UPDATE (1:41 PM, 6/6/11): Earlier today, an editor at Christianity Today International informed me that CT would correct its error and remove the inaccurate material inspired by Inherit the Wind. This has now been done. Kudos to the folks at CT for fixing the error when it was brought to their attention. If only more media outlets were like that!
Like the Energizer Bunny, the old play/film Inherit the Wind keeps on going, wreaking havoc with people’s understanding of the history of the debate over evolution in America. The latest appearance of this hackneyed piece of propaganda is in a Bible study just unveiled by Christianity Today magazine as part of its recent cover story on debates over Adam and Eve. The ill-informed author of the Bible study unfortunately tries to use Inherit the Wind to provide historical background (!):
The 1960 film Inherit the Wind was a fictionalized portrayal of the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.” In the story, two eminent attorneys—the Christian William Jennings Bryan and the skeptic Clarence Darrow—argue over evolution and the age of the earth. Bryan held to a literalistic reading of Scripture that said the world was created only thousands, not billions, of years ago. It’s no surprise that the Christian (Bryan) came out looking like a monkey in accounts of the debate. The case, both the actual one and the virtual one as portrayed in the culture, gave Christians an undeserved black eye as anti-science bumpkins. It is a reputation that has stuck, despite our best efforts in the classroom, the lab, and the media. (emphasis added)
Completely contrary to the above description, William Jennings Bryan was not a Biblical literalist when it came to Genesis 1, and he most definitely did not believe that “the world was created only thousands, not billions, of years ago.” Consider the following excerpts from the trial transcript:
DARROW: Would you say the earth was only 4,000 years old?
BRYAN: Oh no, I think it is much older than that.
DARROW: Do you think the earth was made in six days?
BRYAN: Not six days of twenty-four hours.
DARROW: Doesn’t it say so?
BRYAN: No, sir.
DARROW: … Does the statement “The morning and the evening were the first day” and “The morning and the evening were the second day” mean anything to you?
BRYAN: I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four hour day.
DARROW: You do not?
DARROW: What do you consider it to be?
BRYAN: I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter — let me have the book. The fourth verse of the second chapter says, “Those are the generation of the heavens and of the earth, when they were erected in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” The word “day” there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is necessity for considering the words, “the evening and the morning” as meaning necessarily a twenty-four hour day in the day when the Lord made the heavens and the earth.
DARROW: Then when the Bible said, for instance, “And God called the firmament heaven, and the evening and the morning were the second day,” that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?
BRYAN: I do not think it necessarily does.
DARROW: You think these were not literal days?
BRYAN: I do not think they were 24-hour days.
DARROW: The creation might have been going on for a very long time?
BRYAN: It might have continued for millions of years.
Image via Wikipedia
I should add that Bryan was far from the stick-figure buffoon portrayed in the film. Indeed, he was pretty thoughtful and well-read about contemporary scientific debates over Darwinian theory, which is more than can be said about some of his critics of the time. A member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bryan seems to have kept up with articles in the journal Science on the matter, and during the Scopes trial he even brought a copy of Science and made effective use of an article by leading geneticist William Bateson to show just how shaky the foundations of contemporary evolutionary theory were at the time. Bateson proclaimed his unshakeable faith in evolution even while cataloguing the failed attempts to explain how evolution actually occurs. According to Bateson, all of the efforts by scientists to identify the mechanism of evolution had failed. As a result, “we have no acceptable account of the origin of ‘species'”; indeed, “that particular and essential bit of the theory of evolution which is concerned with the origin and nature of species remains utterly mysterious.” In his essays and speeches from the period, Bryan showed that he could hold his own when debating the leading evolutionary dogmatists of his day.
Image via Wikipedia
Take his public exchanges with Columbia University paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn on the subject of so-called “Nebraska Man,” a presumed human ancestor whose identity was established based largely on a single fossilized tooth. Osborn, one of America’s most eminent evolutionary scientists, championed the tooth as “irrefutable evidence that… man-apes wandered over from Asia into North America.” Bryan was much more skeptical, ridiculing Osborn’s credulousness in making such assertions based on a single tooth. Bryan turned out to be right. Three years after the Scopes trial, Obsorn’s supposed proof of man-apes in North America was revealed to be the tooth from an extinct pig. In retrospect, it is Osborn’s dogmatic claims about Nebraska Man that look utterly foolish, not Bryan’s healthy skepticism.
For all of this, Inherit the Wind remains one of the most effective examples of historical propaganda in modern history. Although skewered by scholars for its egregiously inaccurate portrayal of the Scopes trial (see here and here), Inherit the Wind keeps fueling stereotypes of the evolution debate that continue to taint current discussions. Judge Jones of the Kitzmilller v. Dover intelligent design case, for example, told a reporter before trial that he planned to watch the old film for “historical context.” In some science classrooms, meanwhile, the film is shown to students to supposedly acquaint them with the history of the evolution debate in America. And now Christianity Today inadvertently is promoting Inherit the Wind’s mythical version of history.
Fortunately, there is a new feature film on the horizon titled Alleged that seeks to provide a more accurate portrayal of the Scopes trial and its surrounding cultural context, including the eugenics movement.
Currently being screened at film festivals, Alleged stars Fred Thompson as William Jennings Bryan and Brian Dennehy as Clarence Darrow. I hope that Alleged eventually gets a wide release. It’s certainly needed.
Inherit the Wind’s mythical treatment of the Scopes trial gets a boost from Christianity Today, while the new feature film Alleged tries to set the record straight.