Science Series: “Inherit the Wind”

The supposed conflict between science and religion that proliferates culture today possibly originated with the depiction of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in the movie Inherit the Wind (1960).  Thinking back to your high school American history class, one event that is usually taught is the infamous Scopes Trial in which John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in a Dayton, Tennessee classroom.  While this event is worthy of study for political reasons as well as educational policy, my focus in this post is the propaganda that the movie heaved upon the cultural understanding of the relationship between science and religion.

Clarence Darrow

A young teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in a state-funded school that allegedly violated the Butler Act of 1925 in Tennessee which prohibited the teaching of evolution.  Defended by the well-known trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, Scopes was prosecuted by the three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.  The atmosphere in Dayton, TN that hot summer of 1925 was electric like a sideshow carnival.  Hundreds of reporters descended upon the town, including H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Evening Sun.  Articles for newspapers and magazines produced countless articles and cartoons on the trial.  Stories were wired by telegraph as far as Europe and Australia. This was the first American trial that was broadcast by radio, while thousands of people crowded the festival-like town of Dayton.  Scopes was found guilty and was fined a $100.

William Jennings Bryan

While the Scopes Trial in its own right was newsworthy, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee created it for Broadway in 1955 as Inherit the Wind.  It was later produced as a theatrical film in 1960 (directed by Stanley Kramer with Oscar-winning performers Spencer Tracy and Fredric Marchand along with Gene Kelly) and subsequently in 1965, 1988, and 1999 for television.  Kevin Spacy and David Troughton starred in a 2009 revival at The Old Vic in London.

Krameraward
Stanley Kramer (dir.) receiving an award, 1960 Berlin Film Festival, Inherit the Wind

The 1960 film has by far been the most influential iteration of the Scopes Trial and unfortunately so. A much more faithful depiction of the trial is Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning history book Summer for the Gods.

summerofthegods

Randall Balmer of Dartmouth writing a review of Summer for the Gods states that:

Although Bryan has generally been regarded as the loser in Dayton, a hopeless throwback to the fundamentalist, antediluvian past, not all contemporaries saw it that way. “At the time,” Larson says, “in sharp contrast with later legends about the Scopes trial, no one saw the episode as a decisive triumph for the defense” (206). Only later, beginning with the 1931 publication of Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, did the Scopes trial begin to succumb to caricature, a caricature that was shamelessly perpetuated by Richard Hofstader in The American Political Tradition (1948) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). The main culprit, however, was the play Inherit the Wind, which appeared in 1960 and which, as Larson demonstrates, was intended not so much as a representation of the trial

Balmer correctly pinpoints that Inherit the Wind was the “main culprit” for depicting the trial as an exaggeration to create a comic or grotesque effect.  Why should we be concerned with a film instead of history?  Well, because of the influence movies have on culture.  For example, there are numerous lesson plans (here, here, here, and here) for high school students on the movie.   Just do a simple Google search to see the plethora of lesson plans available for teachers of history, English, science, and humanities that utilize Inherit the Wind.  Thousands if not tens of thousands of students are exposed to the Scopes Trial via the movie every year.

The problem is that the movie promotes the propaganda of the conflict thesis between science and religion that I have written on before (see here and here). Carol Iannone describes it aptly: “While Inherit the Wind remains faithful to the broad outlines of the historical events it portrays, it flagrantly distorts the details, and neither the fictionalized names nor the cover of artistic license can excuse what amounts to an ideologically motivated hoax.”

History of the Film:

Inherit the Wind film was a originally a theatrical play in 1955 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee.  It was later produced into the well known film staring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.  The movie was remade in 1999 starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott (it has several other television remakes as mentioned before).  The play, and later the movies, change the names of the actual people.  Here is a breakdown to help with watching the movie.

Movie Name:                           Actual Name:
Bertrum T. Cates                     John T. Scopes
Matthew Harrison Brady        William Jennings Bryan
Henry Drummond                   Clarence Darrow
E. K. Hornbeck                         H. L. Mencken
Heavenly Hillsboro                  Dayton, Tennessee

Continue reading “Science Series: “Inherit the Wind””

Science Series: The Myth that Galileo Goes to Jail

Everyone knows the story of how Galileo was persecuted by the church: after inventing the telescope, Galileo turns the lenses to the stars and proves that the earth revolves around the sun and not the sun around the earth. This greatly upset the Christian church and he found himself arrested, thrown in prison, tortured, excommunicated, and finally killed by the Catholic Inquisition. As Italo Mereu … Continue reading Science Series: The Myth that Galileo Goes to Jail

Science Series: The Myth that the Church Hindered the Development of Science

Anytime science and religion are brought up one can hear the proverbial announcer shout, “LETS GET READY TO RUMBLE!” That science and religion are in conflict is commonly believed today.  Check out these quotes about the warfare between science and religion: “The conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious … Continue reading Science Series: The Myth that the Church Hindered the Development of Science

Science Series: Warfare Myth-Science vs. Religion

Over at The Stream Dr. Sean McDowell has continued the discussion about the warfare between science and religion (which is a myth as I have discussed here).  He starts by stating, “the belief that Christianity is opposed to modern science is one of the top reasons young people cite for leaving the church.”  Tracing the myth back to Andrew Dickson White’s book A History of the Warfare … Continue reading Science Series: Warfare Myth-Science vs. Religion

Science Series: The Dawkins Delusion Continues

Richard Dawkins misrepresents science according to a recent study. Andrew Griffin of the Independent explains that “Most British scientists in a new study dislike Richard Dawkins, with some arguing that he misrepresents science and is misleading the public.”  One nonreligious professor of biology referred to him as a “fundamental atheist.” Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous atheist today.  His book The God Delusion (2006) has sold over 3 … Continue reading Science Series: The Dawkins Delusion Continues

Science Series: Oxford Professor-Atheism in Decline, Will be Defeated by Faith

Christianity Today article reports on Alister McGrath’s lecture at Baylor University.  McGrath holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford.  A prolific author who holds three doctoral degrees in both science, theology, and intellectual history all from Oxford University, McGrath has explored and explained the relationship between science and religion (and has … Continue reading Science Series: Oxford Professor-Atheism in Decline, Will be Defeated by Faith