School and the Slaughterhouse

 The ‘monkey trial’ pitted two recipes for progress against each other.  Which tastes best?


“So you, Matthew Harrison Brady, through oratory or legislature or whatever, you pass on God’s orders to the rest of the world! Well, meet the prophet from Nebraska! Is that the way of things? Is that the way of things! … Supposing Mr. Cates had the influence and the lung power to railroad through the state legislature a law saying only Darwin could be taught in the schools!” 

That’s from the big scene in “Inherit the Wind”: the showdown between Henry Drummond (the fictional stand-in for Clarence Darrow) and the unfortunate Mr. Brady (William Jennings Bryan) over whether schoolteacher Bert Cates (John Scopes) should be convicted of teaching evolution in violation of state law.

That classic Stanley Kramer film, adapted from the stage in 1960, did much to perpetuate the legend that the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tenn., had exposed Christian fundamentalism as (in Darrow’s actual words) a “fool religion” believed in by “bigots and ignoramuses,” something for which no self-respecting society — and certainly not its schools — should have any use.

It’s a viewpoint reflected in the scorn and disbelief with which today’s liberal establishment received the news a few years ago that the Kansas Board of Education had removed the teaching of evolution from its recommended science curriculum and state assessment tests. [1]

The board didn’t put “creationism” in evolution’s place. (By the way, if belief in creation is “creationism,” why isn’t belief in evolution called “evolutionism”?) Nevertheless, the board’s nonprescriptive, noncoercive action sparked a lot of talk about “monkey trial” redux, and after an intervening election, it was promptly rescinded by a subsequent board.

Did those Kansans deserve, however, to be denounced as ignorant yahoos or caricatured as monkeys and apes, as various commentators and cartoonists did all through the last half of 1999? Are they, like Darrow’s legendary “bigots,” actively hostile to their modernist neighbors? Or is the real bigotry perhaps on the other side? [2]

When it comes to contempt for others, it’s hard to top Darrow, who fulminated against the “brainless prejudice of soulless religio-maniacs.” Not even his ACLU associates thought very much of Darrow’s conduct in 1925. But his attitude lives on among his latter-day admirers. [3]

Let’s look again at “Inherit the Wind.” It was taken by most audiences as true to life until debunked in 1997 by UGA Professor Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer-winning history, Summer for the Gods. But as Dayton residents have long known, the film departs from the record at several points. And the departures reflect no credit on liberals.

Drummond/Darrow’s interrogation of Brady/Bryan is conducted with such fury that it ordinarily would be called a tirade or diatribe. But as delivered by the beloved, curmudgeonly old actor Spencer Tracy, the tirade is transfigured. It’s early ’60s liberalism in all its glory, not strident or mean but “impassioned.”

Notice, however, that the screenwriters posit “a law saying only Darwin could be taught in the schools” as something self-evidently outrageous. Little did they know! Only a couple of years after “Inherit the Wind” reached the screen, the U.S. Supreme Court would hand down the first of its rulings against religion in the schools. [4]  The court’s ever-tightening restrictions didn’t need “railroading” through any legislature; they were simply imposed from on high, with all of liberaldom’s “influence and lung power” behind them. Today, mandatory Darwinism is, in effect, the law of the land.

Worse than its misreading of the future, however, is the injury the 1960 film does to the real-life “Brady,” William Jennings Bryan.

The film depicts Brady as a purblind know-nothing who takes issue with Darwin while refusing to actually examine his work. In reality, Bryan had read The Descent of Man 20 years before setting foot in Dayton, was familiar with Darwin’s theory and “may even have understood the evolutionary doctrine better than his adversaries, or at least had a better idea of what was really at stake.” [5]

The film shows Brady winning the confidence of the teacher-defendant’s sweetheart, then betraying that confidence by putting her on the witness stand, where his bellowing, hectoring examination reduces her to tears. No such thing ever happened in the Dayton trial. The only real-life badgering seen there was Darrow’s of Bryan. [6]

The film shows Brady as disappointed that the defendant, when found guilty, is fined only $100. In reality, Bryan had advised the Tennessee Legislature against including any penalties in its anti-evolution law. With the Legislature having chosen otherwise, Bryan told the Dayton prosecutors that “I don’t think we should insist on more than the minimum fine, and I will let the defendant have the money to pay it if he needs it.” [7]

Bad as it is, this celluloid transformation of the well-read, honorable and generous Bryan into the ignorant, treacherous and vindictive Brady isn’t the worst of the film’s offenses. Like H.L. Mencken and other Darrow myrmidons before them, the “Wind” playwrights and screenwriters misrepresented Bryan’s case against evolution.

Two generations before Dayton, the English naturalist and Darwin ally T.H. Huxley had proclaimed that “whether astronomy and geology can or cannot be made to agree with [the Genesis creation story] are matters of comparatively small moment in the face of the impassable gulf … between science and theology.” Huxley dismissed the very idea of God as “anthropomorphism”; for him, only “passionless impersonality” underlay “the thin veil of phenomena.” [8]

Is there a God, and does man have a special relationship with Him, or not? Bryan, like Huxley, identified that as the battlefront. Unlike some of his fellow fundamentalists, Bryan allowed that the creation may have lasted six epochs rather than six 24-hour days. This interpretation relies on, among other texts, Peter’s observation that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). And if a thousand years, why not a million or a billion? [9]

What objection did Bryan have, then, against the teaching of evolution? Biographer Robert W. Cherny explains that Bryan disputed “the concept of the survival of the fittest, ‘the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak,’ referring to it as ‘the law of hate.’ For Bryan, Christian love was the law by which the human race had progressed and developed.”

Professor Cherny writes further that “another factor in Bryan’s increasing   antagonism toward evolution derived from his conviction that it had laid ‘the foundation for the bloodiest war in history.’ Darwinism, he thought, had produced Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, in which Bryan discerned ‘a defense, made in advance, of all the cruelties and atrocities practiced by the militarists of Germany.’ ” [10]

Bryan got that last point from two books: The Science of Power, in which philosopher Benjamin Kidd examined Darwin’s influence on Nietzsche, and Headquarters Nights, in which (as Larson tells us) “the renowned Stanford University zoologist Vernon Kellogg, who went to Europe as a peace worker, recounted his conversations with German military leaders. ‘Natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals,’ he reported, and served as their justification ‘why, for the good of the world, there should be this war.’ ” [11]

Even with the Great War over, Bryan held that “survival of the fittest” was driving society “into a life-and-death struggle from which sympathy and the spirit of brotherhood are eliminated. It is transforming the industrial world into a slaughterhouse.”

“There is no place in evolution,” Bryan wrote, “for the penitent soul; it knows no such transformation as being born again or having sins forgiven.” [12]

Such were his concerns. And his “slaughterhouse” warning was made before tens of millions of people died in Europe and Asia at the hands of regimes whose “scientific,” “survival of the fittest” mentality left no room for the Christian love Bryan held dear.

Not one of those forebodings was addressed by Bryan’s “monkey trial” antagonist, the much-lionized Darrow. But with the benefit of hindsight, we might ask: Who saw more clearly the course the 20th century would actually take?

Was it Bryan, who feared that evolutionism “robs a man’s conscience of its compelling force,” or was it the evolutionists, who called Darwinism “the theory on which we to-day base the progress of the world”? [13]

'School and the Slaughterhouse' is an excerpt from Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, available at Amazon.com or directly from Fielding Press. It first appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press and is reprinted by permission.


[1]  Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, pp. 5-6, 70-73, 163-164, 225-228, 239-246; Timothy Lamer, “After the Big Bang,” World magazine Sept. 11, 1999, cover article reprinted as “Kansans Have Sparked a National Dialogue on Evolution Education” in Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, Oct. 17, 1999, p. I1. [back]

[2]  For a passel of “bigots and ignoramuses,” the people of Tennessee were remarkably well-behaved. Their treatment of Darrow belies the picture of local-yokel hostility toward the evolutionist camp painted by “Inherit the Wind.” Darrow himself gave this account of his reception in Dayton: “I don’t know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennessee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before, that I have not found upon anybody’s part — any citizen here in this town or outside, the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north.”     ———The Complete Scopes Trial Transcript, Adobe PDF pp. 179-180. [back]

[3]  Larson, op. cit., pp. 100-104, 146, 223-224, 228-229. [back]

