Monday, November 2, 2009

Monkeys are the Root of All Evil.

Read in the paper that Inherit the Wind is now playing at the Drury Theater downtown. I seriously thought about going. According to the article, tickets are starting at $45, so I put on my ski mask and headed to the nearest bank...Just kidding! Just kidding! I've never even stole a towel from a hotel room. I have thought about stealing the soap, but it's usually so small I don't think I'd get much use out of it other than washing what separates me from the beasts, my thumbs. $45! Maybe I could afford if I fast for a week. That way I'll be nice and hungry for Thanksgiving. No. I've already seen Inherit the Wind . The same way I've seen all the great plays of the 20th century--as a movie on TV. Made in 1960, it starred Spencer Tracy as a character based on Clarence Darrow, Fredric March as a character based on William Jennings Bryan, Gene Kelly as a character based on H.L. Mencken, and Dick York as a character based on John T. Scopes, who was arrested in 1920s Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution (in York's next big role he was married to a witch. Any fundamentalist Christians reading this are now nodding their heads and saying, "Yep, that sounds about right.)

To summarize the play, and the real life event on which it was based, lawyer Darrow defended Scopes, while starch evolution opponent Bryan served as district attorney. The judge was biased against Darrow, and kept out a lot of scientific evidence that might have exonerated both John Scopes and Charles Darwin (I'm not sure what to make of it, but on Bewitched, Endora sometimes called Darren Darwin.) Frustrated, Darwin, I mean Darrin, I mean Darrow, called Bryan himself to the stand, and asked him questions about the Bible, and how it squared with reality. Now it was Bryan's turn to be frustrated as he tried to square dance around various facts Darrow threw at him. For instance, he asked Byran where did Cain's wife come from, as Adam and Eve were the only ones giving birth to kids at the time. Christian smart ass that he was, Bryan replied, "I leave it up to you agnostics to go looking for her." And if Joshua, as the Bible claims, actually cause the Sun to stand still for a day, why weren't all the people flung off the planet into space when the Earth suddenly stopped moving on its' axis? Bryan's answer was that he didn't think the question was "expert testimony". Darrow asked how the sun could be created on the fourth day. Bryan replied that days were a lot longer back in the day, like thousands of years longer. After two hours of this, the judge adjourned for the (24-hour) day. The next morning the jury found Scopes guilty. It was a hollow victory for Bryan, as he had just made a fool of himself on the stand. He tried to get back at Darrow by distributing to the press a series of questions for him to answer, such as "Is there a God?" and "Is the soul immortal?" Smart ass agnostic that he was, Darrow answered, "I don't know." Bryan died soon after (though not on the day of the verdict, as depicted in the play.)

I'm sure by know some of you are saying, "Gosh! Even though it happened back in the 1920s, it's relevant today. People are still arguing about it." Well, yes, it it still relevant, and people still do argue about it. Usually, it's fundamentalist Christians (like Bryan) on one side, and atheists or agnostics (like Darrow) on the other. It's also usually part of that larger argument, the one between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. Here's where things start getting irrelevant:

Both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were liberal Democrats. Bryan, in fact, was a three-time Democratic nominee for President (and three-time loser.) H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun, was the closest thing to a conservative, and he hated fundamentalist Christianity. Almost as much as he would later hate the New Deal.

Speaking of that New Deal, in a 1934 speech dedicating a memorial to Bryan, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised him for his "lifelong fight against sham and privilege and wrong." FDR also said WJB "fought the good fight." In 1962, Harry S. Truman said, "If it wasn't for ol' Bill Bryan, we wouldn't have any liberalism in the country right now. Bryant kept liberalism alive. He kept it going."

If Bryan was so liberal, then, what was his beef with The Origin of Species?

Actually, as a young man in the 19th century, he kept an open mind about the then-newfangled theory. What closed that mind was the phrase "survival of the fittest", coined not by Darwin but by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, best known as the chief proponent of "Social Darwinism", though that phrase was coined by someone else (I've heard of passing the buck, but coins?) Spencer and others were against any type of government action that might make life better for the poor and dispossessed. They were bound for extinction anyway. Just like dinosaurs. Byran, the lifelong champion of the poor and dispossessed, naturally protested. Plus, dinosaurs weren't even mentioned in the Bible. He came to loathe evolution even more than the gold standard.

