1.6 A Brief History of Creationism
The Scopes Trial—Progressive antievolutionism’s last crusade.
With the resulting “Monkey” Trial Dayton got its wish of being put on the national map—with a vengeance, as the conflict of fundamentalist Christianity with rampaging modernism jumped to the front burner in America, chronicled in short form by Ecker (1990, 173-176), DelFattore (2007, 40-47) and Milner (2009, 378-380) or in more depth by Larson (1985, 58-72; 1997), Nardo (1997), R. Moore (1998a-b; 2011c), or Weiss (2007). Interestingly, a 1924 Nebraska civil court case (ironically in William Jennings Bryan’s backyard) involving a teacher who successfully sued for slander after having been called “mentally and morally unfit” because he had taught “Darwinism” sparked no broader notice, Shapiro (2013c).
The Kulturkampf conservative take on Scopes may be seen in Marvin Olasky (1987), who complained in Jerry Falwell’s Fundamentalist Journal that “No one that I know of has set the record straight” on the Scopes Trial, which for him meant all the acid ink reporters of the period (such as the caustic Mencken) spilt reporting on the trial that lampooned in most unflattering terms the locals of Dayton for their distance from the modern educational world. As for the scientific basis for the general concept of natural evolution that had by the 1920s become a non-controversial topic in American scientific academe, Olasky (1987, 23-24) whittled the matter down to size with populist bravado: “Tennessee legislators saw their antievolution bill as a way of stopping proselytization for what they saw as a trendy but unproven evolutionary faith.” But in insisting that “Many intelligent creationists were ready to explain to reporters the theological debate that lay behind the evolution versus creation issue,” Olasky (1987, 23) pretty much gave the game away that what was at stake at the Scopes trial in 1925 was less a matter of evidential science than a theological trench that needed defense come what may.
The fact was, while the ACLU defense lined up platoons of scientists to argue the scientific legitimacy of evolution, the Tennessee prosecutors discovered to their chagrin there were no scientific witnesses to call to testify for their side. This forced an abrupt change in their tactics, from one upholding the statute’s validity on empirical merit, to one resting solely on the state’s legislative authority to direct the content of public education (a point that Olasky further misconstrued as “parental control over school curricula” for Falwell’s clientele in 1987). To help conceal this sizable evidential pothole, the 1925 prosecution got all scientific testimony excluded—which ironically some of the defense team were very happy with, as it insulated their academic witnesses from being cross-examined not on the science but on their religious views. Although the various witnesses had been carefully selected as men of faith, they were no WCFA traditionalists (doubting, for example, doctrines like the virgin birth of Jesus), and the defense feared a probing cross-examination might, as the ACLU’s Arthur Garfield Hays (1881-1954) delicately put it, alienate the potential “support of millions of intelligent churchgoing people who didn’t question theological miracles,” Larson (1997, 180-181).
Although citing Larson’s book, YEC James Perloff (1999, 203-205; 2000) did not mention the absence of antievolutionary scientific witnesses for the prosecution any more than Olasky had a decade earlier, and interpolated his own wishful thinking when he wrote that Bryan was set to “ask his experts tough questions like: ‘Where are the missing links?’ Even worse, he might ask if they were atheists—which some could not deny without perjuring themselves.” Perloff tactfully neglected to identify any of these supposedly closet atheists set to take the stand. And although Weiss (2007, 128-129) gave Bryan’s science side a fair nod (a lot of evolutionary evidence dated after his time), Nardo (1997, 60-61) noted Bryan wasn’t knowledgeable enough to actively rebut scientific testimony, and often resorted to quips appealing to his audience (a tactical trait Perloff appears to share with the Great Commoner).
Like his modern antievolutionary counterparts, Bryan was also perfectly happy to deploy authority quotes from scientific luminaries he approved of, Glenn Branch (2014ab-ad). Geneticist William Bateson (1862-1926) was the heaviest hitter for Bryan to crib from, but hardly surprising given the Bateson (1922) lecture that fed into the antievolutionary quote mill by quite correctly reflecting the pre-DNA uncertainty about the precise mechanisms of the origin of species. Evolutionists at the time weighed in to counter the authority quoting of Bateson just as critics of creationism do today, of course, such as zoologist Winterton Curtis (1875-1966) among the slated science witnesses at Scopes, Branch (2015e).
The same situation of science moving on applied to Albert Fleischmann (1862-1942), a minor German zoologist who around 1900 grew disenchanted with the “Darwin-Haeckel” model of evolution—the contentious German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) will be popping up more later—and eventually slid into the world of Douglas Dewar (1875-1957) and the British Evolution Protest Movement. Sounding eerily like 21st century Intelligent Design advocates, Fleischmann (1933) contended the developmental biology of the various phyla defied the constraints of Darwin’s evolutionary tree, with four snippets of his opinion duly quote-mined by CreationRevolution (2013).
