History is written by the winners and yes, that means your history book is not always an objective account of how we got here. The winners, not surprisingly, are sometimes portrayed in an overly sympathetic light. Such Whig histories can be dispassionately assessed when their subject is from centuries past. When the subject is no longer controversial, and the history is long gone, then it is safe to criticize. But what happens when the subject is still hot? How can we understand and respond to Whiggish accounts that are occurring before our very eyes? This week we have yet another evolutionary retelling of history that should tell us something about evolution.
Evolutionists have always relied on fictionalized accounts of how their theory in particular, and rational thought in general, have fought through anti intellectual resistance. Not long after Darwin published his book in 1859 evolutionists were constructing what would become known as the warfare thesis, where religion was cast as being at war with science. Everyone from Columbus to Copernicus was reinvented as intellectual heroes combatting the forces of resistance.
And Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace were cast as scientific investigators who presented a new and powerful finding that conflicted with religious sentiment. In fact, evolutionary thought arose from metaphysical interpretations of nature and theological mandates, in spite of the absence of a known mechanism. As one historian put it, both Wallace and Darwin believed in transmutation, and so they sought a suitable mechanism.
The Scopes Monkey Trial
A more recent but no less fictional example is Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee wrote the play to illustrate the threat to intellectual freedom posed by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940s McCarthy era. And what better platform to use than religious fundamentalists opposing scientific truths—even if the story is fictionalized. The play was a Broadway hit, and movie and TV versions followed. It is now a classic, and is regularly restaged everywhere from the local theater to international venues.
But few people are aware of the story behind the story. This allegory is a fictionalized account, but for many it nonetheless reveals what they believe to be the core essentials of the origins debate: objective science versus religious dogma. Particular skirmishes may have their own nuances, but isn't this the underlying framework? How important are the details of the summer of 1925 in Dayton? Inherit the Wind, so the thinking goes, is an allegory that captures the reality of political and religious dogma opposed to heroic intellectualism.
But it doesn't. John Scopes was not a humble and tireless science teacher, and he was not hauled off to jail by an angry mob of fundamentalists led by a Reverend Jeremiah Brown for trying to enlighten his science students. And no he did not, in fear for his life, contact journalist Henry Louis Mencken for help in securing a lawyer.
This is the beginning of the myth of Inherit the Wind. The reality is that the ACLU (never mentioned in the script) placed an ad in the Chattanooga Times seeking a volunteer to test Tennessee law on the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Local boosters in Dayton saw this as a wonderful opportunity to put them on the map and recruited Scopes, a coach and part-time teacher, to break the law. Of course he was never incarcerated but rather spent most of his time hob knobbing with reporters. There was no angry mob and no vitriolic preacher.
What the play did get right is that the Monkey Trial was actually a referendum on the creationism and the Bible. Technically John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution, but all of that was merely logistical. The reason why the Monkey Trial is important to evolution, and the enduring message from Dayton, was that the Bible and its creationism are passe. This was established in the showdown at Dayton when the two famous lawyers squared off. Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan to the stand as a Bible expert and grilled him on its foolishness.
The exchange was entirely religious (can we really believe the story of Jonah? Surely god would never do such a thing) and the result was yet another proof of evolution. It was another great moment in evolution's long history of theological mandates for a strictly naturalistic origins.
While the opposition to evolution in Inherit the Wind is portrayed as an intrusion of religion into things scientific, in fact evolution itself is the better symbol of such an intrusion. The story behind the story is that Lawrence and Lee's cultural icon is itself now part of a new kind of anti intellectualism. The widespread popularity of Inherit the Wind and its cultural stereotypes is not a sign of healthy intellectual freedom triumphing over religious intolerance. Rather, it is an unfortunate sign of yet more ignorance and intolerance, as evolutionists are cast as benevolent and objective while skeptics are cast as narrow minded fundamentalists.
This cultural stereotype is now baked in. News reporters instinctively report on the religion of anyone who would question evolutionary theories, while the naturalists are portrayed as mere scientists. With each new skirmish over the teaching of evolution in our public schools, we are treated to another round of Bible-vs-science headlines. No matter that the skeptics raise scientific concerns, they will be grilled about their religious habits and motives. Evolution, meanwhile, is assumed to be grounded in nothing but empirical observation.
The retelling of Dover
This week Celeste Biever, writing for the NewScientist, perpetuates the Inherit the Wind myth and adds a few twists of her own. In her review of the latest production of Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic in London, Biever tells us that the trial divided a tight-knit town and found the singing of gospel songs between scenes by the cast to be a great touch.
Biever happily concludes that the play properly reveals opposition to evolution as ignorant and fundamentalist but she remains concerned because the play so powerfully reminds us of the comfort provided by religion and why it is so hard for some people to accept Darwin's theory.
There you have it. For historians Inherit the Wind is a living example of the warfare myth, but for evolutionists it remains a cogent truth. And Biever adds some myth of her own in recounting the recent Dover trial. The play reminds her of the 2005 trial in Pennsylvania where the lawyer Eric Rothschild asked Michael Behe about the definition of science. Wasn't Behe's definition of science too broad? Biever erronously recounts that Behe had to agree that astrology would come under his definition of science, and the court erupted in laughter.
Had not Rothschild shown that design theory is unworkable just as Darrow had demolished the Bible? Is not Behe, along with Bryan, to be pitied as he doggedly defended his ridiculous theory?
Certainly that is the message for Biever and the evolutionists, but again reality is more complex. In fact there was no such response in the courtroom. Yes, laughter did erupt but only when Rothschild asked Behe if he thought the human body was a beautiful design. Behe hesitated and responded whimsically that he was "thinking of some examples."
The evolutionary narrative is that evolution is free of religious premises and there is no scientific basis for skepticism. The reality is precisely the opposite.