Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward Larson
The beginnings of Dayton, Tennessee’s famed “Monkey Trial” could be traced back to Page 5 of the Chattanooga Times. It was there where, on May 4, 1925, the ACLU issued a press release titled, Plan Assault on State Law on Evolution. “We are looking for a Tennessee teacher,” the article stated, “who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts.” The law it referred to was the 1925 Butler Act, which prohibited Tennessee public school teachers from teaching the theory of Darwinian evolution. A 31-year-old, secular-minded chemical engineer named George Rappleyea read the piece and, as the story goes, contacted the chair of the local school board, Fred Robinson, who. Allured by the prospect of putting Dayton in the national headlines, Robinson sought out the head of the local high school’s science department, 24-year-old John T. Scopes. Scopes accepted the ACLU’s challenge on the spot. Just as planned, Scopes was indicted by a grand jury for violating Tennessee’s anti-evolution law three weeks later, and the media fiasco had begun. The court battle that ensued was later called “The Trial of the Century.”
Since then, public consensus on the Scopes trial has mostly been shaped by a 1960 film called Inherit the Wind, which is loosely based on the event. However, author Edward Larson has since tried to fill in the gaps in the movie, as well as correct some of its inaccuracies. His book Summer for the Gods is possibly the most detailed account of the trial, including the events that led to it as well as its aftermath. Accordingly, it is broken down into three main sections: “Before,” “During,” “And After.” When writing the book, Larson had at his disposal a vast amount of archival material that no researcher had the privilege of examining before. This advantage is made clear throughout the text-practically on every page-which is filled with details you’d never find with a simple Google search. Larson also takes the dual-position of historian as well as storyteller. In addition to providing copious detail on every aspect of the trial (everything from facial expressions to random observers’ commentary), Larson tries to the story of the Scopes trial in narrative form. When retelling the tale of John Scopes being asked to go to trial, Larson adds in: “A chain smoker, Scopes probably lit a cigarette at this point, if he had not already done so” (p. 89). Additions like these, although minor, make the entire text sound like a story rather than a history textbook, therefore making the book more readable to a wider audience.
As mentioned earlier, Larson tries to debunk common ideas that have made their way into public consensus due to the play and film, Inherit the Wind. For example, although the movie portrays Clarence Darrow as a cosmopolitan, free thinking advocate of secularism and champion of science and the human mind, he is more accurately described as merely anti-Christian and anti-religion. Larson claimed that he did not even fully understand the basics of evolutionary theory: “Darrow often invoked the idea of organic evolution to support his arguments, but it was never central to his thinking. He claimed to understand modern biology but mixed up Darwinian, Lamarckian, and mutation-theory concepts in his arguments, utilizing whichever best served his immediate rhetorical purposes.” (p. 72) In short, Larson explains, Darrow was a lawyer first, not a scientist.
By the same token, William Jennings Bryan is today seen as an uncompromising, blind follower of Biblical literalism. In contrast to rational-minded Clarence Darrow, Bryan represented an almost absurd Christian fundamentalism that refused to back down in the face of incontrovertible evidence. According to Larson, Inherit the Wind “transformed Bryan into a mindless, reactionary creature of the mob.” Indeed, Bryan’s character in the movie goes so far as to say that the Earth was created in six 24-hour days, and even gives the time of day at the point of Creation (9 A.M., incidentally). The truth is, though, that Bryan’s personality is much deeper and his intellect is much greater than Inherit the Wind portrays him as. It’s possible, Larson suggests, that Bryan understood evolution just as well or even better than Darrow did, and that his refutation of the teaching of evolution was based more on democratic grounds than biological ignorance. “The disgrace is not the Tennessee law,” Bryan explained, “the disgrace is that teachers…should betray the trust imposed on them by the taxpayers.” (p. 104) Through meticulous research, Larson is able to show that Bryan is not as simple-minded and one-dimensional as the popular consensus may assume from Inherit the Wind.
