The Instinct toward Mercy: What Hopkins Has to Teach Darwin

By Quinn, Peter | Commonweal, June 17, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Instinct toward Mercy: What Hopkins Has to Teach Darwin


Quinn, Peter, Commonweal


This summer marks the eightieth anniversary of the famous (or, depending on one's viewpoint, infamous) "Monkey Trial," a landmark courtroom struggle whose legacy continues to roil American politics and public life. When the trial began in Dayton, Tennessee, on July 10,1925, spectators jostled each other not so much to glimpse John Scopes, the high-school biology teacher charged with violating a recently enacted ban on the teaching of evolution, as the celebrated combatants: Clarence Darrow, the renowned defense attorney, who represented Scopes; and William Jennings Bryan, the former "Boy Orator of the Platte" and three-time presidential candidate, who had joined the prosecution.

Scopes's arraignment had been orchestrated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was eager to overthrow the ban as well as provoke the kind of widespread media attention that would hold up the anti-evolutionists to national--indeed, international--ridicule. The ACLU proved more successful at the latter than the former. The trial ended in a $100 fine being imposed on Scopes that, although eventually reversed on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court, left the ban intact. It also resulted in a cause celebre regarded by some as on a par with Galileo's trial in the struggle of scientific truth against religious obscurantism, a version of history given theatrical expression in the 1955 hit play (and later successful movie), Inherit the Wind.

For a time, it seemed that the anti-evolutionists had been dealt a mortal blow. Scientists in general and opponents of fundamentalism in particular delighted in the skill with which Darrow took apart Bryan's testimony as a supposed expert on the literal truth of the Bible. (The New York Times hailed it as "the most amazing court scene in Anglo-Saxon history.") Though the judge decided against Scopes, the cause Bryan upheld was buried beneath an avalanche of ridicule that seemingly relegated it to the ash heap of history, a judgment punctuated by his death several days after.

Eight decades later, the denouement of that judicial drama is no longer so certain. Once written off as regional eccentricity, fundamentalism has proved itself as resilient as the Boston Red Sox, defying those who said fate and history had conspired to frustrate its aspirations perpetually. In fact, in the same season that the Red Sox wrested the World Series crown after an eighty-six-year hiatus, fundamentalism played a prominent role in the reelection of President George W. Bush. He promised supporters in 2000 that he would "make it a goal to make sure that local folks got to make the decision as to whether or not they said creationism has been a part of our history and whether or not people ought to be exposed to different theories as to how the world was formed."

Obviously more than a dispute about a single scientific theory, the argument over Darwinism is a contest about how to view existence. As Commonweal's founding editor Michael Williams wrote in his eyewitness account of the trial ("Summing-Up at Dayton," August 5, 1925): "A score of collateral questions surround or trail after the central one. Is man a mere accident in an accidental universe? Is he a mere chemical cell in a vast agglomeration of chemical cells .... Has he no real will, no true individuality, no true responsibility, no eternal future?"

Those metaphysical questions still shadow the current battle over the teaching of evolution in the schools. Rev. Terry Fox, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the Midwest, recently told the Washington Post that the struggle over evolution is "the essential front in America's culture war." According to Fox, "If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die," an analysis that echoed a preacher outside the Scopes trial who reportedly claimed that "if this monkey business is allowed to stand, Christianity will fall."

Ironies abound in this controversy. …

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