Scopes, Science and Scepticism

Edward J. Larson. Summer of the Gods: the Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. Harvard UP, 1998

This is a study of the famous 1925 trial of John Scopes for violating Tennessee's statute against the teaching of evolution in schools, which pitted two heroes of the American left, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan against each other. Larson shows how anti-evolutionism developed in America in the early years of the twentieth century, not only as a reaction against modernity in church and state, but in opposition to the use of Darwinian ideas to argue in favour of unrestricted capitalism and eugenics. The trial exposed one of the central dilemmas of democracy, whither democracy if the people are not liberal and tolerant?

Bryan could argue with seemingly obvious logic, that as the people paid for the public school system, they should determine what was taught within the schools. If not the people, then who was to decide? To which liberals would argue, do parents have the right to restrict the intellectual horizons of their children? Though for many years the Scopes trial, not least in the film Inherit the Wind, was regarded as a relic of a superstitious past, defeated by the forces of modernity and reason, by the 1980's anti-evolution and creationism were back on the agenda.

In many ways the Scopes trial, particularly the folk rendering in Inherit the Wind, which portrayed the Scopes character as a martyr to small town religious bigotry, has become part of the ideological heritage of groups like CSICOP, in which science is seen as being constantly under siege by the forces of pre-modern darkness. In reality the trial started out as a set-up by the opponents of the statute to bring a test case which would go up to the supreme court, and earn some money for Dayton in the process. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, first published on-line March 1999.

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