State v. John Scopes: A Final Word
by Douglas O. Linder
|The eight days
of the Scopes trial in the summer of 1925
have the poignancy that accompanies the memory of a moment just before
life-changing event. A sepia-toned
photograph of trial participants could be the photograph of a group of
rafters as they approach Class V rapids.
William Jennings Bryan is seen shouting furiously to other
paddle backwards, away from the falls.
Looking at the picture, we know he is seconds away from
his doom. Clarence Darrow and H. L.
Mencken chomp on
their cigars, laughing mockingly at the concern of their frenzied
raftmate. Scopes is there too, sitting
quietly and staring ahead. The defense’s
religious and scientific experts are crowded together at the back of
talking among themselves about the best way of avoiding the deadly
that lie ahead. In the trees on the far
bank and over the rapids there appears to a mist—the mist of a god or
departing god, perhaps. The water is
churning, suggesting the presence of the ideas that moved human
The falls, to carry the metaphor just a bit further, is not one that can be portaged around. Darwin Rapids stands out among all others on the river of human history. Copernicus Rapids, Lyell Rapids, and all the rest created by ideas that previously challenged the comforting stories of the Bible seem barely threatening in comparison. If run successfully, the rapids ahead, Big Bang Rapids and Universe of Universes Rapids included, should all be manageable. Somehow the rafters will have to withstand the jolts, the twists, the sudden drops through space, that come with the realization that the faith of their fathers can no longer be their own.
Like every metaphor, this one has its limitations. Darwin Rapids, like any real rapids, doesn’t have the same defined location for all river-runners: some people today are just beginning to hear its roar, others—blissfully ignorant and supremely confident in the old superstitions—never will face it. “Facts are stubborn things,” however, and eventually the stubborn facts that point strongly to evolution—not divine intervention—as the cause for the variety of life on earth will win the day for Darwin.
To what extent, then, does it make sense to compare the Scopes trial to Darwin Rapids? Or, to drop the metaphor, in what ways and for how many Americans did July 1925 mark the beginning of a re-examination of long-held religious beliefs and a growing acceptance of evolution and its implications for the place of humans on the planet? The answer is complicated and, as is the case for most important questions, not one anyone can, with confidence provide full details.
Each side came a way feeling their cause
There are several places one
for answers as to
As might be expected, members of the
opinions about evolution at the time of the Scopes trial came up with a
of answers. One
Paul R. Conkin wrote, in When All the Gods Trembled, that most intellectuals today have forgotten or never understood “the tragic sense of irreparable loss” that their grandparents or great-grandparents suffered in the 1920s when they watched their gods tremble and die. Those alive at that time “knew, from experience, what it had been like to live in a structured and purposeful universe,” Conkin stated. “They remembered the awe, the fear, and at times the comfort of living in a world inhabited by gods. Thus they experienced the insecurity, and at times the elation, of knowing that the gods were all dying.” The dying of their gods, according to Conkin, remained central to the identity of people and their absence filled their thoughts. The love and support they had counted on was suddenly gone—and it hurt. In Conkin’s words, “It was like the loss of a father.” (Paul Conkin, When All the Gods Trembled, p. 175)
There can be no doubt that
In the sensation-loving 1920s, the sensations that attracted the most attention were those that in some way appeared to be contests between the intellect and Victorian values and beliefs. The Scopes trial fit this pattern perfectly. Robert Pirsig (best known for his classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) wrote in Lila that, viewed in one respect, “Clarence Darrow was just taking easy shots at a toothless tiger.” Pirsig argued that the true meaning of the trial emerges when Darrow is seen “prosecuting the old static religious patterns of the past.” The trial, Pirsig concluded, “Gave intellectuals a warm feeling of arriving somewhere they had been waiting to arrive for a long time. Church bigots, pillars of society who for centuries had viciously attacked and defamed intellectuals who disagree with them, were now getting some of it back.”
What society needed in 1925 and still could use more of today are the thoughtful intellectuals and opinion-shapers that comprehend the human costs of dying gods. Much has been lost, and those who best understand the tragedy are in the best position to provide the guidance now needed. With tact rather than ridicule, these men and women can help plant the seeds of new, non-supernatural beliefs that will preserve human dignity and moral engagement.