An Evening at the CFI

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.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    February 27, 2007

    Glad to have you back!

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    February 27, 2007

    Interesting day, I’m sure. However, I think it’s a pity that the movie continues to be used in that context. It tends to reinforce stereotypes on the one side, and give an opportunity to rant about godless Hollywood distortions of history on the other. I agree that the movie is a fine one (although a good stage production of the original play is even better).

    As far as I know, the play was not intended to have anything to do with science vs. religion, but was intended as a critique on the McCarthy era and intellectual freedom.

    There’s a Wikipedia article which matches up with what I’ve read elsewhere … see It includes an interesting statement in the trial transcript from Darrow …

    “I don’t know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennessee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon any body’s part — any citizen here in this town or outside the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north.” (trial transcript, pp. 225-226)

    And beyond that, the trial really fizzled and was a non-event from the perspective of both sides as far as I know. It didn’t do much for Dayton, and it didn’t give the ACLU the test case it was looking for.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 27, 2007


    Good to be back!


    In my opinion the movie is so good simply as a film, and enough of it is historically accurate and relevant today, that it is still worth using in venues such as this one. In my talk I spent a lot of time discussing which parts of the film were accurate and which parts were not. As I noted in my opening post, the worst way in which the film is inaccurate is in its portrayal of the people of Dayton. Their bigotry towards people who did not share their religion is not to be ignored, but the fact remains that by all accounts their behavior towards Scopes and the defense team was impeccable.

    I wouldn’t say the trial fizzled, though it certainly didn’t go the way either side expected. Dayton certainly received a great deal of attention, just not the sort of attention they were looking for. The Tennessee Supreme Court later ruled on the case. Four justices on the Court issued three different opinions. (A fifth justice had to recuse himself for having assisted the prosecution in an earlier life). Two of the justices ruled that the law was constitutional and that Scopes violated it. One ruled the law constiutional, but interpreted the law so narrowly that he felt Scopes had not violated it (and indeed, that it would be practically impossible for anyone to violate it short of a massive effort to do so). And one found the law unconstitutional. They also overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality. This made it impossible for the defense to appeal to the Supreme Court.

    Even if the trial itself was not all it was cracked up to be, it certainly had a chilling effect on science education for the next thirty years.

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    February 27, 2007

    Well, we’ll just have to disagree on whether the film ought to be used in that manner, I guess.

    They also overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality. This made it impossible for the defense to appeal to the Supreme Court.

    Sounds like “fizzled” to me from the ACLU point of view … although I should have said, “…the trial and its aftermath…”. And I’m not aware that Dayton ever got the economic benefits that they were looking for, which is why it seems to me that “fizzled” is fair on that side as well.

    …had a chilling effect on science education for the next thirty years.

    Yes, that seems to be the reality. However, that has nothing to do with the “fizzledness” of the trail and the immediate aftermath for the parties directly involved.

    Glad to hear that you put some focus on the historical inaccuracies, although I’m still uncomfortable with the use of the film in the manner described.

  5. #5 tristero
    February 27, 2007


    I think the point Scott is making is that the movie’s “real” subject is not Scopes but McCarthyism, using the basic outline of the Monkey Trial the way Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials to criticize what was going on in the 1950’s.

    As for the accuracy of the film, the impression I have of ITW is that the forces of rationalism won out against demagoguery. This isn’t so, as you point out above. Also, Bryan is portrayed as an ignorant yahoo. If I read Summer of the Gods correctly, Bryan’s politics were not only populist but actually quite liberal.

    As for accuracy, the climactic confrontation between Bryan and Darrow took place outside, I believe Bryan admitted that the length of a “creation day” was not necessarily 24 hours, some of the most impressive speeches were given by other ACLU attorneys than Darrow, and Bryan died after the trial, but not in the courtroom. Nor did he die a humiliated, broken man. I suppose one could say that many of these are dramatic license, but there are many others.

    The point being, again, that the movie was not intended as docudrama but as allegory.

    One thing I’ve always been curious about is whether there are any recordings of the actual trial. I’ve seen film clips and we know that it was broadcast. I wonder if any air checks survive. Wouldn’t that be something to hear!

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    February 27, 2007


    The intent of the play was, indeed, an attack on McCarthyism. That notwithstanding, most of the major events of the film are accurate depictions of things that happened during the actual Scopes trial.

