I caught the 1960 version of “Inherit the Wind” which starred Fredric March and Spencer Tracy on TCM this weekend.
I always liked the film because it was based on the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” where a school teacher was put on trial for teaching Evolution. At the time state law forbade the teaching of anything that was against the Bible story of creation.
Although the film uses the Monkey trial as the starting point it was never meant to be a documentary of that trial. The film was based on the stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee as a statement against McCarthyism – not religion vs. science. However it offers a good look at the still constant struggle of science against religious fundamentalism.
Basically the real trial ended in the conviction of Scopes and a $100 fine. It wasn’t until 1968, in the case Epperson v. Arkansas, that laws requiring creationism to be taught in the public schools were unconstitutional. However, the law John Scopes was convicted under only prohibited the teaching of evolution. It didn’t require creationism in its place.
One view of the trial, even around the freethought community, is that the trial and its publicity actually caused the religious fundamentalists to fight back against the teaching of evolution. It is said that because Clarence Darrow made William Jennings Bryan look like a fool, it ticked off the fundamentalists causing many of the issues we see today between science and religion. Some believe that because of that, we freethinkers prolong the battle.
Even that really isn’t true.
Gregg Easterbrook writes on Beliefnet.com:
When “The Fundamentals,” a popular series of tracts that sparked the modern American fundamentalist movement, began publication in 1909, most of these works spoke kindly of Darwin, suggesting that evolution helped people understand God’s process of creation.
Only in the 1920s did Darwin and religion come into regular conflict in the United States. There were several reasons. One was that paleontologists were beginning to accumulate evidence that human beings descended from earlier primates… While many churchgoers might have been content to believe that the horse evolved from the ancient proto-equus called eohippus, they were less than enthusiastic about evidence that Homo sapiens did not come about in a single divine act of creation. This put opposition to selection theory into play as an American public issue.
Easterbrook also mentioned that other causes of the conflict included the arrival of universal publicly funded high-school education and the then fashionable idea of “Social Darwinism” also known as Eugenics. Some people were afraid of the implications of Eugenics – the poor, the disabled, and the troubled should be removed for genetic reasons.
While the play and film made fundamentalists look like buffoons, viewing the film again made me realize that life has come to imitate art. While the scenes of the mob and jeers didn’t happen in the real trial, it seems that the anger and divisiveness of the religion vs science battle has become more heated.
I think the main reason is because some believers can’t accept that humans aren’t special. Like Easterbrook, I think that people can accept that other animals evolved but can’t stand the thought that humans are just another animal and there is no special purpose for us. To accept it would call into question their entire belief system – even though it doesn’t have to.
The trial didn’t win the battle for evolution. Andrew Bradbury writes on his site The Scopes “Monkey” Trial that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that evolution began to take on a larger role in the teaching of biology.
By 1930, according to one pro-evolution commentator, Maynard Shipley, an estimated 70% of all public high schools omitted all reference to the theory of evolution in their science classes. This situation prevailed for over three decades after the Scopes Trial, so that as late as 1959 Harvard Professor of palaeontology George G. Simpson, in a lecture entitled “One Hundred Years Without Darwin are Enough”, observed that “Most [US high school science textbooks] relegate evolution to a single section, preferably in the back of the book, which need not be assigned.” According to researchers Judith Grabiner and Peter Miller, “Not until 1960 was the treatment of evolution in the most widely used high school texts substantially improved over that found before the Scopes trial”.
I should note that during the 1960’s there was a greater emphasis on science for national policy reasons as we battled the USSR in the Cold War.
Public opinions on evolution haven’t changed much since 1925. A majority still believe that the Bible story of creation is just as valid as the science of evolution and should both be taught in the schools.
I think that is why the film “Inherit the Wind” is just as relevant today as it was in 1960, even if for different reasons.