Review: Summer for the Gods

There is a rumor abroad that the Christian religion has been discredited by the advancement of science. The death blow in this ‘Warfare of Science with Theology’, to echo a phrase by Andrew White, was inflicted in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. It is alleged that Christian fundamentalism was so badly defeated that it was despatched to the subcultures of America.

Reviewer: Ng Kam Weng

There is a rumor abroad that the Christian religion has been discredited by the advancement of science. The death blow in this ‘Warfare of Science with Theology’, to echo a phrase by Andrew White, was inflicted in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. It is alleged that Christian fundamentalism was so badly defeated that it was despatched to the subcultures of America.

The Scopes Trial has taken on a life of its own. Indeed, it has assumed mythological proportions in more than one sense. First, secular humanists and evolutionists celebrate the trial as having established indisputable evidence of the superiority of modern science. Second, the trial has become encrusted with distorted facts. This is evident in the many accounts of the trial found in subsequent literature as exemplified by the play and movie Inherit the Wind. In the movie, the pious folks of Dayton are caricatured as a mindless mob set on victimizing an innocent biology teacher, John Scopes. The champion for religion, William Bryan, not surprisingly emerged as an incompetent hypocrite who withered under the expert questioning of Clarence Darrow, the lawyer advocating evolution. Fundamentalist religion in other words befits ignorant country bumpkins. Darwin’s theory of evolution has displaced outdated superstitions; religion finally lost its grip over the educated elite.

Needless to say, these misleading impressions of the Scopes Trial gained currency as unquestionable truths because the influential national dailies followed up the trial with what was effectively a ‘trial by the media’. Consequently, one would have expected fundamentalist religion to be permanently buried underground and banished from American society and go the way of the gypsies. But this has not been the case. Indeed, recent years have witnessed the rise of a new breed of Christian intellectuals who are prepared to take on what they deem to be the dogma of evolution. These include from top philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, competent scientists like Michael Behe, and prominent Constitutional lawyers like Phillip Johnson. One calls to mind Mark Twain’s remark, “The report on my death was an exaggeration.” Perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at the Scopes Trial.

Edward Larson’s book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, should be considered a publishing event in the ongoing conflict between supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution and fundamentalist religionists. Larson’s meticulous research and insightful judgment together demolish established myths and break new grounds. One would usually expect a ponderous thesis necessary for such an achievement. Larson however is a born story teller. He vividly captures the drama of the actual trial. We are transported back to breath afresh the summer air of Dayton in 1925. Larson neatly captures the mood swings between the carnival spirit of the crowd to the tension between the lawyers with their anxieties, doubts and anticipations of victory. Larson’s portraits of the chief antagonists William Bryan championing the case against evolution against Clarence Darrow, the most outstanding court lawyer of America present heroic and scoundrel personalities. Indeed, the book is justified in describing the trial as the clash of titans in the summer of the gods. The book fully deserves the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in History.

The controversy surrounding the theory of evolution has intensified in American society. Unfortunately, often heat rather than light has been generated as scholars resort to litigation to settle their disputes. Larson’s book, hopefully, will caution protagonists in current debates on the futility of appealing to litigation to settle intellectual disputes.

More importantly, Larson helps unearth the deeper motives that propel the ongoing conflict. First, scientific controversies gain prominence not because of esoteric truth claims but because of the social consequences at stake. The outcome of the Scopes Trial determined how the school curriculum should be framed and how the minds of the young are to be shaped. For Bryan, “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.” Bryan connected the origins of World War I to evolution. To him Nietzsche carried Darwinism to its logical conclusion and denounced “democracy as the refuge of the weakling; he overthrew all standards of morality and eulogized war as necessary to man’s development.” Darrow on the other hand, claimed that religion breeds intolerance. In his words, “the origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. . . The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith.”