[4]  The court ruled in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), that public school prayer violates the First Amendment’s ban on an establishment of religion. That is what is known as a “landmark decision,” meaning that it discarded the practice of previous generations and set forth a new rule for subsequent generations to follow. The previous view of the issue is exemplified by this statement from a 19th-century New York superintendent of schools: “Both parties have rights; the one to bring up their children in the practice of publicly thanking the Creator for His protection, and invoking His blessing; the other of declining in behalf of their children, the religious services of any person in whose creed they may not concur, or for other reasons satisfactory to themselves. These rights are reciprocal, and should be protected equally; and neither should interfere with the other. Those who desire that their children should engage in public prayer have no right to compel other children to unite in the exercise, against the wishes of their parents. Nor have those who object to this time, place or manner of praying, or to the person who conducts the exercises, a right to deprive the other class of the opportunity of habituating their children to what they conceive an imperious duty. Neither the common school system, nor any other social system, can be maintained, unless the conscientious views of all are equally respected. The simple rule, so to exercise your own rights as not to infringe on those of others, will preserve equal justice among all, promote harmony, and insure success to our schools.”     ———cited in George Goldberg, Reconsecrating America, pp. 122-123, 135.

In Engel, the New York Court of Appeals had found the superintendent’s reasoning persuasive, but the Supreme Court did not. Engel’s upending of the balance has ever after been known among liberals as an “expansion” of “individual rights” — as if the losers in the case were themselves not individuals with rights of their own. [back]

[5]  Carol Iannone, “The Truth About Inherit the Wind,” First Things, February 1997, pp. 28-33; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inherit_the_Wind; www.themonkeytrial.com. Of “Inherit the Wind,” Iannone comments: “Neither the fictionalized names nor the cover of artistic license can excuse what amounts to an ideologically motivated hoax.” Themonkeytrial.com features a comprehensive catalog of the film’s fabrications and distortions compiled by Harvard Law grad Frederick C. Foote. For example, citing the trial transcript, Foote notes that while the film has Brady proudly insisting that he hadn’t read The Descent of Man “and never will,” Bryan actually submitted the book into evidence “to prove that Darwin had, in fact, taught that man had evolved directly from Old World monkeys, a view that had become outdated by 1925 but that the Defense had erroneously insisted was not taught by Darwin.” [back]

[6]  Scopes himself remarked on “Inherit the Wind’s” insertion of a love interest for its schoolteacher: “They had to invent romance for the balcony set.”     ———Larson, op. cit., p. 241. [back]

[7]  Ibid., pp. 54, 129; Cherny, op. cit., p. 175. [back]

Not only does the “Wind” script blacken Bryan’s character, but it whitewashes Darrow’s, presenting Drummond as saddened when Brady dies at the trial’s end, and giving Darrow’s actual spiteful comment on Bryan’s death — “He died of a busted belly” — as a line for E.K. Hornbeck (the fictional stand-in for H.L. Mencken) to say. (Hornbeck’s callousness draws a stern rebuke from the kindly, saintly Drummond.) As Larson observes, such distortions did not pass unnoticed at the time: “Most published reviews of the stage and screen versions of ‘Inherit the Wind’ criticized the writers’ portrayal of the Scopes trial. ‘History has been not increased but almost fatally diminished,’ the New Yorker drama critic complained. ‘The script wildly caricatures the fundamentalists as vicious and narrow-minded hypocrites,’ the Time magazine movie review chided, and ‘just as wildly and unjustly idealizes their opponents, as personified by Darrow.’ Reviews appearing in publications ranging from Commonweal and the New York Herald Tribune to The New Republic and the Village Voice offered similar critiques.” Yet the false image projected through the mass media by “Inherit the Wind” has overshadowed and outlasted those complaints.     ———Larson, op. cit., pp. 240-246. [back]

[8]  Ibid., pp. 17-18. [back]

