The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Moses Battles the Pterodactyls (5)

March 14th, 2009 · No Comments

[Open wide, for another tasty dipperful of my talk on the apparently ceaseless squabble between Darwinians and anti-Darwinians.  I gave this talk at a couple of Fortean conventions a few years back; I’m posting it here to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial.  See the earlier dippersful for more details; meanwhile, the Scopes trial is in progress.]

The Scopes trial was a national sensation.  As it keyed up, a song by the cowboy songwriter Carson Robison was released.  You can hear it sung by Vernon Dalhart here.

It didn’t take long for a jury of Daytonites to convict Scopes.  He was fined $100, which both Bryan and the ACLU offered to pay.  But the trial was nullified on a technicality: the judge had set the fine, rather than the jury.  Scopes never testified; and had to turn down $50,000 to lecture on evolution on the vaudeville circuit, because he didn’t know enough about the subject.  The Dayton drugstore conspirators declined to pursue the case.  Their plan hadn’t turned out well.  Robinson’s did indeed sell a truckload of soda pop; and the local tailor, whose name happened to be Darwin, got to put up a sign touting his clothes as the fittest.  But national coverage, especially Mencken’s, ridiculed Dayton as a backward town stocked with medieval yahoos; and photos showed that it was so hot that everybody was sweating very unattractively and constantly fanning themselves.  Not quite alluring for the tourist trade.

Near the end, though, America got what it really wanted: the spectacle of Darrow and Bryan, two of the savviest showmen on the hoof, locking horns and bellowing over the evergreen topic of Biblical literalism.  The temperature had topped 100 degrees, and the overcrowded courthouse was developing scary cracks, so the show was moved out onto the lawn, under the trees.  And there began the great national debate between science and religion, between the old and the new; the pterodactyl swooped down on Moses as he swatted it with his Pentateuch.  And it was enacted by a politician and a lawyer.

The debate had, really, nothing to do with the case; Jonah and his celebrated whale were, after all, merely innocent byswimmers.  But both Darrow and Bryan wanted it, and so, really, did everyone else.   Bryan showed that he was rather foolish, and Darrow that he was rather rude, but neither brought any particular expertise to the subject.  Bryan did declare that man was not a mammal, which Mencken had great fun with.  Nevertheless, the Scopes trial, particularly that digression, entered American mythology as the great theological smackdown.  Obviously, at some point it would need to be rewritten to make it more dramatically satisfying.

(Posted by Doug Skinner; more to come.)

Tags: Belief Systems · Education · Misconceptions · Politics

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