The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Moses Battles the Pterodactyls (7)

March 27th, 2009 · No Comments

[Yes, Virginia, there is a Charles Darwin; and we continue to fete his bicentennial by serializing my talk on the impact of his theories on American culture.  Have a seat.]

A few days after the Scopes trial had pooped out, Bryan died.  Mencken exulted, “We killed the son-of-a-bitch,” and ran a rather nasty obituary, calling him a yap and a mountebank.  Almost immediately, a Bible College was founded in Dayton in his honor (Bryan’s, that is).

Darrow went on to write and lecture, and toured the country debating prohibition, capital punishment, free will, and other controversies.  His sparring with Bryan was published as a Little Blue Book.  Scopes became a geologist.  Joe Mendi evolved into a chimpanzee.  And one of Scopes’s prosecutors, who had the unusual name of Sue Hicks, became a judge; and later inspired the hit song “A Boy Named Sue” when Shel Silverstein saw a newspaper story about him.

In the wake of the Monkey Trial, there were a couple of cultural fads that squarely hit the Darwinian sore spot.  One was Tarzan, who had begun his long career as Apeman in 1914 as a book; and by the 1930s had branched out into movies, radio, comics, everything.  He tapped into the national appetite for the primitive man, composed of equal parts of feral child, noble savage, and Ubermensch.

And he had been preceded in 1913 by Joseph Knowles, soon to be dubbed the “Yankee Tarzan.”  Knowles was an outdoorsman and wildlife painter, who, to give an interesting story to the “Boston Post,” stripped naked one August morn, and strode off to live in the Maine woods.  He planned to leave birch-bark journals at drop-off points, and return two months later, well fed and clothed.  His stunt was seen as both a snub to modern life and a vindication of it: civilization still produced manly men fit to survive in the wild.  Unfortunately, he broke some game laws in the process, and had to stay ahead of game wardens; and was suspected of sneaking meals in a friend’s cabin.  Nevertheless, he emerged at last, tanned and healthy, sporting a stinky bearskin.  He went on to tour vaudeville; and was a popular speaker in girls’ schools, where students lined up to stroke his weathered skin.

And there was King Kong, a sort of dinosaur-sized man-ape, a Tarzan in reverse; who could vanquish brontosauruses, but not New York actresses.

And we had World War II, which was rather complicated.  Nevertheless, the popular idea was that God was rooting for Uncle Sam, and science was helping.  The Cold War that followed, however, brought back the traditional tangle between science and religion.  The government became more overtly pious; in 1956, the national motto was changed to “In God We Trust” to counter atheistic Communism.  But when the Soviets launched Sputnik, and started eying the moon, Americans worried that they were falling behind, and beefed up the science classes.  The double-pronged revival was sometimes contradictory.

Since the Scopes Trial had become the symbol of science clashing with religion, but really wasn’t written very well, it had to be redone.  So Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee reshaped it into a play, “Inherit the Wind,” that was much tidier than reality.

(Posted by Doug Skinner.  More next week…) 


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

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