Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion
by edward j. larson
basic, 318 pages, $25, $14.95
If there are moments in history when “the road not taken” might have changed the course of events, the famous “Monkey Trial,” held in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, may have been one of them. According to Edward J. Larson’s scholarly, informative, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, the prosecution of young John Scopes for presumedly violating a state law restricting the teaching of evolution in the public schools need not have resulted in the now legendary high-pitched standoff between the atheistic radical Clarence Darrow and the robustly religious populist William Jennings Bryan. There was a third way of moderation between the two extremes, argues Larson, but it faded rapidly as the heat of the controversy grew more intense.
A professor of history and law at the University of Georgia, Larson begins by relating how the debate over Darwinism unfolded in America in the early part of the century, and developed into the warfare between science and religion that exploded in the trial (and continues to this day). By the twenties, evolution and its attendant implications had become a subject of consum ing popular interest. Audiences thronged the Chautauqua circuits to hear the colorful orators of the day on both sides of the controversy, and crowded into lecture halls for formal debates on such propositions as, “Resolved, That the earth and all life upon it are the result of evolution.” The popular press did its best to pit the modernists and the fundamentalists against each other and to avoid the moderates who might cool things down.
After laying this groundwork, Larson gives a full account of the developments leading up to the trial, the trial itself, and the afterlife the trial has had in American culture, from the well-known play and film, Inherit the Wind, to the surprising folk history that arose around Bryan in the South, complete with songs and ballads, to the subsequent litigation over the conflict between creationism and evolution in the schools.
Many of Scopes’ supporters, and many of Bryan’s enemies, Larson shows, believed in the middle ground, that the Bible and evolution are compatible. Evolution could be seen as God’s method of creation, and the Genesis account of creation taken as an allegory, they said. Let us hear from men who “think that God has shown his divinity in the . . . book of nature,” declared Scopes lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays, “quite as much as in the book of the revealed word.”
But the middle ground was virtually lost in the larger debate when Clarence Darrow took over as the head of Scopes’ defense team. So far from being the the valiant defense attorney who stood for the integrity of the human mind even while maintaining respect and affection for religion and the Bible, as portrayed in Inherit the Wind, Darrow was rabidly anti-religious and anti-Christian, and not even much interested in freedom of speech. If he did occasionally invoke the latter, Larson points out, it was more to secure a general dispensation of “tolerance” that would make impossible any judgment, discrimination, or punishment. For Darrow was a radical determinist who believed that human beings are the product of evolution and heredity and cannot therefore be held accountable for their deeds. He did not even understand evolution, according to Larson, but pounced on it to support his social views and “to undermine popular religious faith.” Darrow “called himself an agnostic,” Larson writes,
but in fact he was effectively an atheist. In this he imitated his intellectual mentor, the nineteenth-century American social critic, Robert G. Ingersoll, who wrote, “The Agnostic does not simply say, ‘I do not know [if God exists].’ He goes another step, and he says, with great emphasis, that you do not know . . . . He is not satisfied with saying that you do not know”he demonstrates that you do not know, and he drives you from the field of fact.”
Thus Walter Lippmann could write directly after the trial that “Mr. Darrow . . . has done more to stimulate ‘anti-evolution’ legislation in the United States than Mr. Bryan . . . left alone, could have hoped for.”
Bryan, today seen as a once-progressive man who nevertheless stood for chaining American education”and the American mind”to a laughable biblical literalism, was a more complex figure than that. He understood evolution better than Darrow and saw that it was only hypothesis, not proven theory. And as a populist, he felt that taxpayers had the right to control the content of their children’s education. (He was not proposing that Christian views be taught in the schools, but that atheistic and secularist views not be taught either.) Finally, he objected to the teaching of evolution, especially with regard to the origin of man, because he felt that it led to the rise of ugly ideas like eugenics and social Darwinism, and furthermore discouraged any hope for the progress of mankind.
Bryan was not a biblical literalist, but he nevertheless eschewed the middle ground as much as Darrow, Larson writes. He tried to get Christians to see, in effect, that there was no middle ground; evolutionary theory, with its features of random variation and natural selection, could not but deny the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God Christians professed to believe in. Bryan knew that the so-called religious scientists who were insisting on the compatibility of evolution and the Bible would have surprised many Americans with the extent of how much of revelation they did not believe (such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection), even as they professed a kind of general religious faith.
The more we learn about evolution and the Scopes Trial, the better Bryan looks. Wasn’t he right? Is there really a middle road? Or was there instead something inexorable about the way science and religion came to loggerheads at Dayton in 1925? David Berlinski and Phillip E. Johnson are exposing the weaknesses of the Darwinian hypothesis, while intelligent design theorists like Michael Behe are providing evidence that intimates the hand of a Creator, calling into question the idea that species developed solely by chance.
None of these thinkers will support as scientifically tenable the literal account of Genesis to which fundamentalists still cling, of course. But neither do their findings support a so-called third way. These findings go mainly to making the negative case against some parts of Darwinism, but such critiques still leave us, as Bryan saw, with the descent of species through the survival of the fittest. Occasional pockets of intelligent design do not extend to the whole evolutionary mechanism. Pope John Paul II seems, at least on some readings, to have put his authority behind what is being called “theistic evolution,” but this is simply not spiritually acceptable for many who wonder how they can reconcile a loving and benevolent Father God with the cruel, monstrous saga of evolution, riddled with waste and destructiveness.
Bryan is being proved right in other ways as well, as we can glean from Larson’s fair and meticulous recounting of other fatal crossroads that were encountered in the circumstances surrounding the Scopes Trial. The American Civil Liberties Union originally had no objection to a general Christian outlook in the public schools, as long as it was that of no particular sect. By the time of the Scopes Trial, however, the ACLU and other bastions of secularism insisted that public education must not assume any religious outlook, laying the groundwork, as Bryan feared, for the triumph of materialism.
Bryan himself was a champion of the common man, and had actually supported two of the ACLU’s earlier campaigns against threats to individual liberty”superpatriotism during World War I and cutthroat capitalism afterward”but the Scopes Trial and the subsequent treatment of it made him anathema to most of the liberal bien pensant left. The hundredth anniversary of the Cross of Gold Speech passed without so much as a mention at the 1996 Democratic Convention. But interestingly, in a short recent piece in the New York Times , Michael Kazin professed admiration for Bryan and his true populist understanding of wealth, and wondered where the populists are today who can make the case as he did. Democrats, liberals, and would-be populists are finding that, because of the left’s hysterical campaign against religion, one of their best allies has been discredited.
In some ways, America seems to be only just learning the truth of the Scopes Trial and the implications of the debate over evolution. Even if Edward J. Larson does not convince us of the middle way, his book is a crucial piece of the educational process.
Carol Iannone teaches in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.
Photograph by Underwood & Underwood. Public domain.