The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Moses Battles the Pterodactyls (4)

March 6th, 2009 · 2 Comments

[We continue to mark Darwin’s bicentennial by doling out my talk on his cultural wallop.  So far we’ve run through some misconceptions, the melancholy tale of the brontosaurus (to whom we will return), and the background of the Scopes trial.  We’re ready to meet some of the principals.]

Bryan is such a complex character that it’s a pity to squeeze him into a nutshell.  But, nutshell it is: former three-time presidential candidate, former Secretary of State, legendary orator.  His politics were populist and progressive: he was against expansionism, imperialism, and unbridled capitalism; and for prohibition, women’s suffrage, and pacifism.  He was a loud and lusty fundamentalist, a champion of small-town values, and one of the busiest campaigners against Darwinism.

His gripes were social, not biological; he was convinced that natural selection showed Nature working “by the operation of the law of hate — the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.”  Social Darwinism was militant, anti-labor; the creed of colonialists and robber barons.  As a sample of Bryan’s scientific reasoning, I offer his argument that man could not have evolved from apes, because apes still exist.  All of this, obviously, had more to do with Bryan than Darwin.

To the defense then sprang Clarence Darrow, another complicated specimen.  Darrow was a disturbingly successful lawyer, committed to defending unpopular clients: blacks, labor agitators, even Leopold and Loeb.  He was also a noisy agnostic, given to writing booklets like “Absurdities of the Bible.”  He agreed to defend Scopes for free, hoping to lose so he could appeal to a higher court.  And he was itching to take on Bryan.

The “Baltimore Sun” made things livelier by sending H. L. Mencken — an extraordinary reporter, critic, and stylist, and an ardent Nietzschean famously hostile to religion, democracy, and rural America.

Also on hand were Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius, publishers of the Kansas socialist paper “The Freeman.”  They also produced the popular “Little Blue Books,” five-cent booklets on every topic they could think of, including many titles on socialism, atheism, and evolution.  Thanks to them, you could pick up Darwin for a nickel at Woolworth’s.  They also published many debates and articles by and about Darrow; in fact, their first title was Darrow’s essay on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

And, of course, Dayton also welcomed the celebrated Joe Mendi, a performing chimp available to pose for reporters.

(Posted by Doug Skinner; to be continued.)

Tags: Belief Systems · Education · Misconceptions · Politics

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mamie // Mar 11, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Any photos of Joe? Also, are you implying that apes don’t exist?

  • 2 Doug // Mar 11, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Bryan argued that if people evolved from apes, there would be no apes left, because they would have all turned into people.

    Joe was often photographed; I’ll try to find my copies. Maybe there are some on the www somewhere.

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