It is over 60 years since the Scopes Trial attracted journalists like Henry Mencken and Joseph Wood Krutch to Dayton, Tennessee, and yet the teaching of evolution is once again as controversial as—it was in 1925. Most of the debate is carried out between militant fundamentalists and equally militant materialists. While most of the fundamentalists stop short of believing that the earth is flat (and square!) or that the sun goes around the third planet, they do treat the books of the Old Testament as an infallible declaration of scientific truth.
The rigid materialists, on the other hand, despise all of Scripture as nothing more than a set of literary and historical documents. Most Americans fall somewhere in between and view the Bible as an important (revealed?) source of wisdom and consolation. The classic via media was taken by C. S. Lewis among others: the important lesson of Genesis was the revelation of the universe as divinely created; all the rest—methods, processes, timetables—mere footnotes to while away the weary hours of scientists and polemicists.
The current debate is complicated by something called “creation science.” Now, whatever creationism is, it is not science in the ordinary and accepted sense. While scientists are often as close-minded as a street-comer preacher, as a class they do not claim to know all the answers in advance. One of the marks of a great scientific mind, I would suggest, is a certain obtuseness. While everyone else knows or pretends to understand reality, the scientist simply cannot bring himself to see the emperor’s new clothes. They are all a little like Parmenides, the philosopher who insisted that despite appearances, reality was a solid sphere, unmoving and unchanging. The creationist, on the other hand, knows all the answers in advance. Whether he is wrong or right doesn’t really matter, since his views are not up to him. He is not only not a scientist, he is not a philosopher of any kind.
The creationists may, of course, be right in claiming that the universe was invented in the course of six revolutions of the earth upon its axis ( or circuits of the sun around the earth), although why it took that long remains a puzzle. The entire debate is in some senses silly. Like squaring the circles, attempts to circumscribe the infinite are largely a waste of time. When most biologists discuss these questions of origin and purpose, they are speaking as amateurs hopelessly out of their metaphysical depth; and when churchmen attempt to pronounce on scientific issues, they simply degrade their calling.
The really pertinent struggle in all this is not the contrast between Danvinists and fundamentalists. It is not even, as some have suggested1 between religion and materialism: Those who profess faith loudly with their mouths do not always do the Lord’s work. Chesterton accused honest atheists of belonging to “Christ’s party without knowing it,” and any man that works sincerely for the truth serves Him who called Himself the truth.
No, the great struggle is not over how man got here, but what he is. Are we creatures of infinite possibility, without constraints or limitations imposed on us by our nature, or are we specific, rooted, and defined—either by our history as a species, the divine will, or (as I think) both? On the one side range the most influential social philosophies of modern times: Marxism, existentialism, behaviorism, American (i.e., Boasian) anthropology. On the other side stand principally two groups: Christians and Darwinists who, with halfhearted support of a few Freudians and an occasional cognitive scientist, continue to speak of human nature. What is more, their views are remarkably similar, although neither side much cares to admit it.
Do Darwinists point to the prime significance of reproductive success? They might quote Genesis: Be fruitful and multiply. For the Darwinist emphasis on competition and strife, we have the entire Old Testament-beginning with the story of Cain and Abel—to illustrate the human propensity for strife. On point after point-from sexual differences to social order—Darwinists ( especially sociobiologists) have been providing ammunition for the almost empty cartridge belts of Christian apologetics. While most Darwinists mistakenly regard the Christian view of man as too static and rigid to have anything in common with a science based on evolution, in fact Christianity is a remark ably dynamic faith that has consistently held out the promise of improvement. It is doubtful that Darwin’s theory could have been arrived at in anything but a Christian civilization whose peculiar sense of linear time encourages a belief in evolution and progress. To put the matter as plainly as I can, an atheist Darwinist sometimes serves the faith more effectively than a convention of deacons or a convocation of bishops (or is that a tautology?).
It must be said that journalists on both sides have done very little to advance the discussion. Entrenched modernists in the fashionable opinion journals are forever canting about the threat to civil liberties posed by fundamentalists. In their view, it is a crime against humanity when families and local communities attempt to have some say in what their children are taught On the other side, some conservative journalists have made capital out of the (comparatively) trivial disagreements which divide the Darwinist camp. Biologists may quarrel over theories of punctuated equilibrium and cladistics, but the main outlines of the neo-Darwinist synthesis are not being debated by serious, mainstream scientists. To convert a scientific discussion into a political issue works great mischief, no matter who does it.
Still, when the intellectual part of the debate is set aside, the fundamentalists have a point The political Darwinists have not been content simply to advance their views in the forum of scientific debate. Like Galileo, some have gone out of their way to make extravagant statements: they know there is no God, no right or wrong, and they have a right to indoctrinate the children of the taxpayers who pay them their salaries.
In many ways, the Scopes Trial illustrates the tragic nature of the conflict. From first to last, the Darwinist cause was moral and political—not scientific. Scopes was himself a science teacher who only substituted in biology, but he was egged on by an eccentric immigrant from New York, George Rappleyea, who had been teased by fundamentalist friends for his belief in evolution. He told them he’d get even, and he did. The ACLU, which had posted a reward for anyone who violated Tennessee’s antievolution law, was the principal agitator of the case, although its representatives—Dudley Malone and Clarence Darrow—repeatedly insisted that the whole affair was the fault of the prosecution’s star counsel, William Jennings Bryan.
The Great Commoner was not in good health during the trial (he died in Dayton), and his speeches showed only a reflection of the oratorical brilliance for which he was famous. Still, the prosecution had two effective arguments: first, that states had the right to proscribe and prescribe the curriculum content of state-supported schools, and second—this was Bryan’s strong point—that teaching of evolution led to social dissolution and moral anarchy.
