In God, not scientists, they trust

December 11, 1998

Many Americans still prefer the Bible's version of our origins to Darwin's. Edward J. Larson looks at a long-running feud.

For half this century, it was a crime to teach evolution in the public schools of some states of the United States. More recently, a few states and many school districts have tried to mandate that the teaching of evolutionary concepts be balanced, in science classrooms, with instruction in biblically orthodox accounts of human creation. Scientific organisations and legal rights groups have fought such measures in court.

In America today, teaching evolution remains a festering sore. Big-bang cosmology and continental drift generate little conflict - even the genetic engineering of plants and animals raises less spirited opposition in the United States than in Europe. Yet put the issue of teaching evolution on the agenda for a school-board meeting anywhere in America, and the room will be filled with partisans from both sides.

The tension is less explicit in universities. Grants administrators tend to avoid the E-word when seeking or distributing federal science research funds but projects to study evolution get funded just the same. US universities lead the world in biological research, and there is no detectable anti-evolution counter-current among American researchers. Scientists do, however, get angry about the debate in schools, where the issue keeps arising, most recently with Alabama mandating that science textbooks describe evolution as no more than a theory.

Each such episode inevitably evokes comparisons with the Scopes trial, the most famous scene in the legendary encounter between science and religion in America. A delegation of townspeople, stirred by a fundamentalist preacher, drags a young science teacher from his classroom and throws him in jail for telling his students about the Darwinian theory of human evolution.

Americans know that the underlying episode involved a teacher named John T. Scopes in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The scene itself is from the enduring 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. It makes for powerful drama, but did not happen quite that way.

For the Scopes trial was no witch-hunt led by a fundamentalist firebrand but a bizarre publicity stunt concocted by secular civic leaders. Earlier in 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed a statute making it a misdemeanour, punishable by a maximum fine of $500, for a public school teacher "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animal". Upon learning of the restriction, the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union offered to assist any teacher willing to challenge the constitutionality of the new law in court. Scopes became that willing teacher. Although he was technically arrested, he was neither jailed nor threatened with imprisonment.

The statute itself represented the first major victory for an intense national campaign against Darwinian evolution by US fundamentalists. The effort gained momentum during the early 1920s when populist politician William Jennings Bryan (a three-time presidential nominee) lent his influential voice to the campaign.

The confrontation produced front-page news throughout the United States. Although widely hailed as a battle royal between science and religion, no clear winner emerged. Despite Scopes's eventual acquittal on a technicality, the statute was upheld and similar restrictions were imposed in other southern states until the US Supreme Court struck them down on constitutional grounds 40 years later.

Then, in the 1970s, fundamentalists changed their legal tactics by arguing that, if evolution cannot be barred from the classroom, then creationism should be included too. Public opinion surveys suggest that nearly half of all Americans believe the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and that nine-tenths of them favour public-school instruction about creationism.

Such surveys testify to Americans' traditional religious faith. But the difference between the statistic of 50 per cent belief in biblical creationism and that of 90 per cent support for creationist instruction suggests that more is involved. It takes true believers to demand creationist instruction, but once demanded, even more Americans support it. This may be due to a deep suspicion of science.

Distrust of science was apparent in the Scopes trial. Bryan himself was motivated to join the crusade against evolution both by his conservative religious support for divine creation and his liberal political opposition to Social Darwinism.

Bryan began speaking out about the dangers of Darwinian ideas in 1921. He challenged the very notion of science as an elite body of knowledge that commanded popular deference. "Science to be truly science is classified knowledge," Bryan maintained. "Tested by this definition, Darwinism is not science at all; it is guesses strung together."

He entertained his audiences with exaggerated accounts of seemingly far-fetched evolutionary explanations for human organs - such as the eye, which supposedly began as a light-sensitive freckle. Based on such examples, he invited the people to judge for themselves. "The scientist cannot compel acceptance of any argument he advances, except as, judged on its merits, it is convincing," Bryan maintained, in defiance of scientific authority. "Man is infinitely more than science; science, as well as the Sabbath, was made for man."

In a heated debate over the admissibility of expert testimony, the lead Tennessee prosecutor picked up Bryan's line of argument. "What will these scientists testify? They will say (evolution) was simply the method by which God created man. I don't care. This act says you cannot teach it." The judge apparently agreed because he excluded expert testimony. Scopes's conviction became a mere formality - even the defence now welcomed it as a means to facilitate an appeal to a higher court.

Bryan died shortly after the trial, and before Scopes's conviction was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The state's arguments continued his attacks on scientific authority, however, arguing, "The fact that a group of self-styled 'intellectuals' who call themselves 'scientists' believe that a certain theory or thing is trueI does not prevent the state legislatureI from forbidding the teaching or practising of such a thing or theory which the legislature may conclude to be inimicalI to the general public welfare."

Bryan had crusaded only against teaching evolution in public schools, and maintained that evolutionists could say what they wanted elsewhere, but the state recognised no such limits. "'Scientific' superficialists and intolerants," the state now declared, "under a perhaps soiled or even red banner of 'academic freedom', (cannot) foreclose the police power of the state's constitutionally chosen and elected representatives." Spitting in the eye of expert authority generally, the state concluded: "What the public believe is for the common welfare must be accepted as tending to promote the common welfare, whether it does in fact or not."

In democratic America today, antievolutionists still appeal to public-opinion surveys and vilify scientific elitism. After noting widespread doubts about Darwinism, for example, one American critic of the theory recently asked in a best-selling book: "How should our educational system deal with this important instance of disagreement between the experts and the people? One way would be to treat the doubts of the people with respectI The opposite way is to tell the people that all doubts about naturalist evolution are absurdI because the experts agree that it is correct." These options speak for themselves, Bryan would say. It is a refrain that worked in 1925, and still works with many American audiences today.

Edward J. Larson is professor of history and law, University of Georgia.

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