In 2004, I played the role of Matthew Harrison Brady in my high school’s production of Inherit the Wind.
Written by Jerome Lawrence, the play is a romantic reimagining of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, in which teacher John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in a Tennessee schoolroom – an illegal act at the time. The trial caught the attention of the nation and became a lightning rod for fanatics on both sides of the debate. Defending the Butler Act (and, in effect, Creationism) was William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate. Defending Scopes (and, by association, evolution) was famed lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow.
Though Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined $100, the verdict was overturned on a technicality. After the trial, Bryan issued a statement to the press that summed up his beliefs on science and religion, and why the latter should not be supplanted by the former.
“Science is a magnificent force,” he wrote, “but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. […] but science does not teach brotherly love. […] If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.”
Bryan, whose beliefs and personality informed the character of Matthew Harrison Brady in the 1955 play, was not ignorant of science’s virtues. But, for political or personal reasons, he fought against these virtues on behalf of American morals.
Fancying myself a most erudite fellow at the age of 17, taking on the role of Brady was contrary to my principles. I played him like a slightly more charming Bill O’Reilly.
Today Is Darwin Day
Today is the 206th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. In Delaware, Governor Jack Markell has officially proclaimed it “Darwin Day” in honor of the man’s scientific achievements. This news has been hailed by the Darwin Day organization, which asks its visitors to dedicate February 12 to celebrating “intellectual bravery,” “hunger for truth” and “perpetual curiosity.”
But who was that Darwin guy, anyway? Born in 1809, he would go on to become one of the most famous (and to some, infamous) scientists in history. Taking a position as an unpaid naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831, he sailed the world and studied its flora and fauna. It was while comparing the beaks of finches in the Galapagos Islands that he first hatched the idea that was to grow into the theory evolution, though he would not return to England until October 1836, and not publish his findings until some 20 years later.
Different kinds of finches, Darwin recognized, had different kinds of beaks. Long, thin beaks allowed some to spear their prey in hard-to-reach places. Blunt, thick beaks enabled others to break open nuts. How did these finches obtain these specialized traits?
From observations of finches and other animals and from further research and many years of agonizing doubt, Charles Darwin concluded that creatures evolve over time. This is due to two main factors: genetic variation and natural selection. Though genetics would not be fully understood until the next century, Darwin knew that individual animals could exhibit different and distinct traits from their parents. Some of these traits could enable them to compete better in their environment. If a creature’s skin, coat or feathers was a shade lighter or darker than its parents, it might thrive in a lighter or darker environment where it could blend in and escape from predators. If it was faster, stronger, if its beak was sharper, or rounder; these traits would allow it to survive, allow it to mate more frequently and endow the next generation with its unique gifts. Over time, these traits could accumulate and lead to completely different species.
Darwin knew that his work could be the death of him if he published it. Only a few centuries earlier, men were being burned at the stake for saying they had a different view of the night sky. To even hypothesize that creatures evolved over time and had not been placed on Earth fully assembled by their Creator, as stated in the Bible, was, to put it lightly, a bad PR move in a still heavily-Christian society.
So Darwin sat on his research for over 20 years. It wasn’t until Alfred Russel Wallace proposed a similar theory to evolution in 1858 that Darwin was willing to go public. He and Wallace agreed to jointly publish their writings on evolution that year, which promptly set off the religious and scientific controversy Darwin had always feared.
It didn’t stop him from publishing his seminal On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection the next year.
What We Know We Know and What We Know We Don’t Know
For over a century now the world has lived with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and for over a century the scientific community has found more and more evidence to support it.
In that time, even the Catholic Church has warmed up to it. Pope Francis, admittedly the most progressive pope in modern history, has publicly remarked that evolution and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.
“When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything,” he told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2014. “However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness.”
Moreover, said Francis, the creation of the universe “went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today.”
Yet many Americans still disagree. There are obvious parallels between the ongoing Evolution v. Creationism debate in this country and the Climate Change v. No Climate Change debate. Both issues share the same problem: Neither is actually a debate.
Former President George Bush II was considered progressive for saying that “intelligent design” and evolution should both be taught in school. But Bush’s reasoning is flawed.
“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” he said in 2005, “so people can understand what the debate is about.” He added, “Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.”
The fact of the matter is – and this is not a religious issue – Creationism is not science. Furthermore, to say that there is a “debate” over which side is correct implies that there is a debate. And there isn’t.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 98 percent of scientists say humans evolved over time. That does not leave much room for debate. Yet despite this fact, a Pew survey revealed that only 66 percent of Americans understand that scientists generally agree about evolution.
The numbers get even more disturbing the deeper we delve into them. Pew also found that of the 65 percent of U.S. adults who say humans have evolved over time, only 35 percent believe humans and other creatures evolved naturally, without the guidance of a Divine being. About 24 percent say evolution was guided by such a being. Thirty-one percent of Americans reject evolution outright.
Let’s compare this to the “debate” over man-made climate change. Pew found that 37 percent of adults believe scientists don’t agree on climate change and 57 percent believe scientists do agree on climate change.
The truth is, over 97 percent of scientists say that man-made processes such as greenhouse gas emissions are influencing the climate. The UN’s most recent report from its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded with 95 percent certainty that this is so.
Is it good that Charles Darwin is being celebrated today for his history-changing research? Of course it is. That men and women continue to dedicate their time, passion and intelligence to the pursuit of a better and more informed world is humanity’s saving grace. But is it good that Americans are as divided on facts and false debates as they were in 1925? No.
It’s not good because men and women should not be put on trial for teaching the best science available.
Charles Darwin had no intention of destroying Christianity with his pen. And if one’s religion prevents them from learning what he wrote, so be it. But just as Santeria is not taught beside multiplication tables, just as children are not forced to pray before recess, just as maypoles are not mandated on school grounds and meditation is not an alternative to physical fitness, Creationism has no part in a textbook.
This is not because God has no place in a child’s life – if that child is a practicing Christian, Jew, Muslim, Zoroastrian or otherwise – but because the line must be drawn somewhere between facts and faith. Faith is personal; facts are for everyone.
Darwin Day reminds us not only of what science can achieve but also what humans can ignore if they try hard enough. Some of us try very hard indeed.