Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Scopes Monkey Trial

It remains interesting how much attention this trial gets. From what I've read, the trial was essentially set up to challenge the Butler Act, which expressly made Divine Creation the only theory to be taught in Tennessee schools, with Scopes intentionally teaching evolution at the instigation of the ACLU, knowing he would have a heavyweight lawyer defending him. As it turned out, it set up one of the most compelling courtroom dramas in American history with Clarence Darrow facing off against William Jennings Bryan. I never saw Inherit the Wind, but I remember a television remake with Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas as the great lawyers.

Here's a NYT review of one of the more recent books on the trial, Summer for the Gods, by Edward Larson.


  1. This gets as much attention as it does because the same or a similar scenario is played out time and time again. Not long ago we had concerned Christian parents successfully advocating that disclaimer stickers be placed on the front cover of all high school science books informing students that evolution was just a theory.

  2. I've read parts of Summer of the Gods -- it's very good.

    Here are some startling data to make you worry about the future of the country, and why biologists are now realizing that they may have taught students to memorize the parts of a cell, but they have a long way to go to get the American public educated about the basic understanding of life on the planet (really before it's too late):


  3. The interesting thing is that those numbers you provided, avrds, pretty much mirror the political divide in this country. You basically have the Darwinian Democrats and the God-fearing Republicans.

  4. Interesting, point.

    Never thought that biology education could potentially save the country from economic ruin, but there may be a direct connection.

    For me it shows that Americans lack basic critical thinking skills -- that as a group they cannot distinguish between belief and evidence-based knowledge. (But then, that's why we got W not once, but twice I suppose, which is your point exactly.)

  5. One of the things that gets me about the Creationists is how they refuse to see how our society has evolved since Biblical times, accepting all those creature comforts, and thinking that species don't adapt and evolve over time.

  6. It's a very top down view of the world -- one which, when you think about it, competes with democratic governing.

    If pressed, I think this may be what worries biologists most -- that you put at risk the very fabric of society if you have half the population of a democratic country believing in received wisdom rather than learning to think for themselves. And that critical thinking/science is the same as religious truth.

    You can see how that might leave the country open to all sorts of mischief -- well, I think we've already seen it actually.

  7. It is disturbing because many of these evolution-deniers live in a world governed by religious law or "higher law," which of course means different things to different people. Even the Southern Baptist Convention was split on the issue of Creationism or Evolution being taught in classrooms, although many of these folks now promote a so-called "debate." Randy Olson got into this in "Flock of Dodos." Scientists haven't handled themselves very well in these debates.

    Then you have the absurdity of a Creation Museum replete with a "Dinosaur Den,"


    all part of God's plan.

    Of course, it is part of a much larger issue and that is how do we govern our lives. If you feel it is all part of a "Divine Plan," then what value really is a Democratic society, if we are periodically subject to "divine upheavals" whenever we stray too far from the divine path.

  8. If the religious conservatives want a "debate" then we really should go back to the "Scopes Monkey Trial" and put the Bible on the table and debate its content, especially in regard to "what is mankind?" This should uncork any bottled up emotions.

  9. I think I need to get my eyes checked. Every time I open this site, my very first impression of that photograph of the chimpanzee in human dress is of the photograph of the first man on the moon. I don't know what it is that triggers that initial recognition, but it continues even when I know it's not there.... monkeys = men on the moon?

  10. Temporary cognitive disconnect--or misconnect--avrds, which I'm sure I'll now experience at each viewing myself.

    "Americans lack basic critical thinking skills -- that as a group they cannot distinguish between belief and evidence-based knowledge"

    Not to be a chauvinist, but I don't know if Americans as a group are really more deficient in these skills than any other randomly chosen national group. Does it really "go with the territory"? If so, what territory/group do you credit with being more capable in this regard, and why?

  11. NYT, I don't think there is such a "debate" in Europe. Most persons accept the concept of evolution. There are no highly publicized cases that I know of where European provinces rebel against teaching evolution in high school. The Pope (John Paul II anyway) appeared to accept the theory of evolution when he addressed the issue in 1996,


    and Protestants over here are of the more moderate kind, although we get the periodic summer invasion of proselytizing Mormons and other American Protestant denominations.