    The fact that Darrow’s questioning of Bryan took place outside (unlike in the movie), that some of the most eloquent speeches at the actual trial were made by people other than Darrow (again, unlike in the movie), and that Brayn actually died five days after the trial rather than in the courtroom, are surely instances of legitimate dramatic license.

    In both the film and in real life, the most dramatic moment of Darrow’s questioning of Bryan was the moment when Bryan conceded that the days in Genesis might not have been 24 hours long. To this day you can find fundamentalist magazines excoriating Bryan for that admission, though Bryan had never been dogmatic on that point. Whether he was “humiliated and broken” after the trial is hard to know, of course. What is clear is that Darrow won the day handily, and that many of Bryan’s former supporters abandoned him after Darrow’s questioning. I think it’s reasonable to say Bryan was humiliated, though I’m not sure about broken.

    Bryan is not portrayed as an ignorant yahoo in the film. In fact, there are at least two scenes that serve to show he was considerably more moderate than the townspeople he was representing. In one, Bryan steps in to stop a preacher whose zeal has led him to condemn his own daughter for befriending Scopes, in another Bryan has a civil conversation with Darrow. That said, holding liberal political views sadly does not imply you’re not also an ignorant yahoo.

    I acknowledged in my opening post that the film is not a documentary. I’m simply more impressed by the number of things the film got right than with the things it got wrong. Also, I have no doubt that the audience watching the film was clear on the differences between Hollywood and history. And since it was lead in to my talk, which focused on legal squabbles over evolution, I think it was appropriate to screen it.

    It would, indeed, be very cool to be able to hear actual audio from the trial. The trial transcripts are readily available, but a lot gets lost reading things on a page!

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    February 27, 2007

    One aspect of the Scopes Trial which should be made into a movie is H. L. Mencken’s visit to a Holy Roller revival, one mystical night outside of Dayton.

    What followed quickly reached such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real. At a signal all the faithful crowded up the bench and began to pray — not in unison but each for himself. At another they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun — appeals to God to pull the penitent back out of hell, defiances of the powers and principalities of the air, a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues — blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled. He fell headlong across the pyramid of supplicants.

    A comic scene? Somehow, no. The poor half wits were too horribly in earnest. It was like peeping through a knothole at the writhings of a people in pain. From the squirming and jabbering mass a young woman gradually detached herself — a woman not uncomely, with a pathetic home-made cap on her head. Her head jerked back, the veins of her neck swelled, and her fists went to her throat as if she were fighting for breath. She bent backward until she was like half of a hoop. Then she suddenly snapped forward. We caught a flash of the whites of her eyes. Presently her whole body began to be convulsed — great convulsions that began at the shoulders and ended at the hips. She would leap to her feet, thrust her arms in air and then hurl herself upon the heap. Her praying flattened out into a mere delirious caterwauling, like that of a tomcat on a petting party.

    I describe the thing as a strict behaviorist. The lady’s subjective sensations I leave to infidel pathologists. Whatever they were they were obviously contagious, for soon another damsel joined her, and then another and then a fourth. The last one had an extraordinary bad attack. She began with mild enough jerks of the head, but in a moment she was bounding all over the place, exactly like a chicken with its head cut off. Every time her head came up a stream of yells and barkings would issue out of it. Once she collided with a dark, undersized brother, hitherto silent and stolid. Contact with her set him off as if he had been kicked by a mule. He leaped into the air, threw back his head and began to gargle as if with a mouthful of BB shot. Then he loosened one tremendous stentorian sentence in the tongues and collapsed.

    By this time the performers were quite oblivious to the profane universe.

  8. #8 SLC
    February 28, 2007

    In some fairness to Bryan, it should be noted that much of his antagonism toward the theory of evolution was due to his experiences as Secretary of State in the Wilson administration. In that capacity, he had contacts with numerous German officials who used the theory to expound on alleged German superiority, which Bryan rightly found atrocious. Bryans’ problem was that he was unaware that the German position was based on a distortion of the theory which did not reflect Darwins’ views in the slightest.

  9. #9 oyunlar1
    October 17, 2007

    Yarg?tay 5. Ceza Dairesi üyeleri, temyiz için önlerine gelen bir davada cep telefonuyla yap?lan arkada?l?k teklifinin taciz say?lmayaca??na karar veren mahkemenin karar?n? onad?klar?n? belirterek

New comments have been disabled.