Interestingly, CreationRevolution did not discuss any of the substantive points Fleischmann made, which was probably wise, since by 2013 biology was knee deep in Evo-Devo showing how HOX gene developmental systems crossed phyletic boundaries in a unifying manner thoroughly consistent with Darwin’s old Tree of Life. Hence Fleischmann’s 1933 opinions on developmental axes in animal embryos would be about as informative as trying to evaluate the suitability of carbon fiber versus ceramic flight surfaces for a hypersonic shuttle by relying only on the aeronautic experience gleaned from some familiar only with canvas and wood biplanes.
Much the same could be said of Bryan’s invocation of Beale (1903a), a speech Lionel Beale (1828-1906) contributed to the Victoria Institute (something like a British counterpart of the American Scientific Affiliation) critical of biological evolution in general and its materialist conflicts with religion. While Beale was a pioneering advocate for scientific medical practice and use of microscopes in clinical pathology, he had several theoretical blind spots beyond just evolution. Persistently skeptical of the germ theory of disease, a prickly Beale (1875) fired a potshot at experimental physiologist John Burdon Sanderson (1858-1905) over his promotion of the idea. Foster (1958) chalked up Beale’s skepticism on germ theory to the limitations of 19th century research when summing up Beale’s contribution to science technique (we’ll encounter this same issue in section 1.7 regarding spontaneous generation), but Beale’s clinging to vitalism cut to the core of scientific methodology.
Beale (1871; 1882a-c; 1887; 1893; 1901; 1903b) represented a long parade of denial that biological processes ultimately employed the same atoms and molecules that stars and planets were made of, prompting a retrospective of microscope use in British science by Richard Howey (2008) to dissect an 1881 address of Beale for its “deliciously silly, overblown rhetoric!” Confounding Beale’s vitalist expectations, subsequent investigation using ever more powerful microscopes failed to derail the materialist agenda, eventually requiring today’s ID counterparts to retrench into an “information” approach to proteins indisputably built from carbon-based amino acids spooled off from an all-molecular RNA/DNA template equally devoid of detectable vital essence.
Bryan’s most dated chestnut purported to be from paleontologist Robert Etheridge (1819-1903) of the British Museum about the absence of fossil intermediates. Branch (2014q-t) eventually traced it back to an 1885 religious magazine: a letter from evangelical botanist George Edward Post (1838-1909) reporting on a conversation he had with Etheridge at the museum, which missive an unnamed “former colleague” of Post’s had forwarded to the magazine evidently primed for its apologetic utility. Branch could find no corroborating evidence about Etheridge’s antievolutionary doubts from his scientific publications. He did reflect the period, where evolution skeptics continued to operate in the observation collection mode, while their evolutionary counterparts fitfully plodded forward onto the more challenging terrain of theoretical explanatory context, and it was certainly possible that Etheridge harbored his views in private, only to blurt them out on that one occasion in 1885 when chatting with fellow Darwin-doubter Post.
Incidentally, Branch noted an aspect of Post’s motivational underpinnings: his umbrage over Edwin Rufus Lewis (1839-1907), whose July 1882 commencement address (delivered in Arabic) at the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut (in 1920 it became the American University of Beirut) stepped on the toes of the institution’s conservative missionary founders by mentioning four notable scientists of the time: Charles Lyell, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Charles Darwin. The furor led to Lewis’ dismissal, several faculty quit in protest, including fellow missionary and noted Arabic scholar Cornelius Van Alen Van Dyke (1818-1895), and the faculty shake up and student resignations and suspensions eventually boiled over into the first known student protest in the Arab world. The contending camps came to blows with serious injuries, Jeha (2004) and Musselman (2006, 286-287), and there was even a mini-exodus to Egypt of some Syrian journalists exercised over academic freedom, Farag (1972). The Kulturkampf pot was steaming even then.
Concerning Etheridge’s paleontology, though, it is of interest that the more extensive 1885 source had Etheridge blithely affirming the fixity of species and insisting “There is no such thing as a fossil man.” That wasn’t really true even in 1885 (Neanderthal fossils being known by then) and suggested that perhaps Etheridge was not the most disinterested nor prescient figure to invoke when it came to fossil information, either in the 1880s or the 1920s when Bryan was on the scene, let alone in the decades since as the Etheridge “quote” continued to pop up in secondary creationist mining all the way to the present, as I found in April 2015 with an exchange on Twitter when a creationist confidently invoked Etheridge as an authority for skepticism and recommend our thread read a posting at the evangelical Soulwinners (2015) website.
Availing themselves of every opportunity to combat Satan, Soulwinners’ short “Evolution Lie” quote mine collection included Etheridge as nicked from Scott Huse (1997, 158, 208n) who had in turn obtained it secondarily from Lindsay (1977, 16). As it happened, the flipped sequence of sentences in the Lindsay-Huse-Souwinners version suggests none of them had ever got anywhere close to reading the original Etheridge quote. And while Huse at least supplied a reference for where he got what he thought that “world famous paleontologist of the British museum” had said at some unspecified point in time, that vagueness necessarily carried on over into the Soulwinners version and thence to the credulous Twitter sock-puppet.
