Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Battlefields of the Mind: Looking at the Culture War from Afar
Part Two: Monkey Gone to Heaven

One of the first modern skirmishes in the Culture War was the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The early 1920s found social patterns in chaos. Traditionalists, the older Victorians, worried that everything valuable was ending. Younger modernists no longer asked whether society would approve of their behavior, only whether their behavior met the approval of their intellect. Intellectual experimentation flourished. Americans danced to the sound of the Jazz Age, showed their contempt for alcoholic prohibition, debated abstract art and Freudian theories. In a response to the new social patterns set in motion by modernism, a wave of revivalism developed, becoming especially strong in the American South.

~Douglas Linder , from An introduction to Tennessee Vs. John Scopes

This will be a reoccurring motif in the Culture Wars, all the way up to the present: the reaction to cultural advancement by "Traditionalists" who fear that their comfortable assumptions are being subverted by Infophiles bent on shimmying their way down the slippery slope to Hell. The Traditionalists (which I refer to as Infophobes) do not see the benefit of lessoning human suffering through the application of our wits and intellect as a good thing. Despite the fact that it has been, at every turn, the Infophiles that have stood for the betterment of society as a whole, by championing advances in science, medicine and social philosophy that improve the lot of humankind, the Infophobes have tried to halt progress out of an irrational fear of the new.

Who would dominate American culture--the modernists or the traditionalists? Journalists were looking for a showdown, and they found one in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom in the summer of 1925. There a jury was to decide the fate of John Scopes , a high school biology teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. The guilt or innocence of John Scopes, and even the constitutionality of Tennessee's anti-evolution statute , mattered little. The meaning of the trial emerged through its interpretation as a conflict of social and intellectual values.

William Jennings Bryan , three-time Democratic candidate for President and a populist, led a Fundamentalist crusade to banish Darwin 's theory of evolution from American classrooms. Bryan's motivation for mounting the crusade is unclear. It is possible that Bryan, who cared deeply about equality, worried that Darwin's theories were being used by supporters of a growing eugenics movement that was advocating sterilization of "inferior stock." More likely, the Great Commoner came to his cause both out a concern that the teaching of evolution would undermine traditional values he had long supported and because he had a compelling desire to remain in the public spotlight--a spotlight he had occupied since his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention. Bryan, in the words of columnist H. L. Mencken , who covered the Scopes Trial, transformed himself into a "sort of Fundamentalist Pope." By 1925, Bryan and his followers had succeeded in getting legislation introduced in fifteen states to ban the teaching of evolution. In February, Tennessee enacted a bill introduced by John Butler making it unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals."


We can speculate about Bryan's motivations all we like but we will never really know what motivated him to take up such a cause with his famous vehemence and elocution. Perhaps Bryan really was simply concerned about the Eugenicists. Given the role such proponents of racial purity would play only a decade later, it is a laudable notion that he was simply a crusader against pseudo-science and intolerance. But that spins the facts at hand in a very wide circle. One does not defend reason and good sense by beating it to death with a Bible. Though this is often the claim of Traditionalists who join such related battles as the Right to Life Movement and the Anti-stem Cell movement. they may want to defend the sanctity of the human spirit but they almost always do so at the cost of human life.

Perhaps it's a little hyperbolic of me to suggest that the Scopes trial was a life and death struggle for the human mind. Perhaps. But the Human Mind is where we're fighting the Culture War. And while the Monkey Trial ended 79 years ago, it does not mean that the fight against evolutionary theory has ended. if anything, the Infophobes wroth mightily at their defeat in Tennessee and have been redoubling their efforts to suppress the teaching of Evolutionary theory ever since.

As recently as January of this year, the state of Georgia considered banning the word 'Evolution' from its biology curriculum. An Orwellean gesture if there ever was one. How would banning a word stifle the idea behind it?* Obviously, it doesn't and luckily, in this case at least, level heads prevaled. The "buzzword" evolution remains, to vex the Creationists with all its magical might.

But of course, their are no more Creationists anymore. No. Creationism went out with the Reagan Administration. Even Traditionalists can evolve, apparently (just don't tell them that). Creationism now has donned a lab coat and walks about thumping it's copy of On the Origin of Species (the one with the suspiciously well worn leather cover) and talking all about Intelligent Design (ID). Which is merely more magic words conjured up by linguistic shamans to give their favorite Zombie notions the stench of Academia, and thus credibility (Night of the Living Creationist doesn't have the same ring to it as Intelligent Design).

In short, ID proposes the same thing as current evolutionary theory, only with the added benefit (or the superfluous, third nipple as it were) of there being a Designer behind the whole scheme. This Designer is of course never named outright (and which name would you use? Doesn't He have nine thousand names? Hard to cite Him as a source when the bibliography runs longer than the paper). Of course, what the ID proponents fail to realize is that even a cursory examination of actual Evolutionary theory renders the idea of a designer irrelevant, based on Ockhams Law. But then they wouldn't be Creationists if they respected scientific method, now would they?

"Well," say the Creation Scientists, "Evolution is Only a theory! Shouldn't we open the floor to other theories as well?" I'll let Stephen Jay Gould field the response to this rather self serving statement:

"Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered."

ó " Evolution as Fact and Theory ," Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History , New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, p. 254.

Lucky for us Infophiles, we have such supremely intelligent and bold generals as Dr. Gould to help us in the ongoing Culture War. And though Dr. Gould has left us bodily, there remains a wealth of knowledge and guiding light in his work, to serve as ample ammunition:

"'Creation science' has not entered the curriculum for a reason so simple and so basic that we often forget to mention it: because it is false, and because good teachers understand exactly why it is false. What could be more destructive of that most fragile yet most precious commodity in our entire intellectual heritage ó good teaching ó than a bill forcing honorable teachers to sully their sacred trust by granting equal treatment to a doctrine not only known to be false, but calculated to undermine any general understanding of science as an enterprise?"

ó "Verdict on Creationism," The Skeptical Inquirer , 1988, 12 (2): 186.

In Part three, we'll look at the two opposing base camps in the Culture War, the Secularists and the Theocrats.

*Animistically, speaking, the word itself is the thing itself. So, banning the magic word "evolution," makes the whole concept go poof! And all those black magicians in white lab coats subsequently scuttle off to their dank laboratories to wring their hands and mutter. At least in the mind of the sorts of folk who think Jesus spoke with a King James accent and think that Semiotics is a four letter word.

Read Part One


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