Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Ohio

Scopes Trial Symbolism Holds Today

Published in The Daily Oklahoman

If a deeply entrenched academic truth is challenged by new scientific insights and discoveries, should authorities allow classroom discussion of such challenges?

That was the question many people believe was placed on the national stage by the famous Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. This week is the 75th anniversary of the famous trial over the freedom of a substitute teacher, John Scopes, to discuss Darwin’s theory of evolution in a public school classroom.

The trial became a mythical (and largely mythological) symbol of academic freedom, through the fictionalized 1960’s movie and play Inherit the Wind. Because of the play, media still portray debates over evolution as a dispute between misinformed “Creationists” on the one side and truth-seeking scientists on the other.

Seventy five years later, the questions are the same, only now the issue is whether recent challenges to Darwinism itself — challenges coming not from clergymen, but from scientists — should be acknowledged in high school and university classrooms. Regrettably, today’s science teachers are discovering that Darwin’s contemporary partisans want nothing but his theory to be mentioned in the science classroom. Despite their intolerant tactics, however, it is going to become increasingly hard to squelch this broad and fascinating debate.

The teaching of evolution continues to be a controversial subject because when we talk about the origin and complexity of life, we talk about the origin and nature of ourselves. Such questions almost inevitably have philosophical and theological implications, even when such implications are bracketed from the discussion.

This alone wouldn’t be a problem if there were fair play. For decades, however, educational elites have allowed only one type of philosophical perspective to be considered, namely, materialism. Materialism (or “naturalism”) has been assumed by many scientists, at least as a methodological principle, since the late 19th century. The universe and life on earth, it says, began and continue to evolve from self-assembling properties of matter (hence, materialism), following only blind, unguided processes.

In biology, Darwinists limit those processes to such things as random genetic mutations and natural selection. Today this philosophy and its theoretical offspring prevail in all scientific disciplines, from physics and biology to cosmology. Soft sciences like psychology and sociology have adopted it as well. As if to allay our fears, we are often reminded that many religious people have embraced this way of thinking as well.

Whether or not God can peacefully co-exist with materialistic theories in science, however, is beside the point. The scientific challenge to materialist orthodoxy in the past quarter century has sprung from many sources, not all of them religious. They include quantum and chaos theory, which point to nature’s unchartable causation, the Big Bang theory of the universe, and biochemist Michael Behe’s recent evidence of the “irreducible complexity” of certain biological systems.

More and more scientists are beginning to argue, with Behe, that life’s complexity and diversity bear scientifically detectable marks that it has been intelligently designed. At the same time, other scientists, some Darwinists themselves, are bringing to light the numerous inaccuracies and outright falsehoods cited in textbooks as evidence of Darwinism.

But even if the Inherit the Wind script had been accurate and well-rounded and the Scopes Trial lesson truly was a morality tale about academic freedom, the issue today would be just the opposite as the one presented in the play and film. The question now is: Should schools and teachers be ALLOWED to present SCIENTIFIC evidence contrary to Darwinism?

In recent years the answer in many places has been no. At San Francisco State University, for example, biology professor Dean Kenyon was ordered out of his classroom and back to the laboratory when he dared to expose students to both Darwinian theory and evidence against it. In Kenyon’s case, advocates of academic freedom woke up and rallied to Kenyon’s defense. After a bruising battle, he was permitted back in his classroom.

Similarly, a highly qualified mathematician and philosopher, William Dembski, has recently come under attack at Baylor University. Dembski, (a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute) is the author of a number of books arguing the case for intelligent design in nature. When he was appointed as director of the new Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor last October, a number of faculty, most biologists, launched a vitriolic attack against Dembski and the new Center.

The faculty senate even voted, in an unprecedented action, to demand that the administration close the Center before it had completed its first year. In June, the controversy reached the floor of the US House of Representatives. Although it looks as if Dembski and the Polanyi Center will survive at Baylor, the actions of these faculty display the outright dogmatism of some of Darwin’s defenders.

There are other, similar stories of high school and college teachers in Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and elsewhere, who have fallen under the reproach of the Darwin lobby. While they may succeed in suppressing a real debate in isolated instances, the issue isn’t going to go away. The greatest irony is that Darwinists often invoke the Scopes Trial even while trying to prevent any evidence against Darwinism from being heard in the classroom. They’ve turned the lesson of Scopes entirely on its head.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.