Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > “The beginning of the culture wars” with Professor Ed Larson

Feb 22, 2023

“The beginning of the culture wars” with Professor Ed Larson

tags: Science,history,evolution,Scopes trial,William Jennings Bryan,Darwin,skipped history,clarence darrow,scopes monkey trial,edward larson

As the US’ s culture wars deepen (thanks in no small part of late to the New York Times), I spoke with Edward J. Larson, a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University. He traces the tendrils of our cultural divide back to the famed Scopes trial (aka the Scopes Monkey Trial).

Professor Larson is the author of fifteen books on science, history, and law including most recently, American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795and earlierSummer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Professor Larson and I discussed the momentous trial in 1925, and how, alarmingly, conservatives continue to borrow arguments developed by members of the prosecution today. A lightly condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can also access audio of the full conversation here, which includes mention of Shackleton, a whale shark, and a lengthier exploration of the famous play and movie Inherit the Wind.

Ben: Professor Larson, you’ve appeared on The Daily Show, The Today Show, CNN, and the BBC but, correct me if I’m wrong, Skipped History is the crowning media achievement of your career?

EL: It's all worked up to this point.

Ben: Thank you. Today, I’d like to talk about the legacy of the Scopes trial. I suppose there's no better place to begin than with Darwinism. When did Darwin publish The Origin of Species?

EL: Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 just before the American Civil War, which delayed its introduction into the US. The idea of evolution had been around for a long time, but what Darwin did was add a mechanism for evolution: natural selection. 

What made natural selection controversial was that it suggested evolution was not done by working hard, which the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had theorized—for example, by giraffes stretching their necks further over time, and therefore being able to eat higher leaves. Americans interpreted Lamarkianism more or less as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

Christians didn’t have a problem with this form of evolution, because they could say that God designed the changes. God guided evolution. But natural selection suggested otherwise. If we move forward based not on our own hard work or not on a divine plan, but through random changes—well, that seemed to them to undermine faith in a loving God.

That led to a chorus of objections from evangelical fundamentalists early in the 20th century, which coincidentally was just about the time that high schools became ubiquitous across America. The start of compulsory education in the US coincided with the brewing controversy over evolutionary theory.

Ben: There are a few things to unwind. First, to recapitulate evolution, it’s more or less the idea that giraffes pulled themselves up by their bootstraps?

EL: Evolution just means species evolve from other species, which isn't problematic. What became problematic to evangelical Christians and many others was the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection, especially as applied to humans.

Ben: Could you talk a bit about the rise of fundamentalism? What was the fundamentalist movement, what did they preach, and why were they so opposed to Darwin’s ideas?

EL: Well, the term fundamentalism wasn't coined until World War I, an incredibly traumatic event. Add on the “Spanish Flu,” all sorts of industrialization and urbanization in America, the jazz age, the rise and fall of the czar in Russia—there was just so much turmoil.

So fundamentalism was a cultural, religious movement about getting back to the basics and interpreting the bible literally—rather than interpreting lessons from it—and just supposedly going back to a plain reading of scripture. 

Of course, this view had never existed before! No one ever literally believed the earth was created in six days.

Ben: Right. In a reflection of this new dogmatic fervor, a fundamentalist minister at the time named Billy Sunday toured the country in opposition to evolution. During one appearance, you describe how he worked himself into such a frenzy while stating there’s “no such thing as pre-historic man" that, according to one reporter, “Mr. Sunday gagged as if about to vomit.”

EL: Yes, Billy Sunday was a baseball player, sort of like Herschel Walker was a football player. Sunday went preaching around the country with a traveling evangelical movement and would draw enormous crowds in cities as well as in rural areas. He wasn't trained in ministry—he was trained in baseball—

Ben: —which is its own ministry— 

EL: Right, and like many fundamentalists, he read the Bible literally, which raises a lot of questions like do all the animals get on the arc?

Ben: Does Jonah actually live inside the whale for three days?

EL: Yup, or as William Jennings Bryan would clarify when on the witness stand during the Scopes trial, the Bible doesn’t say “whale.” It says “big fish.”

Ben: I guess he had a point: if you're going to live inside a whale, you'd need to pack a lot of granola bars, but with a fish, you’d just need a mini bottle of Soylent.