    It seems that the "debate" on evolution is one largely contrived by American evangelicals and fundamentalists, with the Creation Museum in Kentucky serving as their most public counterpoint.

  12. I knew someone had to come up with a worldwide poll on the acceptance of evolution,

    "The acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or Europe, largely because of widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States.


  13. NY, it does sound like I've painted the nation with a broad brush. But when you look at these national polls showing what people actually believe it does make one a bit queezy, given that they also have to participate in society and make informed decisions about who will be in charge of the nation, etc. (e.g., those Southern republicans who were questioning Sotomayor).

    Interesting in the poll they point to the politicization of science. That's probably right on -- playing to people's fears and lack of information for political gain.

    But Gintaras, as we also saw in Flight of the Dodos, the scientists aren't exactly the best representatives of informed thinking either.

  14. I think a large part of the problem is that scientists don't see this as a "debate," and feel insulted to even have to participate. This was the impression I got watching Flock of Dodos. When you listen to the "Intelligent Design" arguments it is hard to take any of them seriously, even the more current ones that accept a large span of time and the existence of dinosaurs and other long extinct species. One has to step back from it, as Olson did, and find the humor in it, otherwise you would just go crazy trying to make any sense out of what these Creationists are saying.

  15. I also belong to a vert-paleo listserv, and they often debate behind the scenes the best ways to address the creationist museum or the introduction of "intelligent design" alongside evolution in schools.

    Generally you're right -- the feeling is you don't want to get sucked into it, because the creationists make some obscure point and then they claim to have deflated your entire argument.

    Eugenie Scott and her group (National Center for Science Education) does a good job on the national stage, I think.

  16. The average American is neither well educated nor well read. That may seem like a sweeping statement, but it's also true. Add religious fundamentalism to the mix, and you have a toxic cocktail. Add elected State superintendents of school to the mix, and you get "only a theory" disclaimers on science textbooks.

  17. If you look at the poll above, you will note that the countries where education rates highest there is more acceptance of evolution. It is interesting to see that we rank at the bottom of the National Center for Science Education poll with Turkey, where a large degree of fundamentalism also exists. So, in this sense anyway we rate no better than the "Muslims," which we so often decry as being "primitive."

  18. Interesting point. As a nation, we haven't done a very good job investing in our future -- i.e., our children and their education. I think a lot of it comes back to the point you made earlier about the politicization of science which, with all its faults (I'm no apologist), does seem to transcend politics at least most of the time.

    I was involved with a group of paleontologists a few years back during one of the deep freezes with China -- I can't even remember what it was about now. We had a show of Chinese dinosaurs and other fossils, and a large contingent of Chinese scientists came to Montana to visit with other scientists here and to speak about the collection. Some locals went out of their way to insult them due to the politics of the time -- ridiculous when you think about it. But that's how easily the population can be manipulated by the media et al. The scientists -- US and Chinese -- on the other hand were not affected. Science transcended the sword waving and the politics generally.

  19. Here is a link to Mencken on the Scopes trial, fundamentalism and evolution. "There's nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9).


  20. Another excellent and endless site to explore. Thanks!

  21. I loved this comment,

    "The selection of a jury to try Scopes, which went on all yesterday afternoon in the atmosphere of a blast furnace, showed to what extreme lengths the salvation of the local primates has been pushed. It was obvious after a few rounds that the jury would be unanimously hot for Genesis. The most that Mr. Darrow could hope for was to sneak in a few bold enough to declare publicly that they would have to hear the evidence against Scopes before condemning him."

  22. Mencken was not shy about expessing his opinion, was he?

  23. Or this, linked at the bottom of the page. He sort of writes off everyone:

    Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone -- that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized -- though I should not like to be put to giving names -- but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

  24. Cynical but well said. The sad part is we keep reliving The Scopes Monkey Trial year in and year out, making very little headway when it comes to teaching evolution, or any kind of science for that matter, in the class room. Most teachers give evolution a day or two at the most, moving onto other cursory subjects in the syllabus, with students taking little note.

    Carl Sagan said long ago that you have to make science interesting. You have to talk about the big ideas. You have to draw the kids into the subject matter, but I hazard to say that many teachers are ill-prepared to make science anymore than a perfunctory set of subjects parceled out over 6 years of high school.