The man from whom the Scopes trial gets its name-John T. Scopes-was also misrepresented in the movie. Scopes is seen today as one of the heroes of the trial-the quintessential academic, standing by his biological convictions even when faced with the possibility of imprisonment. The truth of the matter, as Larson points out, is that Scopes ended up being the sacrificial victim not because of any moral or scientific convictions on his part, but more due to a matter of circumstance. Scopes was young, easy-going, wore thick-rimmed glasses and had a boyish appearance, making him look professorial but easy-going at the same time. He didn’t plan on staying in Dayton for too long, so any ill-reputation or punishment he’d receive wouldn’t do much damage to his personal life, anyway. Although Scopes claimed to adhere to the theory of Darwinian evolution, it’s likely that he did not fully grasp all the details of the theory, either. After all, he was a substitute-not the primary biology teacher-and taught physics, math, and football, not biology.
Although it is certainly the most influential, Inherit the Wind is not the only source of the public’s understanding of the Scopes trial. Frederick Lewis Allen’s best-selling history of the 20th century, Only Yesterday, retells the story of the trial in “lively, journalistic fashion,” as Larson writes (p. 225). Unfortunately, this re-telling was done with “cartoonlike simplicity.” Not only did Allen frame the case as “science vs. fundamentalism,” (a gross simplification), but he misconstrued concrete events of the trial. Although in reality William Jennings Bryan conceded that the “days” mentioned in the creation account in Genesis represented long stretches of time, Allen states in his book, “Bryan affirmed his belief that the world was created in 4004 B.C.,” a total fabrication of the facts that makes Bryan seem like a simple-minded fundamentalist. Because Only Yesterday was the first major retelling of the Scopes story, plus the fact that it was the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1930s made it a major influence on public interpretation of the trial. Unfortunately, as Larson shows, Allen may have overlooked and oversimplified many stages of the trial.
One major misconception that Larson tries to address is the belief that the Scopes trial was a major blow for American religiosity. This was largely accomplished by popular accounts of the trial (including both Inherit the Wind and Only Yesterday) which tended to equate William Jennings Bryan with fundamentalism as a whole. Since Bryan had been humiliated at the witness stand, the story goes, fundamentalism was severely damaged as a result. But the statistics show that churchgoing only increased after the trial, and antievolution activism was on the rise as well. Fundamentalist political activity only began to wane a decade after the trial. Today, though, the public sees the Scopes trial as a kind of “beginning of the end” for fundamentalist Christianity. Throughout Summer for the Gods, Larson tries to debunk this myth. “In sharp contrast with later legends about the Scopes trial,” Larson concludes, “no one saw the episode as a decisive triumph for the defense [immediately after the trial].”
An often overlooked party in the Scopes trial fiasco was the ACLU. Because most people tend to see the trial as “religion vs. science,” one might assume that the reason for the case was to put down religion and to champion science and free-thinkers. It was the ACLU, not any anti-religious group, that had the idea to go to court. The ACLU obviously had no anti-religious agenda, nor did it have any pro-evolution agenda. It merely wanted to keep public schools free from religious instruction, as dictated by the First Amendment. In fact, as Larson mentions, the ACLU was frustrated at popular misconceptions that arose after the trial because they made it seem as if religious fundamentalism was a defeated enemy, where in fact it still posed a threat to American secularism.
Although it is true that most of the people on Darrow’s side were secular (even atheistic), and most of the people on Bryan’s side were Christian (even fundamentalist), the court case proper was not a battle between religion and science, per se. It was also much less polarized than modern society thinks it was. Although Darrow and Bryan were on polar sides of the spectrum, many of the other players in the Scopes trial were more moderate, maintaining that the Bible and evolution could co-exist peacefully. This kind of bet-hedging doesn’t make for good cinema, though, and so popular accounts sensationalized this aspect of the trial. Larson makes his case clearly and with vivid detail and keeps the book at a manageable length-a crucial point if the book has any chance of reaching the hands of today’s youth. Overall, Larson’s attention to detail and ability to tell a story makes him deserving of the Pulitzer Prize he won for Summer of the Gods.
Source by Brandon E Baker