July 4, 2013

History is rarely straightforward – a fact that many school textbooks try to avoid by presenting chronology rather than interpretation. Add to this the old maxim that “history is written by the victor” and one can begin to see why what goes into school textbooks (and what is excluded) might be an important issue for teachers and academics alike. When dealing with the issue of evolution in US school textbooks, the situation is even more tortuous. A quick glance at any US newspaper article on the subject will reveal that there is no “victor” in the conventional sense – more a state of angry détente with the occasional skirmish. Much research, including some of my own, has suggested that the overriding view of evolution among school pupils is that it is not a black and white issue, but one that is full of confusion. Therefore it is not really surprising that historical events are often used as fixed points in time upon which details of the continuing battle between evolutionists and the opposing camp – creationists, intelligent designers or “young Earthers” (all the same thing, whatever they may claim) – are crammed.

Adam Shapiro’s book is a brave attempt to recontextualise The State of Tennessee v John Thomas Scopes – the famous 1925 trial of a schoolteacher who fell foul of an existing state law forbidding the teaching of evolution in state schools – and to analyse the climate that surrounded the lead-up to what has subsequently been regarded as one of the key moments in the battle between science and religion in 20th-century America.

The result is, unfortunately, not an altogether engaging read. Any book that begins with an in-depth description of the textbook-buying policy of a group of Southern US states in the 1920s is setting its stall out early, and it is a stall with a great big sign that says caveat emptor in foot-high neon lettering.

Shapiro demonstrates, with impressive detail, that the seeds of discontent had been sown before Scopes and that the impact of the trial has been exaggerated and propagandised by both the pro- and anti-evolution factions. As the book unfolds, the author shows that the myriad arguments, agreements, compromises and fudges that characterised the – let’s call it for the sake of brevity – school textbook world of 1920s America remain the basis of many of the anti-evolution attitudes that we are familiar with today. When the Scopes trial is placed in this detailed historical context, we are presented with the inescapable conclusion that it was a sideshow to a much more complicated period of geographically precise pedagogical development in the US.

The final chapter of Trying Biology is perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most relevant to current debates on evolution and school curricula. It is perhaps slightly uncharitable to note that it is also the shortest. Shapiro appears to be at his best when being concise: much of the book, while rich with historical detail, diffuses the arguments to such an extent that one is often left with a sense of overload. Frustratingly, while Shapiro examines ways in which the originators of the anti-evolution movement are linked to intelligent design within the context of modern textbooks, he does not examine the impact of the internet and how the post-print world has the potential to reinterpret Scopes once again for both the pro- and anti-evolution camps.

An important book about the history of evolutionary pedagogy? Certainly. A meticulously detailed piece of historical research? Ditto. But one is left with the sense that, while worthy and comprehensive, this is a book that will satisfy neither side and as such stands as an Ozymandian monument to two groups that will never find common ground.

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