Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools by Adam R. Shapiro

Simon Underdown on a key battle between science and religion

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.

Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools

By Adam R. Shapiro
University of Chicago Press, 200pp, £24.50
ISBN 9780226029450 and 29597 (e‑book)
Published 24 June 2013

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest