The Legend of the Scopes Trial
Science didn't really win.
Science certainly appeared victorious. After the trial, a slew of states rejected anti-evolution laws while only a couple dared pass them. Collective memory enshrined the episode, particularly Darrow's rout of Bryan, as a victory for free speech over censorship, of reason over faith, of the modern over the primitive. The 1955 play and 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, with their black-and-white depictions of the good guys and bad guys, further inscribed this interpretation of the trial.
In fact, fundamentalist disbelief in Darwin did not vanish, as Edward J. Larson has made clear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods. Many conservative Christians assumed they had prevailed at Dayton. While liberalism ascended in the public sphere, fundamentalism withdrew into local pockets and private subcultures where it thrived. Christian presses churned out anti-evolution books and pamphlets. Ministers warned their flocks of Darwin's folly. In Dayton, fundamentalists established Bryan College "based upon unequivocal acceptance of the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures."
Indeed, large numbers of Americans continued to doubt Darwin and subscribe to literal readings of the Bible, some quite passionately. Anti-evolution sentiment was sufficiently strong in enough regions of the country to lead many biology-textbook writers to paint Darwin's teachings as less definitive than they are. Even George W. Hunter modified his Civic Biology—the book from which Scopes had feloniously taught—to make it palatable to scriptural literalists.
Yet for decades historians, national reporters, and educators failed to notice these subcultures or credit their numbers. Reviewing the film Inherit the Wind, the New Republic wrote, "The Monkey Trial is now a historical curiosity, and it can be made truly meaningful only by treating it as the farce that it was." "Today," echoed the historian Richard Hofstadter in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), "the evolution controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era to intellectuals of the East."
As Hofstadter was writing those words, however, fundamentalists began to end their voluntary exile from the national culture. Disturbed by relaxed sexual standards and social codes, and angered by Supreme Court rulings limiting the government's entanglement with religion—including Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), or "Scopes II," which finally ruled anti-evolution laws unconstitutional—they enlisted en masse in the burgeoning conservative movement.
By the 1970s, conservative Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye had built powerful political armies that helped elect Ronald Reagan president and put evolution and creationism back on the political agenda. Reagan supported the teaching of creationism in public schools (as did Bush in his 2000 campaign). Like the recent Pew poll, a 1982 Gallup survey found the public "about evenly divided" between Darwinists and creationists. In 1983 Steven Jay Gould wrote that "sadly, any hope that the issues of the Scopes trial had been banished to the realm of nostalgic Americana have been swept aside by our current creationist resurgence."
Today, a debate is occurring about whether intelligent design represents a significant variation on the version of "creation science" that fundamentalists and other evangelical Christians began embracing in the 1960s (explained in the New Republic by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne). To my mind, Coyne, Bob Wright in Slate, and others have persuasively shown that intelligent design contains no significant changes from "creation science" except its success at gaining a hearing in the mainstream media.
Either way, however, believers in science are now wondering how the rejection of Darwinian evolution, once presumed to be discredited, keeps returning to claim a place in high-school biology classrooms and in popular thinking. The answer is that we're in thrall to the powerful legend of the Scopes trial. For anti-Darwinist beliefs aren't returning; they've just never gone away.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph courtesy Archive Photos.