  25. The weird thing is that science had been considered such a cult that men like Sagan were dismissed by the scientific community as mere communicators. This is the world that attitude has reaped.

    One of my favorite books about science is the Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck, which I highly recommend. Really beautiful book about science, but he also talks about the priests in their white coats. Hopefully that is now starting to change.

  26. I teach lit surveys by talking about the big ideas and leaving the more technical stuff to my colleagues. If they only knew how little time I spend on things like meter and rhyme when teaching poetry for instance, they'd probably have heart attacks. But that stuff never meant much to me, and I know it won't mean anything to my students.

  27. I love Log from the Sea of Cortez. I also picked up Between Pacific Tides, which Ricketts wrote. You also can't beat Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday for their shear enjoyment, which David Ward made into a fun movie with John Huston narrating the story.

    We were in Monterey on our last trip to America and the aquarium there is wonderful, made to look like the canneries themselves, jutting out into the ocean with seals often on the rocks. I think Steinbeck and Ricketts would have loved it, even if the overall appearance of the town is a bit too touristy. Salinas was celebrating Steinbeck Days at the time.

  28. Gintaras, I'm so glad you know that book. To me that's what field science is all about. I actually tried to do some sort of re-creation of that event but couldn't quite figure out how to make it happen. Still may try at some point.

    Interestingly, Steinbeck's wife was along the entire time but there is no mention of women aboard. Another one of those stereotypes about science.

  29. av, I think one of the reasons you might associate chimps with space flights is because of Ham,


  30. That's him, poor little guy.

    No, there's something about his posture and the light of that photo that triggers memory of this photo for some weird reason (and still does):


    A cognitive misconnect as NY noted.

  31. Turns out the creationists are also sometimes anti-government tax evaders:


  32. Only surprising (or not) that Hovind didn't cover his tracks a little more carefully.

  33. Pretty funny. Here's more on Dinosaur Adventure Land,


  34. "my kids kept getting it wrong...."

    That's scary! Great photo, though.

  35. No surprise that many of these Fundamentalists home school their kids or put them in Christian schools where they grow up pretty much divorced from mainstream opinion.

    When I was teaching math and science in a rural high school Lesotho, I had to deal with the subject of evolution (it was part of the Cambridge Overseas Syllabus) and its surprising fall out. Lesotho is a very religious country, so I shouldn't have been surprised many kids were shocked and some appalled by the concept of evolution. So, we had a little debate in which I let the kids make their arguments pro and con. I had a hard time finding kids to make pro arguments, but two bravely ventured forth saying that evolution didn't rule out God, because no one yet knew how life began. One even pointed to dinosaur tracks fossilized in sandstone not far from the school. It turned out to be quite fun and I think opened their minds to the subject. I was a little worried some angry parents might come to me, but that was the end of it.

    The more I think about, a debate would be a good idea because it would allow the scientists to take their shots at creationism, rather than leave themselves sitting ducks in this increasingly heated argument that I think is stunting our growth intellectually.

  36. I think the consensus in the scientific community is that they don't want to get drawn into that. For one thing, you can't debate belief. That said, there's a good report that recently came out from the Academy:


    You can also read the executive summary in PDF form using a link at the bottom of the page ("download free") -- the summary is a stand-alone publication but doesn't have its own URL.

    And if you are really geeky and bored, you can listen to Bruce Albert talk about this publication and others here (why we don't have him and others debate):


    Personally, I think it's easier to just fall back on the Constitution. That's what it's there for -- to protect all of us from each other.

  37. To me, the key is to plant doubt, which was what Darrow did in the minds of the jurors at that famous trial. In the end, they ruled against Scopes purely because he taught evolution against state rules, making him pay a nominal fine.

    I don't think the scientific community as a whole should concern itself too much with this, but it doesn't hurt for a few leading scientists to weigh in on the "debate," especially if they do so with a sense of humor, and not the usual anger at being dragged into these arguments.

    Again, I point to Olson and "A Flock of Dodos," where he turns the camera on these advocates of intelligent design, amusingly noting the many holes in their theories.

  38. One of the more surprising advocates of "intelligent design" is Ben Stein,

    "Earlier this year, Stein withdrew as the University of Vermont's commencement speaker over complaints about his critical views of evolution in favor of intelligent design."


    Hard to say whether this is his actual line or if it is all a wry joke.