I’d like to thank Barry Karr of The Center for Inquiry for the invitation to speak at their Darwin Day event. The event itself went off smoothly, and I was well taken care of during my travel woes. All in all, a highly successful weekend.
The afternoon began with a screening of Inherit the Wind. The last time I saw the movie was in high school, long before I had developed any serious interest in this subject. I liked it then, and I like it even more now. It’s impressive not only as a movie, but is actually more historically accurate than I remembered it being. The only really big thing it gets wrong is its portrayal of the local townspeople as being little more than an irrational lynch mob. In reality Scopes was well-regarded in the town; he must have been the least put-upon martryr in the history of martyrdom. Indeed, the real Scopes trial was mostly for show. The townspeople viewed it as a device for attracting some welcome publicity, while the ACLU saw it as a case that could really put them on the map. In real life, unlike in the movie, there were no angry mobs singing, “We’ll hang Bert Cates from a sour apple tree!” (Bert Cates being the Scopes character in the movie.) Also, in real life Scopes was not the boyfriend of the pastor’s daughter.
But for the most part the movie follows things pretty closely. It accurately portrays William Jennings Bryan as somewhat more moderate than the townspeople he was representing. Much of the legal wrangling during the courtroom scenes is also pretty accurate. It accurately portrays the dispute over the admissability of scientific testimony, for example, and many of the lines uttered by Frederic March and Spencer Tracy in the movie are straight out of the trial transcript. The climactic scene where Spencer Tracy questions William Jennings Bryan was likewise taken nearly verbatim from the trial transcripts. The real affair was not quite as devastating for Bryan as what was portrayed in the movie, but there’s no question that Darrow had by far the better of it, and that Bryan was solidly humiliated. The movie contains a certain amount of dramatic license, it’s not a documentary after all. But having recently reread L. Sprague De Camp’s book, The Great Monkey Trial, I was impressed by how closely the film stuck to actual events.
After the film was a catered dinner which was nice. Then I did my thing. I spoke for about an hour tracing out the history of the legal disputes over evolution on the one hand, and the scientific progress of the subject on the other. Here’s an abridged version.
I started in 1802 with the publication of Paley’s Natural Theology and discussed his watchmaker argument for a bit. Then I moved quickly to 1859 and the publication of The Origin of Species. I discussed what Darwin actually wrote and what the main responses to him were. Next up was the Scopes trial and some of the social factors that led up to it. Since we had just seen Inherit the Wind, I spent a fair amount of time on this topic.
Next up was a discussion of the fallout from the Scopes trial, in which evolution largely disappeared from school textbooks. This coincided with the development of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I made the point that the mid-twentieth century was a time when, on the one hand, evolution mostly disappeared from science classes, while on the other hand the science was experiencing a new surge of progress and growth. As a result of the work done by the pioneers of the synthesis, scientists for the first time agreed not only on the fact of common descent, but also that natural selection deserved pride of place among evolutionary mechanisms. I also described how this progress continued unabated in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a result of the tremendous progress in molecular biology. For example, the structure of DNA was determined in 1953, and the genetic code was unravelled in the early sixties.
Largely as a result of the Sputnik launch in 1957, there was a renewed commitment to science education in the late fifties and sixties. This led to the production of new biology textbooks that featured evolution prominently. These books were rapidly adopted all over the country. Sadly, Scopes era laws banning the teaching of evolution were still on the books. This dissonance was eventually resolved by the Supreme Court in the 1967 case Epperson v. Arkansas. The Supremes finally struck down the Scopes era laws.
Since banning evolution was now out, the first of the equal-time laws was passed. First up was a Tennessee law mandating that whenever evolution is taught, alternative, including but not limited to the biblical account in Genesis, had to be taught as well. The Appeals Court struck that down in the 1975 case Daniel v. Waters.
The next try was to claim that the assertions of the creation story in Genesis are amply documented by the available scientific evidence. That is, whenever evolution was taught equal time had to be given to the alternative theory known as scientific creationism. This was first litigated in the 1981 case McLean v. Arkansas, and was found unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed with that decision in a different case in 1987.
Banning evolution was out. Mandating equal time for the Bible was out. Mandating equal time for creation science was out. And thus, intelligent design was born. After describing the basic tenets of ID, and its development throughout the nineties, I spent some time on the Kitzmiller trial. As I am sure everyone reading this is aware, that was the trial were ID was exposed for the fraud that it is.
Then I said a few words about the Cobb County sticker case, and closed with a gloomy assessment of the current right-wing tilt of the Supreme Court. If Bush gets one more pick, the creationists might very well have a majority on the court. And on that somber note, I called it a night.
There followed a thirty minute Q&A, and that was that.