The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Moses Battles the Pterodactyls (3)

February 27th, 2009 · No Comments

[We continue to mark Darwin’s bicentennial by serializing my talk on the cultural impact of his work.  So far, we’ve touched on some of the popular misconceptions of his ideas, and on the flurry of legislation leading up to the Scopes Trial in the U.S.]

Meanwhile, paleontologists, like dirty little kids, had been scrabbling in the earth and digging up bones.  It’s hard to realize now, after we all grew up scooting little plastic dinosaurs around the sandbox, that dinosaurs are a relatively new idea.  I had a certain cultural shock when I was doing some research in newspapers of the 1870s, and came across a story that scientists had just discovered a prehistoric crocodile that hopped like a kangaroo.  The word “dinosaur” itself only dates to 1841.

Soon, there were many dinosaurs, with long scientific names that children love, for some reason, and big skeletons to admire in the museums.  Bones had, obviously, been found for centuries; and been called dragons and behemoths.  But now there were all kinds of strange animals from the past, which, oddly enough, didn’t seem to be mentioned in the Bible.

One of the most familiar and popular dinos is the Brontosaurus, discovered with great fanfare by Othniel Marsh in 1879.  Unfortunately, he was a bit hasty; and the specimen he put together was actually bits from an Apatasaurus and Camarasaurus: a sort of dinosaur jackalope.

By 1903, the Brontosaurus was officially removed from the pantheon, or whatever it is.

But let’s return to Tennessee, and to 1925.  Because the Butler Bill inspired the Scopes Trial, that famous court case that took on the rosy glow of myth, as the great event that pitted evolution against evangelism.

It was, alackaday, phony from the get-go.  The American Civil Liberties Union, then a mere broth of a group, announced that it would bankroll any challenge to the anti-evolution laws then sprouting up like fairy rings throughout the Bible Belt.

And so, a group of local boosters in Dayton, Tennessee, met at Robinson’s Drugstore, and decided to take the bait.  The media attention, they figured, would attract visitors.  Robinson’s would sell more ice cream.  They could sell monkey dolls.

John Scopes was chosen as the teacher.  He was, in fact, the high school football coach, not a biology teacher; but he was opposed to the law, and was young and single, so he was up for a bit of a lark.  Two boys were found to testify that Scopes had once substituted for a science teacher, and had mentioned evolution.  The boys then became scared that Mr. Scopes would get mad at them, and hid in the woods.  A party had to flush them out and tell them Scopes said it was okay.

The trial heated up with the addition of some colorful visitors.  For one, William Jennings Bryan joined the prosecution.

(Posted by Doug Skinner.  We’ll join up with Bryan next week.)

Tags: Animals · Belief Systems · Education · Misconceptions · Politics

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