Inherit the Baloney

Creationists try to settle a score with Darwin.


Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial, by Marvin Olasky and John Perry, Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 344 pages, $24.99

In 1925, John Scopes of Dayton, Tennessee, was charged with violating the Butler Act, a new state law that forbade teaching evolution in state schools. Both the arrest and the famous trial that followed were more a piece of dramaturgy than a legal proceeding.

Although he did teach some science and math, Scopes' principal duties at Central High School were those of an athletic coach; on the fateful day when local engineer George Rappleyea saw an American Civil Liberties Union ad soliciting a case to test the law and persuaded the Dayton town fathers to go looking for someone to serve as a defendant, he had to send a high school kid to pull Scopes off the tennis court. Scopes was not at all sure he had taught anything resembling Darwin's theory of natural selection in his rounds as a back-up science instructor. But he had used a general biology textbook, Hunter's Civic Biology–then standard in the Dayton schools and much of the rest of Tennessee–that mentioned Darwin approvingly.

That was enough for the Dayton boosters, who hoped a trial might put their city on the map. As for Scopes, he was happy to have an excuse to hang around town that summer, since he had his eye on a fetching blonde who had recently matriculated at Central High.

The trio of eminences who gave the trial its star power–Clarence Darrow for the defense, William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution, and Baltimore Evening Sun correspondent H.L. Mencken for the general excoriation of the backwoods booboisie–were likewise on hand for reasons ulterior to the strict interpretation of the Butler Act. As a simple question of law, the Scopes case was open and shut, so the trial largely reversed the ways the legal system is supposed to work. Scopes was deliberately selected to serve as a guilty defendant; the theatrics of the court served mainly to create a documentary record for later appeals; and the jury was absent for all but three hours of the "trial of the century" while counsel on both sides fought over the admission of expert testimony and speechified for the historical record. The verdict–returned in nine minutes, after Darrow announced he was content to see his client convicted–is the least remembered detail of the whole spectacle, because it was never the point.

The point was to stage-manage American public opinion on the evolution controversy, and for that reason the Scopes trial was a Pyrrhic victory for the forces of biblical fundamentalism. It furnished a foundation myth of the culture wars that has stayed firmly in place for eight decades: that biblical literalism is a cancer on the nation's learning, and that free thought and skeptical inquiry are its mortal enemies. That lesson was codified in influential accounts of the trial by historians Frederick Lewis Allen, Richard Hofstadter, and Ray Ginger, and it was elevated to a whole new level of myth with the 1955 Broadway play Inherit the Wind, released as an overwrought Stanley Kramer message movie in 1960.

In Monkey Business, Christian journalists Marvin Olasky and John Perry–the former is famous for conceiving "compassionate conservatism"–strive to correct the widely accepted image of the Scopes trial. Olasky and Perry dutifully rehash the chronology of the much-chronicled trial, adding little in terms of fact to the definitive and balanced account in Edward Larson's Pulitzer Prize?winning 1999 study Summer for the Gods. Their one novel contribution is a prologue chapter on Dayton's many misfortunes prior to the historic summer of 1925. A coal and iron mining company town, Dayton had suffered a series of catastrophic cave-ins, which prompted a series of mine failures.

Enter George Rappleyea, who eagerly took note of the ACLU's efforts to drum up a court challenge to the Butler Act. After learning that Chattanooga and Knoxville had declined the honor of hosting the trial, Rappleyea convened a set of civic worthies, including Dayton's school board president cum drugstore proprietor, Frank E. "Doc" Robinson, and town prosecutor Sue Hicks, a man named for his mother. (Hicks was reportedly the inspiration for Shel Silverstein's gender-bending country ballad "A Boy Named Sue.") They, in turn, brought in Scopes.

Even in recounting this preliminary civic scheming, Olasky and Perry are clearly warming up to their big-ticket theme: that the Scopes trial was an unfair fight aimed first and foremost at generating publicity. They describe ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin as a Victorian-era stage villain–collaborating with Lucille B. Milner, his "indefatigable secretary…and part-time lover," to seize the Butler Act as "an important opportunity to promote the ACLU and its liberal agenda." Even the poor semi-employed engineer George Rappleyea is shown, bizarrely, in an opportunistic Svengali-style fever: Olasky and Perry speculate that as the Dayton booster entertained visions of the ACLU launching his hard-luck city into the big time, "his big, round eyes may have grown wider still behind his thick glasses."

