As I remember, the 1960 movie version of Inherit the Wind ended with Spencer Tracy (as the Clarence Darrow figure) packing together in his briefcase the Bible and a copy of Origin of Species .
From the moment H.L. Mencken made himself the star of American journalism—by covering the circus that the presence of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow created—the Scopes Monkey Trial has been subject to more historical revisionism than perhaps any other incident in American history. In an article in F IRST T HINGS back in 1997, Carol Iannone catalogued many of the mistakes and tendentious interpretations of the film and the Broadway play on which it was based.
And yet, that closing image of Inherit the Wind —the Bible and Darwin set side by side without fundamental contradiction, Christian faith and accepted science joined in the unity of truth—really did capture something about the mainstream compromise that high 1950s American liberalism had reached in the battles over evolution. Darwinists generally agreed that they wouldn’t interpret evolution to mean the end of coherent religious belief in the design of the universe, and Christians generally agreed that they wouldn’t interpret religion to mean the denial of science.
You can see it in Inherit the Wind . A deep rule of American movie-making involves the fact that Hollywood never wants to be brave, particularly if the bravery will cost money. What the film industry wants, in fact, is to think of itself as brave, which, in practice, means making high-tone, noble movies about things that used to be controversial but really aren’t anymore. Pauline Kael once mocked the team that made the film Judgment at Nuremberg for the congratulation they showered upon themselves as they took “the brave position that Nazism was wrong”—in 1961. Similarly, by the time Inherit the Wind was released in 1960, there wasn’t a lot of courage necessary to make a film that rejected young-earth creationism. However much the film-makers lauded themselves, the great 1950s compromise about evolution had pretty much taken hold, and any attempt to undo the compromise had about as much public purchase as an effort to outlaw fluoridated water.
Of course, the movie did present the progressive, pro-evolution forces as the battle’s winners. But that was a general problem with the culture that dominated the American mainstream in the 1950s. On the whole, high liberalism was a noble thing, and the victory over Southern segregation, for example, might not have happened without that culture’s agreement that racial prejudice is beyond the pale. Still, the high liberals invariably assumed that the threat to the great American compromise was from reactionaries rather than radicals—that the people to mock and guard against were always the ones on the right and never the ones on the left. Or, to put it in concrete terms, if Spencer Tracy was going to hold both the Bible and Origin of Species , the people who must be defeated are the ones who want only the Bible.
Once again, for the third or fourth time in the last century and a half, the battle over evolution has reignited. In some ways, this is unintelligible. How can we still be having this fight? But in another way, the return of agitation about Darwin is perfectly predictable, for the mainstream consensus has finally failed us. Except that it wasn’t the Bible-only people who broke the great compromise. It was instead the Darwin-only people. Spencer Tracy can’t put the Bible in his briefcase beside Origin of Species , we are told, because Darwin contradicts the Bible.
The physicist Stephen Barr reported recently on a lecture in which Daniel Dennett claimed that “Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very ‘destroyer’ of God.” You’ve heard this kind of thing often—in fact, much too often. And if that’s the way the fight is going to play out this time around, then an intellectual journal of religion and public life like F IRST T HINGS is, I think, going to have to side with the young-earth creationists against the neo-Darwinists. Forced to choose God or science, the choice has to be for God.
Of course, the choice isn’t a real one, and it’s a stupid fight to be having this late in the day. Or rather, I mean, it’s a stupid battlefield for both sides on which to fight the vital and obviously important fight about the role of religion in public life. But the religious believers who thought they stood as heirs of high 1950s liberalism—they didn’t choose this battlefield. Daniel Dennett and the public advocates of neo-Darwinism did. And the only way to maintain the old compromise—the only way, for that matter, to maintain the unity of truth in both faith and science—is to mock and guard against the Daniel Dennetts who tell religious believers that science has outlawed them.
Thus, Cardinal Schönborn argues in the most recent issue of F IRST T HINGS that when Darwinism is cast not as a science, but as a philosophy of science, truth—both scientific and philosophical—is deeply injured. At certain levels, this isn’t all that different from what F IRST T HINGS editorial-board member Stephen Barr had noted the month before in ” The Design of Evolution .” Barr was looking at the problem from the other side, but he would agree with Cardinal Schönborn that the unity of truth demands a modesty from science, just as he would agree, I think, that the first threat to public acceptance of the unity of truth these days comes from the immodest promoters of Darwinism.
In other words, Pat Robertson seems ridiculous when he says of the Pennsylvania town that kicked anti-evolutionists off its school board, “if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected him from your city.” But Daniel Dennett is probably more ridiculous, and certainly more dangerous, when he announces that Darwinism is the very destroyer of God.