July 28, 2005

"The much beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial."

Orin Kerr has a nice description, based on this book, of what really happened at the Scopes trial -- and the activities leading up to the trial and the appeal that followed it. The legal technicalities of the case, which Kerr focuses on, are rather different from the mythical version of the case you probably have in your mind.

My post title is from a Scalia dissent from a cert. denial, in a case called Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education v. Freiler, where the court below found an Establishment Clause violation in a school board resolution that required teachers to preface their teaching of evolution with this statement:
“It is hereby recognized by the Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, that the lesson to be presented, regarding the origin of life and matter, is known as the Scientific Theory of Evolution and should be presented to inform students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept.

“It is further recognized by the Board of Education that it is the basic right and privilege of each student to form his/her own opinion or maintain beliefs taught by parents on this very important matter of the origin of life and matter. Students are urged to exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion.”

Scalia ended his dissent this way:
In Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968), we invalidated a statute that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools; in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987), we invalidated a statute that required the teaching of creationism whenever evolution was also taught; today we permit a Court of Appeals to push the much beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial one step further. We stand by in silence while a deeply divided Fifth Circuit bars a school district from even suggesting to students that other theories besides evolution–including, but not limited to, the Biblical theory of creation–are worthy of their consideration.
Perhaps more interesting than the story of what really happened at the Scopes trial is the story of how the legend of the trial became embedded in American culture and affected what happened in later cases and how many of us have thought about the Establishment Clause. The picture of a noble science teacher persecuted by a bunch of rubes is a vivid one that we respond to strongly -- and our picture is the one from that movie, isn't it?

You know, there's even a legend about "Inherit the Wind" -- that it's an excellent movie. I tried watching it recently and couldn't force myself through the thing. Look how it has an 8.0 rating on IMDB. I find it hard to believe that score was produced by people with a real memory of watching the movie as opposed to an imprint of its reputation on their minds.

The myth of the Scopes trial is animated by a love of science, of basing knowledge on a study of evidence and sound inference. Ironically.

UPDATE: Edited to indicate that the book itself follows the subsequent effect of the case.


Ron said...

What specifically didn't you like about Inherit the Wind? The acting? The portrayal of religion? The way the trial is shown?

Just curious.

Ann Althouse said...

I couldn't watch the whole thing, but what I saw I found creakily old-fashioned. It was just too slow and dumb and stagy to put up with. And I bought the DVD and wanted to think I hadn't thrown my moeny away. Spencer Tracey is a terrific actor but the direction is too aware of that. It's annoying.

Ron said...

I agree. As much as I like certain older films, there is a a staginess that destroys a lot of good actors...

Part of it may be its "myth telling."

grumpyTA said...

I read selections from "Summer..." in a course last year and absolutely loved it. The section on popular representations of Scopes (and Inherit...) is in the last chapter and can, in my opinion, be read on its own.

Ann: would you ever teach a text like this in a course on religion and politics? Or could you suggest it as a supplemental reading?

Ann Althouse said...

GrumpyTA: I do teach a course on Religion and the Constitution, but I have a hard time paring down just to the cases to cover, but I might put something like this into the course sometime or just introduce the material myself. I'm very interested in the way case law gets changed as it moves into the general culture, the distorted ideas people have about law and the ways in which those ideas can be more important than law.

grumpyTA said...

Ann: Your blog makes me want to quit my PhD program...and apply to law school! :)

lindsey said...

I think over on Volokh's site there are more blog entries describing the content of the book in question in this case and its version of evolution was a racist eugenics tract. A new movie about what actually happened in this case would be excellent and possibly diminish some stereotypes.

Scipio said...

I liked the modern remake of Inherit the Wind, with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.

Elizabeth said...


You might keep an eye out for more such cases coming from Tangipahoa. That school board and Louisiana's ACLU branch are continually at odds. The latest incident involves Southeastern Louisiana State student doing her student teaching in a Tangi elementary school. She had continual disagreements with the classroom teacher over praying, Bible study, and proselytizing in the classroom, and dropped from the program and given an F. When she complained the College of Education at SLU, one official tried to lay hands on her and prayed for divine intervention.

Louisiana has the worst schools in the nation, one of the worst economies, is losing coastline daily, just got slammed with the passage of CAFTA, has its former governor in a federal prison, but our legislators, attorney general, and other officials never seem to accomplish much about improving the quality of life, work, and health. Instead they keep fighting pre-Enlightenment battles. That's my general public view, and I guess I understand the desire to mythologize the Scopes trial as a way of hanging on to the belief that reason really does triumph over superstition.

Bruce Hayden said...

LA will change. It will come into the modern world. It is inevitable. It is getting harder and harder to hide from the modern world, and that, includes, our much stricter norms on political corruption, etc.