American Experience (1988– )
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Episode credited cast:
Linda Hunt ... Self - Narrator


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Release Date:

23 February 2002 (USA) See more »

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Production Co:

WGBH See more »
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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Which Monkey Are You Talking About?
17 July 2015 | by rmax304823See all my reviews

The Scopes "monkey trial" was held in 1920 in Dayton, Tennessee. John Scopes was a young Illinoisan who was hired as a football coach and science teacher. By 1920, Darwin's "theory of evolution" was widely accepted, even though it was inconsistent with the account of man's origins in the Book of Genesis. Tennessee was the first state to outlaw the teaching of evolution, giving precedence to the religious account. If this sounds a little familiar, that's because the battle still rages today in states like Texas. And the head of the Senate's Science Committee, a doctor, has called evolution "evil from the pit of hell." That's today in Washington, DC -- not 1920 in rural Dayton, population 1,800.

The Christian fundamentalist movement which takes the Bible literally is relatively new, having established itself in the rural heartland early in the 1900s. Even St. Augustine didn't take Genesis too literally, distinguishing between actual and virtual creation. Augustine recognized that the interpretation of the creation story is difficult, and remarked that we should be willing to change our mind about it as new information comes up.

Aside from the narrator, Linda Hunt, one of the first commentators gives what seems to me a basic explanation of what underlies the conflict. Most people don't know much about Darwin or his theory of natural selection. The meme is simple. "Man descended from the apes." or maybe "the monkeys." That it isn't true makes no difference because an ideology has its own momentum regardless of evidence. There's an unfettered religious ideology cutting a swath through the Middle East and no one knows how to blunt it. And seventy years ago, one European country believed that science proved that Aryans were superior to all other "races."

In any case, John Scopes taught evolution instead of Genesis, which was now against the law. The result was the "monkey trial" that brought two national oracles together -- the agnostic Clarence Darrow for the defense, and the devout Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. Actually, the two men had a lot in common. Both were liberal populists. Darrow had supported Bryan's first run for president as the Democratic candidate. They differed on religion. When not arguing in court, they were observed sipping bootleg whiskey together by H. L. Mencken, who covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun. It was the state of Tennessee against John Thomas Scopes. It unnerved him, as it should have. I remember being in a traffic court and hearing my case described as "the state of California against (insert my name here), unemployed laborer."

Of course it was more complicated than that. The law, signed by the governor, was intended to be symbolic. But the ACLU offered to fund any teacher willing to make a test case. Dayton was in bankruptcy at the time, and the man managing the economy, Rappelyea (pronounced RA-pull-yay) thought that accepting the ACLU's challenge would bring the trial to Dayton and, with it, tourists, journalists, lawyers, and other visitors who would spend money locally. Maybe industry would follow. It might put Dayton on the map. Rappelyea sought out John Scopes, who agreed to be the patsy. The result was to exceed Rappelyea's dreams. O. J. Simpson's wasn't the trial of the century. The Scopes trial was.

Hordes of reporters and other visitors descended on little Dayton, Tennessee. Squirrel hunters arrived on horseback with their rifles. Of the twelve men on the jury, there was one Disciple of Christ and the rest were split evenly between Baptists and Methodists. There was one lone non-church goer. Most of the jury weren't prejudiced against evolution because they didn't know what it was. Darrow and Bryan exchanged barbs during the trial but there was only one charge against Scopes himself and it had nothing to do with evolution. Had he broken the law by teaching evolution in the school? Yes, he had. The verdict delivered after nine minutes was guilty. It was later overturned on a technicality.

It would be pretty to think that this sort of argument is behind us. It was, after all, ninety years ago. Lamentably, it is not. Evolution and creationism are now still in combat. But this time around I don't think the basis for the denial of evolution has quite so much to do with religion, although it DOES have a religious foundation, as it does with a more general anti-intellectual element that irregularly pops up its head in American culture.

As I'm writing this, there is not only strenuous opposition to evolution and its teaching in schools, but against certain conclusions recently drawn in climatology. I'll mention vaccinations and genetically modified foods only in passing. It's partly the fault of scientists, who are content to trade ideas and facts within their own bubble without bothering with what the public and the media are doing. They have no interest in the hoi polloi.

I'm biased because I'm an anthropologist but sometimes I doubt that we know more about current controversial issues than the Scopes jurors did. Evolution is derided as only a "theory," which shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word "theory" means in the realm of science.

To boil it all down, we're defiant in our ignorance because we don't like longhairs, eggheads, snobs, fairies, wine mavens, and men who like quiche. We do measure social value but it's usually preceded by a dollar sign.

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