What’s the Matter with Darwinists?

The Kansas City Star could not restrain its sarcasm. “In Topeka, Kansas,” the paper announced, “they’re getting ready to stage the 2005 revival of [the Scopes Monkey Trial], also known as the Kansas Board of Education’s hearings on evolution.” It was a reference to the recent hearings, held by the Kansas State Board of Education, to decide whether to adopt new science standards that would allow students to study scientific criticisms of Darwinism. Many reporters could not resist comparing the hearings to the famous trial that took place eighty years ago. But what most people don’t realize is that almost everything they think they know about the trial is false. That’s because most of what they learned about it was through a film that caricatured the trial called Inherit the Wind. These myths were exposed a few years ago when a Pulitzer Prize-winning book took on the vicious fictions perpetrated by this motion picture. The book is called Summer for the Gods, and the author is Edward Larson, a history professor at the University of Georgia and a Christian. Larson says that Inherit the Wind has become a “formative myth” that has all but replaced the actual trial in the nation’s memory. For example, in the real-life Scopes trial, the ACLU advertised for a teacher willing to help challenge a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. A teacher named John Scopes—who had never even taught biology, let alone evolution—stepped forward, and the case was started. But in the film, the case begins when a mob of fundamentalist Christians, led by a fire-breathing preacher, barges into a biology classroom, arrests the teacher, and throws him into jail. Another distortion: According to Larson, Inherit the Wind playwrights were determined to make the trial’s Christian prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, “look like a senile, doddering old man.” They have the Bryan character making absurd claims, such as that God created the earth on October 23 in the year 4004 B.C.—at 9:00 a.m. According to Larson, the real-life Bryan acquitted himself well: He clearly articulated his social and religious concerns with Darwinism. And how does the ACLU lawyer, Clarence Darrow, come off in the film? As the defender of tolerance and reason. But in reality, Larson writes, Darrow was a deeply intolerant man, a “crusading agnostic” who was determined to take Christianity out of the public square. The playwrights who wrote Inherit the Wind acknowledged that the play—and later the movie—was not meant to reflect what actually happened in Dayton, Tennessee, but for many Americans it’s the only version of the trial they know. Some of our cultural elites seem determined to keep it that way. If your kids have not seen Inherit the Wind at school or on television, why not rent the video, and then compare this version to the real-life account in Ed Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. And think of donating a few copies of Summer for the Gods to your local schools and libraries. The book will equip you to set your kids’ science teachers straight and show them what really happened in that sleepy southern town eighty years ago—and it will help you learn how to bring down the curtain on some of those anti-Christian stereotypes.
For Further Reading and Information
Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 1998). Read this review from First Things. Carol Iannone, “The Truth about Inherit the Wind,” First Things, February 1997. Mike Hendricks, “Evolution should take a back seat,” Kansas City Star, 25 April 2005. John Hanna, “Kansas debate focuses on defining science,” MSNBC, 16 May 2005. Claudio Sanchez, “A Teacher’s View of the Kansas Evolution Debate,” NPR, 4 May 2005. “The evolution of creationism,” International Herald Tribune, 18 May 2005. William Saletan, “What Matters in Kansas: The evolution of creationism,” Slate, 11 May 2005. Daniel Engber, “Creationism vs. Intelligent Design,” Slate, 10 May 2005. James Dao, “Sleepy Election Is Jolted by Evolution,” New York Times, 17 May 2005. (Free registration required; costs $2.95 to retrieve when archived.) Jim Lewis, “Dover voters weigh in on intelligent design,” The Patriot-News (Penn.), 18 May 2005. Lauri Lebo and Joseph Maldonado, “Dover votes split,” York Daily Record, 18 May 2005. “Intelligent-design decision to be told,” Kalamazoo Gazette (Mich.), 17 May 2005. David Albright, “Expose students to Intelligent Design theory,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 12 May 2005. (The author is 15 years old.) Jay W. Richards, “What Intelligent Design Is—and Isn’t,” Beliefnet, 12 May 2005. Michael Powell, “Doubting Rationalist: ‘Intelligent Design’ Proponent Phillip Johnson, and How He Came to Be,” Washington Post, 15 May 2005, D01. BreakPoint Commentary No. 050510, “Fair Play: The Intelligent Design Controversy Returns to Kansas.”


Chuck Colson



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