Speaking of William Jennings Bryan—and by the way, if you ever get so excited that you need to gag, this is a safe space—how did he become the figurehead of the fundamentalist campaign against teaching evolution in schools?

EL: Well, Bryan had arisen in the 1890s as a democratic member of the House, representing Nebraska, though he was originally from Illinois. And he deeply believed in a loving God. He wasn't a narrow-minded fundamentalist—he predated that movement. And he got tied in with the Populist Movement. He was fighting for the working people of the factories in Chicago and the farms of Nebraska and the Midwest.

And he became their hero. Bryan argued for populist reforms like regulating banks, regulating railroads, limiting big business, and breaking down monopolies, as well as, later on, prohibition and women’s suffrage.

He was nominated for president, both by the Democratic Party and the People's Party, which was the old populist party. He came close to winning in 1896, opposed of course by big business and supported by immigrants and by working people and farmers.

And he had always opposed “social Darwinism,” an idea really that predated Darwin. Social Darwinists believed that people are on their own. It's a struggle for survival out there. It's survival of the fittest. They actually coined those terms rather than Darwin, who just adopted them.

This objection was at the heart of Bryan’s opposition to teaching evolution in schools. He thought if kids read The Origin of Species, they’d lose their faith and become militarists and capitalists. He crusaded around the country advocating for the banning of human evolution in public schools, giving hundreds of lectures a year. Some historians argue he was the best orator in American history. And just like now we see an abundance of laws popping up around the country limiting the teaching of critical race theory, in the 1920s you saw the same thing: a bunch of laws outlawing the teaching of evolution.

Ben: There are certainly lots of parallels. Related, when Bryan went on his crusade, you've written that he cloaked it “as a benign appeal to parental rights.” Can you talk a little bit about that approach?

EL: It fit right in with his populism. He just thought “the people” should decide everything; that taxpayers should decide how government money is spent. In his view, a teacher shouldn't teach something that the taxpayer didn't want, and parents should have a special say in the teaching and education of their children. 

So it was populism wrapped into religion, wrapped into a critique of social Darwinism and big business. It was an unorthodox mix of viewpoints, and even Bryan’s friends were a little confused by his simultaneously populist, religiously conservative, and politically liberal ideology, but he certainly had passion.

Ben: So Tennessee was the first state to heed Bryan's call to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1925, Tennesse lawmakers made it a crime “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of men.” 

This led to what is often referred to as the “trial of the century.” Could you give us a little background on the trial?

EL: To put the famed trial in context, this was not just a local issue. Anti-evolution bills had been proposed throughout the country.

When the first bill passed in Tennessee, the ACLU offered to defend any teacher willing to challenge the law in court. People in Dayton, a dying little town in East Tennessee, read about the ACLU’s offer. The local head of the coal mines didn’t like the new law, so he convinced the superintendent of schools, the high school principal, local lawyers, and school board chairs that it’d be a good idea to stage a test trial. He said thousands of people would come to Dayton to watch the trial. They’d hold it in the summer, it’d be a public event, and it’d help reinvigorate the town.

From there, Daytonites asked a first-year teacher named John Scopes, who was actually the football coach but also taught science, if he’d be willing to challenge the law. If indicted, they promised him his job back, and the penalty for teaching evolution was only a small fine, which they promised to cover.

Scopes agreed to stand as the defendant, and the ACLU soon formed a legal team to back him up. They recruited world-class scientists and theologians to testify that the theory of evolution didn’t violate beliefs in Christianity.

Then, Clarence Darrow, the most famous defense lawyer in American history, who was sort of the village atheist on a national scale, joined the defense. In response, William Jennings Bryan, a national celebrity in his own right, volunteered to join the prosecution. 

So the two of them came together in this tiny little town, whose residents were sitting back and hoping to enjoy a PR festival.

Ben: Did the thousands of predicted people descend on Dayton?

EL: Well, over 200 reporters from all over the country and as far away as England came. The trial didn’t end up drawing a lot of people, but it drew enormous press coverage. The best reporters in America representing every major newspaper went to Dayton. It was the nation’s first trial broadcast on nationwide radio. It was literally the two most popular public speakers in America, Bryan, and Darrow, fighting over the issues of science versus religion and popular control versus academic freedom, two of the biggest issues of today or any day in American history.

