Andrew Cohen, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, argues that the forces that initiated the Scopes Trial (1925) are still present today in the dogged renewal of the fight to teach creationism and in the rancor over the truth about the human causes of global warming.
In his article, What the Scopes Trial Teaches us about Climate Change, Cohen suggests that these forces are not merely “anti-science,” but something wider and broader. What he says is heavily dependent on Ray Ginger’s 1958 book, Six Days or Forever. Ginger was a mid-twentieth-century historian from Harvard. His Six Days was a colorful and popular account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Indeed, Cohen is so enamored by Ginger’s account that he likens it to the “Book of Revelations [sic],” in the sense that it presaged “how the forces that animated the run-up to the Scopes trial…are still present today.”
According to Ginger, recent immigration reanimated fear-based practices and policies. Next came a sense of alienation, of betrayal, of losing one’s birthright, all brought on by the Great War. This combination of “fear” and “alienation” was followed by the inculcation and promotion of “received truth”—that is, “a good man does not drink, or smoke, or gamble, or commit adultery, or contravene the Word of the Bible, and who punishes the sins of others”—thus resulting in hard-lined resistance to change.
This attitude eventually became a political force, argued Ginger, giving rise to nativism and xenophobia. And according to Cohen, the same thing is happening today: “We have a new generation of fear and prejudice wrought by a new wave of immigration…bloody conflicts…skepticism about science.”
From here Cohen goes into a general account of creationsim, discussing things like the Butler Act in Tennessee in 1925, to more recent events in Alabama, Florida, and Oklahoma, which in recent years have presented anti-evolution measures, and a Texas education panel responsible for reviewing submissions from biology textbook publishers who, according to Cohen, adhere to “creation science.”
This same panel, says Cohen, are also skeptical of climate change as scientific truth. Accordingly, the Scopes trial foreshadowed the claims made today by climate change deniers. They argue, Cohen writes, relating Ginger’s claims about creationists, the “truth revealed in the Bible could not conflict with the truth discovered by science. All truth was from God. But what if they seemed to conflict? The answer was easy: The truth that science claimed to discover had not been discovered at all. It was not truth, but wild guesses.” According to Cohen, this is the same argument made today by climate change skeptics. And just as the fight against evolution in the 1920s took place in the context of the classroom, that’s where a big part of the fight over climate change is taking place today.
Here is where Cohen shows his greatest debt. His argument is essentially taken from Sara Reardon’s early 2012 article in Science magazine, who suggested that “climate change education” is the “new evolution.” And it is here where Cohen also reveals the occasion for his piece: the release of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which concluded, says Cohen, with “unequivocal” evidence of climate change and that humans are “extremely likely” to be the cause of global warming.
Cohen ends with the postscript: “Fear is the great underlying theme of Ginger’s work, and it seems to me that fear helps explains the forces at work today, in Texas and elsewhere. Fear of great social change animates a longing for the “old certainty” of creationism. Fear of the great economic change it will take to combat global warming animates the denial of global warming. And fear of the new truths, as expressed in science, animates the suspicion of it. This is part of the fundamental conservatism that has almost always marked America’s political profile.” He concludes with suggesting some “helpful” resources for understanding the Scopes trial, including Ginger’s Six Days or Forever, John Aloyious Farrell’s Attorney for the Dammed, Randall Tietjen’s collection of Clarence Darrow’s letters, In the Clutches of the Law. Cohen even suggests the film Inherit the Wind for those who are “lazy and do not want to read.”
I am not a scientist, but I do have a major interest in the history of science. History, or the stories we tell about history, enables us to understand the present. In constructing our position in society, in religion, in the family, as well as our manner and social norms, we turn to history—real or imagined. Cohen’s article illustrates how stories, that is, as master-narrative, can be employed for apologetic purposes. Cohen tells a simple, straightforward, and striking story about how science challenges the prevailing cultural norms; or, alternatively, how prevailing cultural norms stifle progress in science.
But Cohen’s story, told for obvious partisan purposes, is best described not as history but as fitting history into an ahistorical mold. The mold is shaped by the assumption that there is an inherent conflict between “science” and “religion,” arising from competing sources of authority, competing methodologies, or competing criteria for truth. This view, that there is something essential to science and something essential to religion that keeps them perpetually at war, provides a ready-made interpretation of the Scopes trial, the rise of global creationism, and skepticism toward man-made climate change.
Edward Larson’s essay in Galileo goes to Jail is a helpful corrective to this all too common narrative. Larson relates how the Scopes trial was from the beginning was a publicity stunt, and not the confluence of nativism and xenophobia. “Responding to the invitation of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the statute on free-speech grounds, town leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, decided to test that new statute in court by arranging a friendly indictment of a local science teacher named John Scopes. Come what may, they wanted publicity for their community.” It wasn’t just the town leaders who orchestrated the ordeal; Scopes himself was in on the scheme.
William Jennings Bryan was a three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee and former Secretary of State, and while he was known for his “fundamentalist” views on the Bible, he never insisted on a strict six-day, twenty-four hour creation account. Indeed, Bryan was quite the leftist democratic, known for his oratorical skills and support of not only religious conservatism but political liberalism.
H.L. Mencken set the journalistic tone of the trial, but he embellished events as they unfolded. Mencken had fabricated a victimized Scopes as a model of scientific progress quashed by religious dissent from an ignorant townspeople. But according to Larson, “the people of Dayton had no part” in the trial, and “Scopes was not their hapless victim.” Indeed, neither Mencken nor Cohen inform their readers that Scope’s favored biology textbook of choice was George William Hunter’s 1914 A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, a book that espoused not only evolutionary theory but racism and eugenics.
But images of heroes and villains are hard to eradicate. In 1931 Frederick Lewis Allen published a best-seller, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, describing Darrow’s interrogation of Bryan as a “savage encounter, and a tragic one for the ex-Secretary of State. He was defending what he held most dear…and he was being covered with humiliation.” Lewis goes on to say that “civilized opinion everywhere had regarded the Dayton trial with amazement and amusement, and the slow drift away from Fundamentalist certainty continued.”
By the 1960s, Larson tells us, the myth of the Scopes trial had reached mainstream American history textbooks, repeating Mencken, Ginger, and Lewis’ story of heroes and villains. Then came the 1960 movie Inherent the Wind, crystallizing the Scopes myth. The movie depicted the town officials being led by a fanatical fundamentalist minister, calling for the arrest and prosecution of Scopes. The trial itself is portrayed as a religious inquisition, but nothing of the sort ever happened at the actual trial, says Larson.
For those seeking a better understanding of the Scopes trial, the best advice is to avoid all the resources Cohen recommends. Larson’s Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion is a fine place to start. And for those who are “lazy and do not want to read,” avoid popular accounts at all costs. There are a series of videos on YouTube with Larson discussing his book that might prove useful for this latter category.
Now, since Cohen’s understanding of the Scopes trial is so grossly inaccurate, relying as it does on popular, partisan accounts, how trustworthy is his understanding of the climate change debate?