Yet the authors reserve most of their agenda plumping for the main event. As the trial proceeds on its appointed path, Olasky and Perry break in with entire chapters interpreting the larger significance of Darwinism and the moral relativism it allegedly brings in its wake. This offstage sermonizing is so distracting from the main narrative that they give one chapter the artless title "Back to the Trial."

Here's a typical peroration on the moral costs of Darwinism's intellectual and cultural triumph: "What made Darwinism so important and impactful [sic] was theological and not scientific: it pulled the foundation of moral absolutes out from under every law, action, and relationship. If God is sovereign, his law as given in the Bible is the absolute standard; if God is an uninterested or helpless bystander and pointless random chemical reactions underlie all of life, God's law is superfluous. The abandonment of absolute standards of morality and behavior eventually transformed the American cultural and legal landscape. Pornography became free speech, with public decency standards marginalized. The destruction of moral absolutes paved the way for welfare programs that held no one accountable for his actions and choices and set out to apply materialist solutions–money–to metaphysical problems of the heart and spirit." Natural selection to godless malaise to pornography to money-mad welfare: QED.

By Olasky and Perry's overheated telling, the men who served as advance scouts for this wild toboggan ride of moral declension were very bad men indeed–and elitist, and smug, and arrogant as well. The authors rarely miss an opportunity to remind readers that Dayton and its inhabitants were "derided by the intellectual elite of the country," a "sneering" attitude exemplified by H.L. Mencken, who privately exulted, when Bryan died five days after the trial's conclusion, that "we killed the son of a bitch." Mencken's coverage of the trial, in Olasky and Perry's view, was one big spasm of elitist prejudice: "Mencken abandoned any arguments of the facts of the case in favor of slandering country people who made easy targets. Not discerning that a Rhea County crowd had its fair share of well-read and well-educated citizens with diverse views, Mencken wrote comments as insular and closed-minded as he accused others of being."

Certainly no one could make a straight-faced case for H.L. Mencken as a humanitarian–or as a balanced journalist, for that matter. But keeping their larger quarry squarely in view, Olasky and Perry transform Mencken's tirades into the modern culture war's original sin: "In their version, it wasn't a country school teacher who was on trial; it was Christianity. In the version that many journalists and then Inherit the Wind sold, Christianity lost–game, set, match–and debate should cease."

This gloss is so disingenuous that one is tempted to label it unchristian –and not just because Mencken's comparatively narrow readership was scarcely in a position to discredit a major world religion. (This is one of the enduring puzzlements of conservatives' elite-baiting: The allegiance of the elites doesn't get you much traction in a culture that enshrines the judgments and preferences of the masses.) Nor, for all the authors' vague talk of the cultural legacies of the Scopes episode, was there much immediate cause for elation in the evolutionist camp: Fear of religion-based persecution spurred most school districts and textbooks to censor any mention of evolution until the 1957 launch of Sputnik jump-started public school science curricula into the 20th century. One biology textbook replaced a frontispiece portrait of Darwin with a diagram of the digestive tract, and Scopes himself was abruptly denied a University of Chicago graduate fellowship in geology. A note from the college president read: "Your name has been removed from consideration for the fellowship. As far as I'm concerned, you can take your atheistic marbles and play elsewhere."

But as it turns out, Olasky and Perry are just getting started. Having divined that the long-term lesson of the Scopes trial is that "ever since 1925, anti-Darwinists have been handicapped by their association with fundamentalist Christianity," they devote the last third of Monkey Business to an offensive against the Darwinians on their own turf. They mount a greatly condensed and misleading defense of Intelligent Design, the rhetorically deft and fashionable update of creationist doctrine now gaining wide acclaim among evangelicals as the life sciences equivalent of Hooked on Phonics. In this policy arena, Olasky apparently still has the ear of President George W. Bush, who told reporters in early August that he supported the inclusion of Intelligent Design in public-school science classes.

