Saturday, January 23, 2010

History Repeats Itself (Sometimes)

      Last night Barbara and I watched the 1960 movie Inherit The Wind starring Spender Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly. Although based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, names and some of the plot were changed somewhat from the original event. But we enjoyed it – as we expected, the acting was superb.
      The original case was sparked by the ACLU, which wanted to test the constitutionality of the state’s Butler Act, which decreed "That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
      A further contention was that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook which explicitly described and endorsed the theory, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law.
      Dayton was chosen for the trial after George Rappleyea, a local manager of several mines, convinced a group of businessmen that the controversy of such a trial would give the town of 1,756 some much needed publicity.
      The trial drew nationwide attention when the prosecution was joined by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had not tried a case in over 30 years, and the defense was joined by famed attorney Clarence Darrow.
      John Scopes, the local school’s football coach, had substituted in a science class. Scopes did not remember whether he had taught evolution, but he had gone over the evolution chapter in the textbook with the class.
      He was nominally arrested, but his $100 bail was paid by the publisher of The Baltimore Sun, who was also paying part of the defense costs. The famed H. L. Mencken covered the trial for the paper. Other papers from around the world also sent reporters. Mencken labeled it the “Monkey trial” of “the infidel Scopes.” As expected, the trial was quite heated, and was the first ever to be broadcast on national radio.
      At the conclusion of the trial Scopes was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to pay a fine of $100. The sentence was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on the grounds that under the state constitution, fines of more than $50 had to be set by the jury – not by the judge.
      I think it is a crying shame that this controversy is still going on after 85 years. If it must be taught in schools, do it in social studies or Bible literature class – not in science class. I have never heard of a scientist demanding that chemistry be taught in Sunday School. I think it is a good idea not to teach religion in science class.

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