Some readers may assume that the controversy arose because dogmatic clergymen took on open minded scientists. Such readers will be surprised that many theologians testified as expert witnesses on the side of the evolutionists in the trial. The Episcopalian bishop of Tennessee found the legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools restrictive and in violation of the doctrine of separation between state and church. Larson notes that many theologians called for a middle ground that viewed science and scripture as complementary forms of knowledge. Furthermore, these ‘moderates’ maintain a distinction between scripture and raw scientific data on the one hand and interpretations offered by evolutionist/creationist advocates on the other hand. Such moderating views should have cooled the conflict. But alas, the influential press ensured that the contestants remained polarized. How else can the show go on and demand for the papers to be sustained?

A contest was ensured not least because the evolutionists viewed the trial as a chance to inflict a fatal blow to the fundamentalists. Darrow and his foot-soldiers carefully planned a winning strategy which ensured a decisive trial by the media. Darrow and the evolutionists fired their full salvos in the early rounds of the court proceedings. Their arsenal included a phalanx of expert witnesses comprising well known theologians and outstanding scientists.

Darrow climaxed his defense with a merciless ridicule of his antagonist, Bryan. It was evident that Darrow’s questions had nothing to do with human evolution. He merely heaped upon Bryan dilemmas that would arise only if one opted for a crude literalism in interpreting the biblical texts and ignored common sense evident to modern intelligence. He exploited his position of advantage as a cross-examining lawyer who not only decided what questions were relevant but also what answers were acceptable. Naturally, Bryan was humiliated as a shallow and sham hero. As Darrow wrote later, “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he was and I succeeded.”

The New York Times vividly captured the atmosphere; “His [Darrow] words fell with crushing force, his satire dropped with sledgehammer effect upon those who heard him.” Before Bryan could marshal a thoughtful defence against the ridicule, Darrow advised the jury to find his client guilty. This effectively preempted and prevented Bryan from delivering his 15000-word closing argument which he had spent weeks preparing and which consisted of counter-questions directed against the purported evidence for evolution. Too bad he was outmaneuvered by the foxy Darrow.

For religionists, one important lesson to be learnt from the Scopes Trial must surely be that piety is not enough and that all believers must back up their claims with persuasive argumentation. To be sure, this requirement also applies to advocates of evolution. After all these years it has become evident that evolution has also assumed the character of a religion. As Mary Midgley, an astute philosopher, observes, “Evolution is the creation-myth of our age.” Indeed, the case for evolution remains far from satisfying standards of verifiable science. This is evident in the current vociferous debate between two of evolution’s most outstanding high priests, Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins. How ironic that advocates for evolution must rely on winning the argument by drawing the boundaries of science on their own terms. He who succeeds in excluding his opponents by definition wins the day.

Interestingly, the case for teaching evolution continues to find many supporters from among the clergy. Ronald Numbers, an acclaimed authority on the history of science and religion observes in his landmark study, The Creationists, that at the Arkansas Trial (1982) on the issue of “balanced treatment” on teaching creation and evolution in schools, opponents against the so-called ‘creation science’ came from many bishops. In contrast, most of the witnesses supporting ‘creation science’ were well-credentialed, if not all well-known, scientists. He added, “the Arkansas trial also shattered myths about the so-called warfare between science and religion.”

The Scopes Trial took place more than 70 years ago. Nevertheless its legacy continues to be felt in the series of legal battles currently being fought in courts across the USA. We must admire the Americans for their passionate demands for public accountability for truth claims. Nevertheless I cannot help but wonder how truth can be a matter to be determined in the courts where protagonists are tempted to outmaneuver their opponents in the battles of big egos. In the process the more important task of demonstrating truth claims though painstaking analysis, well founded argumentation and mutual correction is overshadowed.

Lawson’s book reminds us that truth is a precarious treasure for a community. All too often truth becomes trivialized in the fight between advocates of contesting truth claims. When a dominant community imposes its views on other minority groups through the legislature we end up with the tyranny of the majority. In this regard, the Scopes Trial is not merely about the issue of evolution. It is about ‘the right to think’ and ‘the right to hold different convictions’.

November 1998