Ben: It sounds like it would be very exciting even today, particularly the climax of the trial when Darrow cross-examined Bryan and more or less challenged Bryan's literal interpretations of the Bible.

Could you talk about this exchange?

EL: Late in the trial, which lasted only 11 days, the defense was exasperated. They’d tried calling all sorts of expert judges, but the judge wouldn’t let them, saying the case was just about whether or not Scopes taught evolution. In desperation Darrow said, okay if you won't take any of our experts, let's get Bryan up on the stand and let him defend his law. Bryan agreed, eager to defend his views.

Cleverly, Darrow never asked Bryan about evolution because he knew Bryan had stump speeches prepared. Instead, he asked him the kinds of questions about Christianity that have been around for 2000 years; questions that nobody can answer like where did Kane get his wife? Do you believe all the animals got on Noah's arc? Was Jonah in the whale (or big fish) for three days?

Bryan didn’t know how to answer these questions. He knew if he said Jonah hadn’t lived in the whale for three days (which historically is interpreted as a metaphor for Jesus in the tomb for three days), he’d alienate his fundamentalist followers.

Then again, if he said yes, and that God had in fact built the world in six days, he’d sound like a dang fool to most Americans. 

Ben: Which explains why he gradually lost his cool and yelled, “I'm simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States!”

EL: Yes, he tried every possible approach, but all these questions put him in an endless bind. 

Ben: And yet, despite what we might perceive as an embarrassing exchange, it didn’t really affect how the jury ruled in the case, did it?

EL: The judge reminded the jury that the only question they had to answer was did Scopes violate the law? They’d heard no testimony suggesting otherwise, so they quickly huddled in the corner of the courtroom and convicted Scopes. He was assigned the $100 fine, and that was that.

Ben: Right, there was so much drama in the trial, but it took me longer to decide what to pack when camping with Jonah inside the whale than it did for the jury to deliberate. 

How did the ruling affect policies in other states? In some ways, the legacy of the trial is that it was a defeat for the anti-evolution crusade, but the reality seems to suggest otherwise.

EL: Well, you could say this was the beginning of the culture wars in America. Because on the one hand, Bryan, his testimony, and the whole idea of banning the teaching of a scientific theory in schools were ridiculed, especially in the North.

On the other hand, Tennesse’s law was ultimately upheld. During appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down the conviction of Scopes on a technicality while upholding the law. Since Scopes wasn’t convicted, the ACLU couldn’t appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

A week later, Bryan happened to die, and proponents of anti-evolution laws used him as a martyr to the cause. Fundamentalist and sort of neo-conservative groups started pushing for the laws nationwide. School districts all over the country adopted them, as did states like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.

So while among liberals, progressives, moderate Christians, and northerners in general, anti-evolution became a laughing matter, evolution was outright banned in many parts of the country. You can literally watch evolution drop out of textbooks beginning in 1925, and it didn’t come back in until 1960 with federally funded textbooks. 

During this intermediary period, the play and movie Inherit the Wind came out, which doubled down on the idea that the anti-evolution movement was absurd, even though in reality, it got its way.

Ben: Moving to the present day, you’ve written that politicians have “resurrected” the strategy of “parents’ rights” to “cloak objections to teaching sensitive matters, including climate change, gender roles, and topics surrounding racism and its history — lumped under a banner of critical race theory.” Would you elaborate, please?

EL: Whatever you might say about William Jennings Bryan, he was a great politician. He was an instinctive politician. He knew what worked and he knew what didn't work, and Bryan knew that instead of having to defend anti-evolutionism or creationism, it’s much easier to say I'm defending my child from being offended

This strategy worked then, and it still works today. That’s why when you hear arguments in opposition to Black studies, you don’t hear people trying to justify the often racist views underpinning this opposition. Instead, they say they’re protecting their children, a line of reasoning that Bryan proved could be used to great effect, and which endures today.

Ben: It’s not so encouraging to hear that the arguments Bryan used a hundred years ago are still around today, but it is enlightening to learn about their genesis. Thank you so much for being here. 

EL: Thank you for having me.

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