And Clarence Darrow? As someone who spent his life fighting for the underdog, you'd think he'd be against evolution. Had he had the opportunity to defend a poor person against imminent extinction, I'm sure he would have. But it never happened. Besides, in spite of all the scientific discoveries going on, it was still a very religious age, and he came to see atheists and agnostics (such as himself) as the true underdogs. So he embraced Darwinism, though not socially.

Bryan's fears turned out to be unfounded. Class-based extinction, at least in the US, never became official public policy. Something else happened instead. As the country's manufacturing base frittered away, and the middle-class along with it, more and more disenfranchised people, in Barack Obama's memorable words, began to cling to "guns and religion and developed an antipathy towards government." They also began voting for Adam-and-Eve-believing politicians, who then enacted policies that frittered away the middle-class even more, almost to the point of extinction, just like the dinosaurs, the ones not mentioned in the Bible.

Funny how it's all evolved, huh?


  1. Sheesh.

    We've stepped backward as a civilization.

    Now, where's my pet T-Rex? Need to saddle him up to ride to fundie church...


  2. Man, Hill, that was fast! I think you just broke the world-record for leaving a comment on this blog. I just posted it now.

    But I'm glad you dropped by. I want to ask you a few things. First, I stopped by your blog earlier today, and couldn't read the comments. The title and sidebar was there, but the comment section was covered with stripes.

    The second thing is, one of my readers would like to suscribe to your blog. If you scroll down to "Following Update", he's the very first person in the comment section.

    Now, I'm going to try your blog one more time...

  3. I'm with Hill ~ we're losing ground and it is disgusting. When I was a girl and we road dinosaurs to school it seemed progress could be seen and there was hope. I'm less hopeful all these years later.

  4. Nice work Kirk. There's a lot of stuff to mull over here. For example while not official US policy, Social Darwinism led to eugenics programs in several states with enforced sterilization of Down's syndrome children. Andrew Carnegie and other Robber Barons used "survival of the fittest" to justify their excesses of he late 19th and early 20th century. And of course there is Nazi Germany who did use Social Darwinism as a reason to attempt genocide among the Jewish and Slovak populations in Germany

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  6. Just for the record, and in case there's any doubt, had I been alive in 1925, I would have been rooting for Darrow. Still, I think Bryan's heart, and his social conscience, were in the right place. I certainly don't think he cynically pretended to believe in Adam and Eve just to get votes.

    @ Hill and Limes--civilization is relative. As is progress. The only constant is bullshit.

    @ Tag. Well, yeah, if you put it like that, maybe Bryan's fears were founded. But I wouldn't blame the Holocaust on Darwin, who's only motivation may have been that he just couldn't bring himself to believe in a talking snake.

    I had a comment before this one that I trashed. In case it made into your email anyway, here's the footnote I promised. Bryan didn't like the the 19th century German philosopher Fredrich Nietzche any more than he like Darwin. Darrow may have agreed with him. When he defended Leopold and Loeb for their "thrill" killing of 14-year old Bobby Franks, he claimed they'd both gone insane by reading too much Nietzche. It worked! They got life intead of the electric chair. I have no idea if Bryan approved or not.

  7. These things I mentioned reflect more on Herbert Spencer and other Social Darwinists than they do on Darwin.

  8. I understand that, Tag, and your points are well taken. Had Bryan just gone after Spencer, he wouldn't be the Christian wingnut so many people see him as these days. In fact, he might have been seen as being ahead of his time. Spencer and the rest of the Social Darwinists have long been discredited. The bioligist these days don't even like using the phrase "survival of the fittest" But I guess Bryan considered Darwin the root of this particular evil, hence the title of my post.

    I just find it ironic that anti-evolutionism has been co-opted by the Right.

    By the way, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln both share a birthday: Feb, 12, 1809. This past year's been both men's bicentennial.

  9. Oh, one last thing. I have no desire to see the Left reclaim anti-evolutionism as it's own.

  10. Nicely done. I'm in Texas where the good God fearing people and--or I should say--including the state school board hate the "theory" of evolution. sigh.

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  12. God seems to have left Darwin alone, so I don't know what Texans or the school board have to fear.

    Welcome to the blog, Dreamfarm Girl