Scopes II and Scopes I

Today an interesting editorial was published: Michelle M. Simmons, “Why opposing evolution resonates with some,” The Patriot-News, March 30, 2005. It is not the full history of antievolution – Herbert Spencer, the Seventh Day Adventists, and World War I are also important – but worth reading if you haven’t thought about the history before (see Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, for much more).

The backlash against the theory of evolution (and the teaching of it) resonated not only with religious fundamentalists, but also with political and economic populists. Faced with the near impossibility of changing economic and political power structures, many turned their attention to the alleged evils of a secular society.

The political career of William Jennings Bryan is a case in point. Bryan’s early days cemented him as a fiery progressive and anti-imperialist in Congress, his famous “Cross of Gold” speech ensured his populist credentials in 1894, and he served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. By the 1920s, however, he was obsessed with Prohibition and creationism. His performance at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1924 may have won his case, but it left him exhausted and humiliated. He died five days later.

Throughout the world, religious fundamentalism tends to breed among the economically and politically dispossessed, and the United States is no exception. And as with the many eruptions of book bannings in libraries and schools, creationism, or “Intelligent Design” as its proponents prefer to call it today, has found a home among the middle and working classes precisely because of the tensions created by our economic dependence on a 21st-century version of social Darwinism. MOST OF US have little-to-no control over globalization, the outsourcing of jobs, the skyrocketing of health-care costs, and on and on. So instead we scapegoat “atheists” and “secular humanists” (along with all those “others”– feminists, gays and lesbians, and immigrants); only this time around, the movement is being funded by arch-conservative think tanks and organizations with exceptionally deep pockets.

As we follow in the months ahead what is being called the Scopes II trial out of the Dover Area School District, it will be worth our while to consider why we’re at it again, what other parallels we might draw between the Gilded Age and today, and whose interests are really being served here.

Michelle M. Simmons, “Why opposing evolution resonates with some,” The Patriot-News, March 30, 2005.

The comparison between antievolutionists then and antievolutionists now would be worth exploring in much more detail. How did a populist antievolutionism tradition motivated by discontent with economic conservatism evolve into a populist antievolutionism tradition in league with economic conservatism? How did we get from William Jennings Bryan to Senator Rick Santorum?