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A Case of Stalled Evolution

September 2000

Seventy-five years ago this month legal and intellectual titans collided in Dayton, Tennessee to begin what would go down in history as the “trial of the century.” Fundamentalist orator and three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan squared off with defense attorney par excellence Clarence Darrow, over whether high school teacher John T. Scopes had violated the law when he taught his students that they had descended from a common ancestor with modern apes millions of years ago.

Scopes, Bryan charged, was in violation of the 1925 Butler Act that made it “unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the state … to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” After days of legal wrangling in the sweltering July heat in this, the first trial ever broadcast on radio and covered by every major newspaper in the land, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 because, of course, he had broken the law. It was his intention to do so from the beginning because the fledgling new American Civil Liberties Union had advertised in the local paper for someone to serve as fodder for its legal canon, aimed at anyone who attempted to breach the wall separating church and state. The ACLU had planned to appeal the verdict and take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But because of a little-known catch in Tennessee law that required all fines above $50 to be set by a jury, not a judge, the court overturned Scopes’s conviction, leaving the defense nothing to appeal and the law stood on the books until 1967.

A myth has emerged since that trial that Darrow and science scored a knockout victory over Bryan and religion, punctuated by Bryan’s death two days after the trial (Bryan College stands in his honor in Dayton today). The renowned journalist H. L. Mencken, covering the trial for the Baltimore Sun, summarized it in his inimitable way: “Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience.” Of Bryan he opined with acerbic wit: “Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards.”

In fact, there was no victory for evolution. From 1925 to 1957 maximally noncontentious textbook publishers, more concerned with sales than ideals, deleted evolution from school books and students simply never heard the “e” word in class. All was quite on the evolution-creation wars front until Sputnik awoke a sleeping America to the fact that it was behind in science education. The National Science Foundation’s Biological Science Curriculum Study reintroduced Darwin and evolution into the curriculum, and jump-started the creationists into reinventing their beliefs as “creation-science,” to be taught side-by-side with “evolution-science.”

Scopes II was played out in Little Rock Arkansas in 1981, where Federal Judge William Overton ruled that creation-science conveys “an inescapable religiosity” and is therefore unconstitutional as a subject suitable for public school consumption. Scopes III — the Louisiana creationism case of 1987 — went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the justices voted 7-2 that the act requiring public school teachers to teach creation-science “is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose” and that the act “impremissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

That was the end of the creationists, right? Wrong.

Creationists shifted their strategy from top-down legal battles to bottom-up school board machinations, such as in Kansas where the Board of Education declared that Darwinian evolution is no better a “theory” than biblical genesis and thus need not be tested on in public schools. Since most teachers “teach to the test,” the “e” word has once again fallen into disuse. In Minnesota, middle school science teacher and born-again Christian Rodney LeVake sued his district when his department balked at his teaching the so-called “evidence against evolution” — code jargon for creationism — and reassigned him to teach other science courses. Kentucky’s Education Department replaced the word “evolution” with “change over time” in its curriculum standards. In New Mexico, the state senate’s Education Committee voted unanimously to pass a resolution requesting the State Board of Education to “allow the use of materials in the classroom for the study of creation theory.” Many other states have proposed or already passed legislation requiring evolution to be taught as “only a theory,” more creationist code language.

The creationists have also changed their name, this time to “Intelligent Design Theorists” who study “irreducible complexity” and the “abrupt appearance” of life, yet more jargon for “God did it.” This is what ignites my ire about the creationists — their disingenuousness about their religious motivations. Make no mistake about it. Creationists do not want equal time. They want all the time. Theirs is a war not just on evolution, but on all of science. It is not coincidental that Intelligent Design creationists are all Christians. It is inevitable. It is the latest attempt, starting with Scopes 75 years ago, to sneak around the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Notice that they have no interest in replacing evolution with Native American creation myths, or including the Code of Hammarabi alongside the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

What is really going on here is old time religion remodeled in modern architectural design. The building is repainted but the interior retains the same old dusty furniture.

This article was originally published in Toronto Globe & Mail.

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2 Comments to “A Case of Stalled Evolution”

  1. Carl Browne Says:

    To Dr. Shermer:

    Amen, brother!

    Too bad you’re just preaching to the choir.

    Evolution is an extremely unsettling and distasteful theory. No wonder serious mindeded people have done intellectual handsprings for the last 150 years trying to disprove it. Despite the onslaught, the evidence keeps piling up, and at one point or another we must accept it as manifestly true. I would have thought that the human DNA sequencing projects would have brought an end to it, but I was wrong. How many years did they spend trying to poke holes in Copernicus’ theory before they gave up?

    Carl Browne
    Newport Beach, California

  2. Stephen Schultze Says:

    Dr. Shermer said,
    This is what ignites my ire about the creationists — their disingenuousness about their religious motivations. Make no mistake about it. Creationists do not want equal time. They want all the time.

    Amazingly, evolutionists hatred of creation scientists is ongoing evidence of evolutionists for the same…all the time, all the publicity and all of our students. I was educated in a public school where both views were presented, a Christian school where both views were explained and have taught in a high school where both theories are taught (or at least were when I taught).

    As a student and teacher of science, I neither saw “evidence piling up” nor the DNA sequencing projects as doing more than clarifying the differences between the two sides–one towards a common design and the other towards common ancestry.

    As you choose to exercise a huge leap of faith to believe that such intricacies of life could have occurred when even science demonstrates that such creation of life has never been observed in nature (no matter how hard we try to make it happen, I choose to exercise a huge leap of faith to believe that there is a not so common, common designer behind the intricacies of life and world systems.