In the course of the trial and in his summation speech (published but not delivered), Bryan made effective use of the Leopold and Loeb case. Darrow, the murderers’ attorney, had attempted to shift the blame to Nietzsche and the intellectual climate of the universities. Didn’t the schools and the states have the obligation, not just the right, to prevent an entire generation from growing up like the spoiled rich kid who killed a boy just for the thrill of it? It is a question we are still asking ourselves.
Although Bryan was a fundamentalist hero, his views were not as strict as the sterner brethren might have liked. Under a rude and merciless interrogation by Darrow, Bryan cheerfully admitted he didn’t know how long the creation took Privately, he confessed he did not know whether or not Darwin was right (Besides, it became clear in the trial that neither Bryan nor Darrow had a grasp of evolutionary biology.) Bryan did not even like the Tennessee law: as a civil libertarian he was opposed to penalities for any honest expression of opinion. It was enough, he thought, to forbid the teaching of evolution without punishing the miserable offender.
Bryan’s ignorance of biology is not surprising. He was rarely good on details. His free silver campaign was economically naive; his support for the income tax and the nationalization of railroads was positively harmful; but he had a sound heart, one that was peculiarly American. He was born in Illinois, the son of a Southern father and a Midwestern mother. A Democrat in the Land of Lincoln, he grew up in two churches—Presbyterian and Methodist. He was, to use the military phrase, a general Protestant. Moving to Nebraska in his late 20’s helped to give him a vision of Middle America that was not appreciated in what he called “the heart of the enemy’s country,” New York. His populist crusade against the robber barons cost him the Presidency—the robber barons subsidized the McKinley campaign to an unprecedented degree—but it helped steer the nation out of the doldrums of plutocracy known as the “Gilded Age.” Despite Mencken’s jeers at the booboisie and the anthropoids from Tennessee, the plain people of America (in Bryan’s phrase) were sounder then and now than the rich and well-educated who presume to be their masters. (What good is wealth, education, good family, even talent and intelligence if you end up like Gore Vidal?) Bryan had the courage to stand up against American imperialism in the Philippines, a mess from which we have yet to extricate ourselves, but his finest hour was his resignation as Secretary of State in protest against President Wilson’s dangerously one-sided support for the allies in WWI. When the much-dreaded war came, however, Bryan, as a loyal American, volunteered to serve in any capacity.
At Dayton, too, Bryan had his heart in the right place. Why did he get involved in the evolution controversy in the first place? His wife records that Bryan had become increasingly disturbed by his conversations with college students and their parents. Young Americans started college as muscular Christians and soon found their faith withering on the vine. From their stories he concluded that evolution was to blame, that it ineluctably unsettled the convictions of faithful people.
He was wrong, of course. It wasn’t evolution per se but evolutionists who caused the trouble: wise-guy professors out of love with philistine America, they used the latest weapon against superstition and ignorance. The mark of a second-rate mind, liberal and conservative, is to politicize every question of literature, science, and philosophy, and even then the universities were a haven for second-raters. (In their defense, it should be pointed out that as second raters they were at least several rungs higher on the ladder than most current academics.)
Recent studies indicate that students continue to lose their faith in college. Why? Are atheists smarter than Christians? The evidence of modern Christians like Eliot, Chesterton, Lewis, and MacIntyre (Alasdair, not Carl) does not support such a view. Are all good scientists rigid materialists? That would have to exclude, in this century, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Sir John Eccles—queer birds indeed, if science led inexorably to an Epicurean world view. It is not even materialism that is the problem. Hume was, so far as one can tell, among the best of men. The cheerfulness he displayed in the painful months before his death appalled the superstitious Boswell. I am not sure that the skeptical Hume, except perhaps by his example, ever corrupted anyone’s faith. Philosophy and science are by themselves too difficult, too serious to interrupt the tranquil ignorance in which most of us doze away our waking hours.
Honest and hardworking scientists and scholars almost never present a problem t.o a healthy society, whether they are Marxists, feminists, or atheists. Most academics and writers are, however, nothing of the kind. They are, most of them, philosophes and sophists rather than philosophers, journalists rather than scholars, propagandists rather than scientists or theologians. Oh, journalists and pamphleteers have their uses. But wherever they are found—at The Nation or The Spotlight, at Yale or at a Bible college, they are not to be taken seriously.
Bryan’s real opponent at Dayton was not so much Clarence Darrow as H. L. Mencken. For all his failings, Bryan was an essentially honest man who had done his best to serve the American people. Mencken, for all his virtues as an essayist, scholar, and hale fellow (I grew up hearing my father tell stories about what a great guy he was to meet), Mencken had an ugly streak. If-to quote one of his favorite writers-all poets are liars, then we, shall have to coin a new word for journalists, including Mencken. When the great man from Baltimore arrived, he discovered he had been wrong about Dayton: it was actually a pleasant and bustling little town. But before long, he began to fill up the newspapers with his venomous accounts of the local “primates” and “anthropoids” who had made the mistake of being kind to him. Mencken deserved the lynching he just barely escaped. A man of Bryan’s character he could neither believe nor understand. While a nation mourned the loss of a great moral leader, Mencken could only rail against him as “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity.”
Mencken couldn’t help himself: it was the journalist in him talking. At best, journalists are useful idiots; at worst they are, in Sartre’s phrase (which is best applied to Sartre), men of bad faith. This is not to say there have not been principled and learned journalists like Chesterton, Albert Jay Nock, Joe Sobran, and Mencken himself, but the general issue specimens are like Housman’s mercenaries who “defend [or more often attack] the sum of things. for hire.” Against all ideologues and propagandists, it should be war under the black f:lag: take no prisoners, show no mercy-and cruelest of all-pay no attention.