Intelligent Design attacks the Darwin hypothesis because we lack telltale evidence of "missing link" species development preserved in all-but-diagrammed real-time–an absurd standard to introduce for anyone with even passing familiarity with the fossil record, as nearly every reputable scientific authority has noted. More to the point, Intelligent Design enthusiasts smuggle in their preferred conclusion as a research-guiding assumption: All species development must culminate in a purpose. Intelligent Design advocates complain that evolutionists are guilty of using extremely selective use of evidence, but most of their theory is a misguided (if admittedly clever) effort to argue around the evidence.

In what is becoming the standard Intelligent Design rhetorical tactic, Olasky and Perry reverse all the polarities that superficially governed the Scopes debate: The rigid orthodoxy is now the Darwinian establishment, the object of blind faith is now the unproven theory of evolution, and the enemies of open skeptical inquiry are the politically correct enforcers of materialist dogma in the nation's public schools. The great rift in today's debate over human origins, Olasky and Perry write, is not science vs. religion so much as science vs. Darwinism: "The taproot of Darwinism has nothing to do with science and everything to do with subjective repudiation of a traditional Christian worldview."

The authors lavishly praise the work of Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor who is Intelligent Design's leading theorist. (Using much the same logic that led them to cast Charles Darwin as the progenitor of the soulless modern welfare state, the authors argue that Johnson's lack of formal scientific training is an inestimable virtue: "Since he had no scientific reputation or peer standing to worry about, he could pursue his investigation of the evidence in favor of Darwin without worrying about his career.") Olasky and Perry also enthusiastically sign off on the objectives of Johnson's controversial Wedge of Truth project, which targets Darwinism as a "pseudoscience" that is "motivated by the sinful wish to control everything" and "distorts reality to suit our desires." Johnson explains that "materialism is the characteristic concept by which twentieth century pseudoscience has accomplished this."

Olasky and Perry approvingly quote, at mind-numbing length, a singularly unhinged article Johnson published in World, the evangelical weekly Olasky edits, imagining a future America in which Intelligent Design has decisively dispatched Darwinism and its many materialist sins to the dustbin of history. Johnson looks back on the recent scientific past with a blind hubris that would have made Mencken blanch: "Celebrity scientists like [Carl] Sagan freely promoted a dogmatic naturalistic philosophy as if it were a fact that had been discovered by scientific investigation, just as previous generations of celebrities had promoted racism, class warfare, and Freudianism in the name of science….The collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to the Soviet myth, just as the scientific collapse of Darwinism, preceded as it was by the discrediting of Marxism and Freudianism, prepared the way for the culture to rediscover the buried treasure that the mythology had been concealing. A hilarious play called Inherit the Baloney enacted a sort of Scopes trial in reverse, with the hero a courageous Christian college professor badgered incessantly by dim-witted colleagues and deans who keep telling him the only way to preserve his faith in a postmodern world is to jettison all the exclusivist truth claims: they wanted him to admit that Jesus was sorely in need of sensitivity training from some wise counselor like Pontius Pilate because 'nobody can surf the web every day and still believe there is such a thing as "truth" or goodness.' Overnight, the tendency of naturalistic rationalism to decay into postmodern irrationalism became a national joke."

Testimonies like Johnson's show how the terms of debate in the evolution controversy have shifted in the eight decades since the Scopes spectacle. In a strictly formal sense, the advocates of the creationist story of the human origins have achieved a revolution: They have inverted the original aims of their forebears Butler and Bryan. Rather than cleaving to the originalist position of biblical literalism, today's creationists have embarked on a misguided romance with true pseudoscience; they even claim, disingenuously, that their explanation of life's beginnings need not rely on an anthropomorphic God as the first mover but could lead dispassionate investigators to discover that we are the handiwork of space aliens.

Most of all, whereas the fundamentalists of the 1920s saw the culture war as a means to preserve moral rectitude and the one true faith, their contemporary counterparts gleefully employ the creationist battle as a means to prosecute the culture wars on any number of outlying fronts. If Olasky and Perry's welfare and pornography sermons didn't make that clear, Phillip Johnson's score-settling cultural fantasias should.

As they squint after the motes in their neighbors' eyes, the new champions of Intelligent Design miss the enormous plank in their own: In the service of their preferred vision of "moral absolutes," they adopt an unfounded, research-free version of life sciences that epitomizes empirical relativism. Inherit the baloney, indeed.