[9]  Ibid., pp. 39-40. In 1904, in his first speech on evolution, Bryan had declared: “I have a right to assume a Designer back of the design — a Creator back of the creation; and no matter how long you draw out the process of creation, so long as God stands back of it you cannot shake my faith in Jehovah.” Larson notes that Bryan thus “allowed for an extended geologic history and even for limited theistic evolution.” These views were, as Larson says, “in line with nineteenth-century evangelical scholarship,” but when Bryan explained them to Darrow at the trial, it was seen by some as a damaging concession. Scopes noted that “the Bible literalists who came to cheer Bryan were surprised, ill content, and disappointed that Bryan gave ground.” Like so much else, this aspect of the trial is completely falsified in “Inherit the Wind,” where, Larson notes, “Brady steadfastly maintains on alleged biblical authority that God created the universe in six twenty-four-hour days beginning ‘on the 23rd of October in the Year 4004 B.C. at — uh, at 9 a.m.!’ The crowd gradually slips away from him as he babbles on, reciting the names of books in the Old Testament. ‘Mother. They’re laughing at me, Mother!’ Brady cries to his wife at the close of his testimony. ‘I can’t stand it when they laugh at me!’ At a Broadway performance of the play, the constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther became so outraged that, as he later wrote, ‘for the first time, I walked out of a play in disgust.’ He explained, ‘I ended up actually sympathizing with Bryan, even though I was and continue to be opposed to his ideas in the case, simply because the playwrights had drawn the character in such comic strip terms.’ ”     ———Ibid., p. 242. [back]

[10]  Cherny, op. cit., pp. 171-173. [back]

[11]  Bryan, citing Kidd, wrote: “Nietzsche carried Darwinism to its logical conclusion and denied the existence of God, denounced Christianity as the doctrine of the degenerate, and democracy as the refuge of the weakling; he overthrew all standards of morality and eulogized war as necessary to man’s development.”     ———Larson, op. cit., p. 40. [back]

[12]  Cherny, op. cit., p. 173. [back]

[13]  Ibid., loc. cit.; Larson, op. cit., pp. 16, 23-24.

The latter quote comes from the high school textbook at issue in the Scopes trial: A Civic Biology, by George William Hunter. Larson comments that the textbook’s view of progress “was heavily laced with the scientific racism of the day. According to Hunter, ‘simple forms of life on the earth slowly and gradually gave rise to those more complex.’ Humans appeared as a progressive result of this evolutionary process, with the Caucasian race being ‘finally, the highest type of all.’ ”

Frederick Foote cites that well-forgotten bit of “civic biology” (p. 196) and more: “(2) that public houses for the poor and asylums for the sick or insane make no ‘civic’ sense from an evolutionary perspective and should be at least reconsidered if not dramatically curtailed —p. 263, (3) that the reproduction of certain ‘parasitic’ elements of the human population should be discouraged (‘If such people were lower animals,’ the text teaches, ‘we would probably kill them off’) and, in some cases, such reproduction should be forcibly prevented (‘Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe’) —p. 263, (4) that society’s business classes should be given generous economic latitude (known as ‘hands off’ or ‘laissez faire’ capitalism) to further advance the most successful members of the human species —p. 261ff, and (5) that physically, at least, the gap between the monkeys and the most evolved apes is greater than the gap between those apes and the lowest human ‘savages’    —p. 195.”     ———themonkeytrial.com.

Foote adds: “The above teachings were referred to as ‘eugenics’ — a term invented by Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton—and generally pertain to the active management of the gene pool of the human species by the more evolved (presumably scientists at the major universities) over the less evolved (people genetically or sociologically less ‘fit’). Statutes permitting sterilizations by force, laws forbidding marriages between people of different races (miscegenation), immigration quotas favoring Northern Europeans, and economic policies benefiting the most successful capitalists were all popular policies with elitists (university professors, industrialists, Planned Parenthood” — See Yo! Liberals! Chapter 16 at Note 3 — “liberal ministers, etc.) that self-consciously and persuasively invoked the ‘scientific’ principles of Darwinism. Despite vocal opposition from Bryan and the enormously popular evangelist Billy Sunday (both of whom regarded all men as created equal by God), eugenics enjoyed steadily increasing currency in the 1920s among liberal academics. Nazi Germany eventually brought to horrific fruition many of Bryan’s worst fears and put a halt to public support for eugenics and its euphemistic ‘civic biology.’  The Soviet Union and, later, the Communist Chinese adopted the practices of eugenics with similar results. The majority of the scientists called by the Defense to testify on behalf of John Scopes in 1925 belonged to eugenic societies.”     ——-Ibid. See also Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. [back]

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Copyright © 2006 by Karl Spence. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/10/11 20:58:27 -0500.