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Voting on the Laws of Science

Edward J. Larson

      . . . is a lawyer and historian. With a law degree from Harvard and a doctorate in the history of science from the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Larson holds a joint appointment in history and law at the University of Georgia. His book Summer for the Gods, about the Scopes "Monkey Trial," won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. For his work on this book, Dr. Larson was awarded a fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study Center. He lives in Stanwood, WA, and Athens, GA.


"Science versus religion," "minority rights versus majority rule" -- tomorrow's headlines? Not when you add "Scopes Monkey Trial." The outcome is as important today as it was in 1925.

Edward J. Larson won a Pulitzer Prize for Summer for the Gods, his book about the Scopes Trial. Larson, a respected historian and lawyer, declares the Scopes Trial key to the revolution away from the dominance of majority rule and toward protecting individual rights. But, he says, very little has changed around the narrow issue of the trial itself -- teaching evolution in public schools.

Forget "Inherit the Wind." Good theater, maybe. Bad history, certainly. Nobody won. In fact, Larson characterizes the effects of this sensational trial as a classic example of the Anglo-American adversarial legal system. Both sides had their say: Bryan spoke for majority rule and against teaching evolution (which he construed as "Social Darwinism"); Darrow spoke for minority rights and defended the academic freedom of teachers to decide what to teach, including evolution. But nothing was resolved.  In fact, the trial further entrenched both sides.

In addition to being a huge national media event -- filmed for the first time, printed verbatim by hundreds of newspapers across the nation, critiqued, analyzed and discussed in every conceivable forum -- it was a contest between titans. Clarence Darrow versus William Jennings Bryan. And everything about the trial was ripe with contractions.

William Jennings Bryan -- a classic 19th century progressive, liberal, Bible-believing Christian, pacifist, passionate champion of the common man and of majority rights -- was the greatest orator of the age. His politically conservative co-religionists, for whom he was spokesman, supported none of Bryan's political agenda, interested only in keeping evolution from being taught in public schools.

Clarence Darrow was the greatest criminal lawyer of the time, but loathed by many. Those who lined up behind Darrow had been on the other side of the "free speech" argument. As long as the First Amendment rights of out-of-favor groups (workers, labor organizers, individuals sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution) were being violated, the establishment stood staunchly behind majority rule. But scientists and the intellectual establishment accepted evolution. When Tennessee passed a law declaring public schoolteachers could not teach evolution (because the majority did not accept it), the will of the majority was suddenly the treat of a "mobocracy." And the long march toward protecting individual freedoms had begun.

The issues Darrow and Bryan debated in the summer of 1925 still hold a great deal of heat. The balance between individual and majority rights is always at issue in all democracies. And with the global swelling of religious fundamentalism in today's world, there is renewed religious resistance to teaching evolution. But Professor Larson believes most people chose not to espouse either of the entrenched positions reinforced in Dayton. Most people, he's convinced, believe in both God and evolution. And they're grateful their right to express those beliefs is protected.

[This Program was recorded March 23, 1999 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Dr. Edward Larson, Esq. tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how he came to write Summer for the Gods. He explains why the Scopes "Monkey Trial" was the real Trial of the Century, pitting Clarence Darrow -- the most famous criminal lawyer of the day -- against William Jennings Bryan -- the most famous orator of the day -- in a debate over ideas still contested today, worldwide.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:21

Conversation 2

Dr. Larson characterizes the two issues of the Scopes Trial: science versus religion and individual freedom versus majoritarian democracy. He and Bill Russell explore how there's been a revolution in the latter but little changed in the former. Larson describes how profoundly the media exploited the event and draws implications for today. He summarizes the arguments for the importance of individual liberty (the ACLU/Darrow perspective) versus Bryan's more traditional contention that in a democracy, the majority rules absolutely. Larson describes The Roaring Twenties, the context in which these ideas clashed, drawing comparisons to our own time.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:59 sec

Conversation 3

More of the “tremendous” parallels between the 1920s and today are examined. Dr. Larson reconstructs the astonishing, seemingly contradictory, career of William Jennings Bryan, explaining Bryan’s role in America as a bridge figure -- a proponent of majoritarian democracy; rooted in the 1800s with a life-long commitment to social and political liberalism based in traditional views of Christianity (the religion of love with a requirement to care for the community's most needy); ending in the 1920s, associated with political and religious conservatives with whom Bryan shared his opposition to the teaching of evolution. Dr. Larson describes how interpretations of the Constitution were taking shape in the context of academic freedom and labor organizing, explaining how Bryan and Darrow differed.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:10

Conversation 4

Dr. Larson describes the world following World War One, when the rights of individuals were severely circumscribed in the interest of the majority. He reconstructs the case Clarence Darrow made on behalf of the ACLU. Dr. Larson explains how the Scopes Trial was a key transitional event in America, instrumental to a revolution which extended Bill of Rights protections (especially the First Amendment) in defense of individual liberties. He shows how out-of-favor groups suffered and change came only when the freedoms of establishment groups were limited. Larson brings the minority rights/majority rule issues into the present day, worldwide. He uses examples to describe how fundamentally both Constitutional interpretation and the importance of free speech have changed in the past 50 years

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:49

Conversation 5

The “great lessons” of the Scopes Trial have changed over time, Dr. Larson discovered, and he shows how different they looked in the 1950s from the 1920s to today. He reminds us that the narrow topic of the trial -- teaching evolution in schools -- has come back to life, around the world. Dr. Larson explains why the Scopes trial is a classic example of how the Anglo-American legal system works and how it ended in a philosophical draw which entrenched and further polarized people on both sides of the question of evolution.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:00

Conversation 6

Dr. Larson describes the deep concerns of people in the scientific community who view understanding evolution as profoundly important and worry that a lack of understanding is crippling. Dr. Larson expresses concerned that the media's divisive insistence on oversimplifying is costly to us all and personified in the play and movie, “Inherit the Wind” -- which Larson says was just wrong. Dr. Larson expresses his confidence that today's media-enhanced conflicts between creationists and evolutionists are exaggerated, that in fact, most thinking people in the world actually believe in God AND evolution. He offers examples and urges us to get back to the nuances that are life, resist the media's and show business' simplicities, stereotypes and one-dimensional caricatures.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:11


As always, The Commerce Club was a wonderful place in which to explore new ideas with interesting people. We appreciate their ability to sustain impeccable hospitality and a warm welcome.

Related Links:
Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, a 1998 a Pulitzer Prize winner, is published by BasicBooks, A Subsidiary of Perseus Books, L.L.C.

A later program produced with Dr. Larson focusing on his book Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory is available here.

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