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John Scopes, (Nearly) 100 Years On

Reading the new book Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan, we were reminded that the Scopes trial is nearly a century behind us.


Egan’s book is about the powerful political influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Midwest, especially in Indiana, in the early 20th Century. Fever in the Heartland only briefly mentions the 1925 Scopes trial. But the book puts the trial in a broader context, specifically the dark campaign by the “invisible empire” to assert that America was founded for white northern Europeans only. One of the planks of that brutal and abhorrent campaign was an attempt to ban the teaching of evolution and Darwinism.


In March of 1925, the Tennessee legislature made it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. High school science teacher John Scopes was put on trial. The biology textbook he assigned to his students included evolution. Scopes wasn’t sure he had actually taught evolution. But he willingly incriminated himself because the ACLU needed a defendant. Scopes was fined $100 following the highly-watched trial. The fine was reversed by a higher court—two long years later—on a technicality.


But the debate continues to this day, despite 100 more years of scientific work that continues to uphold Charles Darwin’s work.


In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down an Arkansas law that made it a crime to teach evolution in public schools. The court found that the law advanced religious beliefs. As a result, the Arkansas law contradicted the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


But legislators are still trying to chip away. In 2012, as Education Week reported, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law that would allow teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” In Mississippi, a 2006 law gave teachers the right to discuss and answer student questions on “origin of life.”


This year in Texas, a bill that mandates teaching a “positive” version of U.S. history and bans works that “condone civil disorder” also includes language long used by advocates on the religious right to prevent the teaching of evolution as scientific fact.


In Oklahoma, a lawmaker who introduced a bill requiring that teachers be allowed to support students in critiquing “existing scientific theories” told reporters that the proposal would ensure students “learn factual information rather than modern wokeness.”


Teaching any form of creationism in public schools is unconstitutional. Doing so undermines science. If you get on an airplane, you believe in science. (Well, we think it’s advisable given that you’ll be flying through the air at 35,000 feet.) An air conditioner is science. So is a crockpot. So is the engine in your car.


Scientists used the same process in looking at the arrival of human beings on the planet. And the kinds of scientists who study evolution includes a wide variety of specialties including embryology, genetics, neurobiology, and paleontology. The process of science doesn’t change from aerodynamics to anatomy, from chemistry to physics.


The attack on evolution is baseless. And it can be costly, even if those battles come in disguise. The Dover School District in Pennsylvania tried to promote “intelligent design.” The school district claimed the concept of “intelligent design” was not a religious belief and therefore could be taught as a scientific “alternative.”


But a judge declared that “intelligent design” was simply “creationism re-labeled” and not science because the concept “fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations.” (Taxpayers footed the $2 million legal fees to pursue that lawsuit, according to the ACLU).


That Pennsylvania case is subject of a recent column posted on Time Scavengers. (Motto: Scavenging the fossil record for clues to the earth’s climate and life.”) The piece was written by Faith Frings, Ohav Harris, and Kaleb Smallwood. It makes a strong case for coexistence between religion and evolutionists.


“Rather than a denial of science in favor of religion, this trial showed not only that evolution is valid, but also that it can be accepted while holding religious beliefs,” the authors wrote. “Many opponents to the teaching of evolution, due to religious beliefs, came to understand the evidence for evolution over the course of the trial and came to accept it without sacrificing their religious values.”


The piece goes on to assert that “through proper teaching, evolution can transition from the controversial topic it is sometimes seen as into being well-accepted as the scientific theory that it is by the public, similar to the theory of gravity or cell theory.”


To date, we know of no proposed laws banning the teaching of gravity. Or cell theory. The same “essential ground rules” went into the development of those scientific understandings but haven’t drawn attacks like those on teaching evolution.


Science is.


Science does.


To put it simply, “Can’t we all get along?”

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