Scientific Truth vs. Inherited Wisdom

What’s the Debate?

Since America’s founding, two seemingly opposing traditions have defined our national culture, namely scientific progress and religious faith. Both of these traditions trace their roots to colonial Philadelphia, where William Penn welcomed diverse religious communities from across Europe, while Benjamin Franklin helped found research institutions and museums. As scientific research has helped us to live longer and more fulfilling lives, it has gained ever greater authority across society. Nonetheless, the inherited wisdom of our religious traditions continues to provide spiritual and moral guidance for many, along with the care and nurture of community life.

What’s the Backstory?

While science and religion have often coexisted in defining the intellectual and moral life of the republic, at certain junctures they have come into sharp conflict. One such controversy captured the nation’s attention in 1925 during the Scopes “Monkey” Trial held in Dayton, Tennessee. One of the first large-scale media events of the twentieth century, this trial pitted two great orators of that period, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, on opposite sides of a debate over whether to teach evolution in schools. A closer examination of the arguments made by each side raises a number of questions about civic culture that remain present in debates today.

The Historical Setting, Explained

The Scopes Trial had its origin in Darwin’s theory of evolution, first proposed in The Origin of Species in 1859. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, natural scientists in a range of fields, from geology to zoology to genetics, carefully assessed Darwin’s hypothesis that all organic life on Earth evolved from single-celled organisms leading to the existence of human beings. At the same time, within their own sphere, religious thinkers had adapted the Biblical account of creation to Darwin’s theory through interpretive means, utilizing symbolic readings of Genesis and theories of intelligent design. Religious traditionalists, however, objected to evolution on two key points: that the “natural selection” of species could not be random but rather showed God’s purpose in nature; and that humans were not descended from apes but rather were created in God’s image as the Bible taught. The revealed wisdom of scriptures might find some compromise with scientific hypotheses, but not to the extent of raising doubts about God’s existence or human dignity.

The most contentious battleground for this debate took place in public schools, which by the 1920s were only just becoming widely accessible to urban and rural students across the country. Between 1890 and 1920, the number of public school students grew tenfold, from 200,000 to two million, and the change was especially felt in remote and deeply religious parts of the South. In Tennessee, the site of the trial, Governor Austin Peay had committed funding and resources to expand public education for a large part of the population. With this expansion, though, came uneasiness regarding curriculum. Following the outcry from religious and political leaders, in particular the populist hero William J. Bryan, the Tennessee legislature passed a law forbidding any teaching that questioned the Biblical account of creation, even in a biology class such as the one John Scopes taught.

How Did the Debate Play Out?

During the trial, Bryan made his case on two grounds. First, he argued that parents and local communities should have the right to regulate the content of public education on a democratic basis, making their concerns heard through voting and respecting majority rule. But Bryan also held deeper concerns that Darwinism encouraged a pessimistic view of nature and society as the “survival of the fittest,” a ruthless struggle for power that rewarded selfish, aggressive behavior at the expense of hope, charity, and communal nurture. A particularly troubling version of the scientific ethos, in his view, was the eugenics movement, which argued for selectively breeding more perfect humans while quarantining the disabled and mentally ill, as the biology textbook in Scopes’ class indeed argued. Thus, Bryan’s passion for creating a more just and caring society drove his opposition to teaching atheistic evolution as the fundamental truth about nature.

Clarence Darrow came to the defense of Scopes with a skeptical view of religious beliefs, but also an abiding concern for civil liberties. For more than two decades, he had defended freedom of speech for labor activists and anti-war protesters. He strongly believed that the Bill of Rights protected individual rights against the will of the majority, which he saw as the key issue in Scopes defying the Tennessee law. The issue of academic freedom was also becoming more important at the time with the increasing authority of scientific research in universities. If biology was to be taught in public schools, which Governor Peay and Bryan desired, then teachers trained in biology should be able to present the truth as scientists understood it. Darrow’s most powerful argument was that no single religious viewpoint should predominate in a public context. Christian fundamentalism, Bryan professed, might object to the theory of evolution, but other Christians testified at the trial that evolution could coexist with Christian beliefs, not to mention the teachings of Judaism or Islam. Should not a public school provide a neutral venue on religious questions, Darrow concluded, reflecting a diversity of beliefs including atheism?

So What Happened?

In the end, Bryan won the battle but Darrow may have won the war. Scopes was found guilty of a misdemeanor for teaching evolution, but over time, national public opinion outside fundamentalist circles has largely accepted the importance of scientific truth in public school education. Nonetheless, as we have seen with recent political struggles over textbooks and curricula, the issue is far from resolved culturally and remains a proxy for larger fault lines between religious traditions and secular, scientific knowledge in defining the public sphere in America.

Further Reading:

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.