An identically-worded version showed up in the even vaguer Steve Hall (2012b):
“Nine-tenths of the talk of evolutionists is sheer nonsense, not founded on observation and wholly unsupported by facts. This museum is full of proofs of the utter falsity of their views. In all this great museum, there is not a particle of evidence of the transmutation of species.” (Dr. Etheridge, Paleontologist of the British Museum)
As Hall supplied no date or source information, it may never have dawned on him (or any in the equally derivative Taylor-Huse-Soulwinners-Twitter chain) that he had no idea who Etheridge was or when he lived or what information the paleontologist did or did not have at his disposal or had been disposed to assess or dismiss at any point in his scientific career. Which makes the caution of Glenn Branch two years later particularly apropos: “It’s hard to know why anyone should be impressed with a second-hand uncorroborated paraphrase of a conversation that happened one hundred and twenty-nine years ago,” Branch (2014t).
Returning to the Scopes Trial, though Chapman (2007, 177-179) was most impressed with the powerful arguments of ACLU council Dudley Field Malone (1882-1950)—so eloquent that he got a powerful ovation even from antievolutionists in court—the most incendiary exchanges involved the lead defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857-1938). With their science witnesses off the agenda the defense repositioned too, and Darrow executed the now-legendary maneuver of calling Bryan to the stand as expert on the only field remaining: the Bible, whose stance on the origin of human beings it was the explicit purpose of the Butler Act to protect. Bryan was fine with that turn of events, since he intended to reverse the procedure by calling the defense team for questioning afterward, but that isn’t how things worked out. Darrow’s withering cross-examination of Bryan on the peculiarities of Biblical exegesis elevated the proceedings to both farce and tragedy, prompting the judge to cancel Bryan’s planned cross of Darrow, and a week after the media circus concluded Bryan fell ill and died.
There is a further twist to the timing of Bryan’s death apropos his Florida retirement plans. During his brief stint as a volunteer Nebraska National Guard Colonel during the Spanish-American War (which ended before they saw any action) Bryan had trained in Florida, Kazin (2006, 87-89). Though typhoid and malaria killed a few of his regiment there, Florida had become his retirement destination, Larson (1997, 38-39): “the aging Commoner moved to Miami for his wife’s health and got in on the ground floor of the historic Florida land boom of the early twenties. Although publicly he played down his profits, the spectacular rise in land prices made Bryan into a millionaire almost overnight.” Bryan did not live into the following year 1926, though, when a devastating hurricane burst the Florida real estate bubble (which would have given an altogether different meaning to Inherit the Wind).
The outcome was a draw for both sides. Scopes was duly convicted, but as that was a needed step towards the goal of challenging the law at the federal level that wasn’t a problem—what did frustrate the ACLU was when the Tennessee high court overturned the conviction on a technicality (the judge shouldn’t have set the fine, a nominal $100), thus robbing them of the chance to take it to the Supreme Court. Sounding a lot like some of the jurists on the current Supreme Court (Justice Kennedy comes to mind concerning the Greece v. Galloway city council prayer case in 2014, to be discussed in due course), the juridical concurrence asserted that the act’s prohibition of teaching any science doctrine that denied the Biblical creation story of man was strictly neutral, and in no way furthered any religious doctrine. Kulturkampf historian David Barton (2001a, 299-303) did not find this position even a smidge contradictory.
On a cultural level, press accounts of the proceedings painted creationism in very broad strokes, not only as retrograde defenders of religious bigotry, but now as parochially southern ones. Though this was not representative of Bryan’s broadly based progressive movement initially, after Scopes the course of anti-evolution legislation shrank to a largely conservative southern rural constituency.
The relationship broadly holds true today, where the correlation between Biblical literalism and creationism is strongest in the traditional Bible Belt, Duncan & Geist (2004), and roughly half of Southerners are creationists compared to only about a third of Northerners, Shermer (2006, xviii). Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention (formed back in 1845 when northern Baptists prohibited slave owners from being ordained as ministers) is among the most creationism-friendly of American denominations, though with local variation such as the less activist North Carolina branch noted by Toumey (1992, 39-41), and a demographic map of SBC concentration in 2000 linked by Harvey (2012a) follows the boundaries of the old Confederacy quite closely. Southern and rural also predominated in an American Bible Society (2014a) survey of the most and least “Bible-minded” American cities, at least according to the frequency of Bible consultation among over forty thousand respondents and whether they believed the Bible to be true, Time (2014). This Southern locus continues as creationism becomes repackaged as the less overtly religious Intelligent Design, Bowman (2008) finding regional divides more predictive of the degree of public school antievolution teaching than either the conservative “Red” vs. liberal “Blue” state splits or the pro-evolution fervor of state science standards.