The media continues to inherit the spin.
The 1925 Scopes Trial has long functioned as an air dancer for Darwinist reporters, even though all the flapping comes from hot air. One thing Jessie Szalay gets right on Live Science is that it served as a propaganda coup for pro-Darwin forces wishing to push the “warfare hypothesis,” a myth that science and religion (the Bible in particular) are perennially at odds.
The true importance of the trial was not the verdict, however; the Scopes trial increased American awareness and interest in the issue of teaching theology and/or modern science in public schools. It also drew attention to the divide between religious Fundamentalists and Modernists who took a less literal approach to the Bible and supported modern science, as well to the schism between urban and rural American values.
The public perception of the Scopes Trial comes largely from periodic remakes of the play Inherit the Wind (1955) by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, put to film in 1960, 1988 and 1999. Szalay admits that “The film is not a documentary and contains several exaggerations and historical inaccuracies,” but she doesn’t mention what they were. Certainly one was portraying the Scopes character being hauled out of the classroom by angry Bible-thumpers. Another is portraying the William Jennings Bryan as a madman, having a heart attack in a post-trial tirade (actually, he died peacefully in his sleep six days after the trial). Inherit the Wind’s bias reaches its most grotesque nadir at the end, when the Clarence Darrow character walks out the courtroom to the music of Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on.
Calling this “not a documentary” is no excuse. That the script was modeled on the Scopes Trial is clear, even though the names were changed. To many a student forced to sit through the film in biology class, it is the only version of the Scopes Trial they will ever hear about. But Szalay perpetuates the spin with her own “exaggerations and historical inaccuries” that give a biased picture of the trial.
- Glenn Branch of the NCSE, who has a vested interest in keeping “creationism” (actually, any form of Darwin skepticism) out of education, is her primary interpreter of the Scopes Trial and its influence.
- She portrays churches becoming alarmed at Darwinism, conflicted over whether to fight it or embrace it, without mentioning that many scientists took strong issue with evolution by natural selection, from Darwin’s own day all the way up to 1925.
- She draws a false distinction between urban churches (who compromised with evolution) and rural churches (who resisted it), implying the latter consisted of poorly-educated hicks.
- She lets Branch define what the “pillars of creationism” are.
What Szalay fails to mention about the trial are just as important to coloring the story:
- Hunter’s Civic Biology, used at the time in Tennessee classrooms, was overtly racist and pushed eugenics. Szalay mentions the textbook but not those factors.
- Szalay mentions defendant attorney Dudley Field Malone’s opening speech and provides a link to it, letting Branch call it the “most influential on public opinion.” But Branch soft-peddles Malone as a liberal Catholic who “emphasized that evolution isn’t necessarily in conflict with Genesis but only with a particular literalistic reading of it.” (See excerpt from the speech below.)
- The article portrays Bryan as ignorant of Biblical facts, but Szalay omits pointing out Clarence Darrow’s shameless bluffing about alleged scientific errors in the Bible, even citing passages that don’t exist.
- Clarence Darrow had appealed to Darwinian theory in a previous case to excuse two violent young murderers, Leopold and Loeb. They had committed a heinous, senseless thrill killing, but Darrow defended them on the grounds that evolution made them what they were, and they had no responsibility. (See John West’s account in Darwin Day in America, pp. 45–49, and article on Evolution News & Views).
- Szalay fails to include testimony of witnesses and defense attorneys who stated scientific falsehoods in defense of evolution.
What do Szalay and Branch really think about Dudley Field Malone’s over-the-top courtroom antics? Waxing to a fever pitch, he said:
We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. we feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We meet it! Where is the fear? We defy it!
According to Bolton Davidheiser, at this point Malone pointed his finger at William Jennings Bryan and shouted, “There is fear!” A contemporary report adds, “the crowd went out of control – cheering, stamping, pounding on desks – until it was necessary to adjourn for fifteen minutes to restore order.”
So this was a story of rational science against religion? Is Malone to be honored for saying, “we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts”? Indeed, the defense team committed numerous legal and factual blunders, playing to the media. At one point, Darrow was even cited for contempt of court. Bryan’s closing statement to the court, posted online, shows a reasoned understanding of the issues, the evidence, and the facts:
Let us now separate the issues from the misrepresentations, intentional or unintentional, that have obscured both the letter and the purpose of the law. This is not an interference with freedom of conscience. A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech, he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any rights guaranteed by any Constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, official or public servant, paid by the State, and therefore under instructions from the State.
Szalay’s interpretation of the trial through the lens of the NCSE omits key facts that would put the defense case in a strongly negative light. Bolton Davidheiser described some of the unscrupulous antics of Darrow’s team in Evolution and Christian Faith (1969, pp. 88–111), including statements from alleged experts that were silly or completely wrong, such as portraying Neanderthal Man as stooped over and brutish. The worst that Glenn Branch can say about the trial is that it was “artificial, overblown, and not decisive.” But as Davidheiser shows, the Scopes Trial exhibited asymmetrical warfare; it was rigged by the ACLU to play to the media, portraying “fundamentalists” as anti-scientific, bigoted hicks. Bryan and his team tried to stick to the legal issues and the facts, but Darrow, the ACLU and newspapers turned the event into a media circus.
For more objectivity, Szalay could have referred to Ed Larson’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. It was the first of several scholarly works that corrected the often flawed perception of the Scopes Trial. One review of the book quotes Bryan, showing he understood the cultural impact of Darwin’s views:
The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.
She could have referred to the website “The Monkey Trial” to identify the numerous contradictions between Inherit the Wind and what actually happened in Dayton.
Instead, with hit pieces like this, the spin is marching on. Glory hallelujah.
Like we often show, Darwinism proceeds by adroit use of propaganda, not by rational debate about the facts of nature. Live Science often does good work, but occasionally they take the “v” out of their name.
Exercise: Read the whole text of Bryan’s closing statement. Notice that he mentions the Leopold and Loeb case as an evil fruit of Darwinian philosophy. How good are his arguments after 91 years?
Resource: Get the DVD Alleged (2011), a delightful love story set in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. Beautifully filmed in period costumes and settings, with good acting, it’s fun to watch. The story intersects with the Scopes Trial at several points, with the late Fred Thompson as Bryan and Brian Dennehy as Darrow. Producer Fred Foote made a strong effort to portray the trial with historical accuracy, unlike Inherit the Wind. Watch the trailer on Evolution News & Views. Hear interviews with Foote on ID the Future. Read Bob Enyart’s review.