The evolution of Inherit the Wind
The classic play has something to teach us about the intersection between science and religion at three crucial points in American history
Inherit the Wind
is a play that belongs to three decades. Its story was inspired by the Scopes "Monkey" Trial
of 1920s, it was a hit on Broadway in 1950s, and it remains pertinent to the battle between evolution and intelligent design that found its way to a Pennsylvania courthouse only last year.
In 1925, the notion of urban centers was still new, and such cities became hubs of industrial and scientific progress. The Twenties "roared" with engines and energy: television was invented, insulin was discovered, and penicillin would soon revolutionize the treatment of infections. But for people who lived in small towns, big cities represented big egos and big problems. Illegal drinking and loose morals were seen as two potential pitfalls of urban living, and served as fodder for religious movements.
The Scopes Trial took place right in the crux of this divide: it pitted the lawyer, orator, and statesman William Jennings Bryan
against Clarence Darrow
, a formidable attorney from Chicago with a reputation for exonerating the most suspicious defendants.
Throughout the 19th century, nearly every school in the U.S. embraced the teaching of creationism. As the theory of evolution entered the mainstream, legislation spearheaded by Bryan moved forward in 15 states to prevent it being taught in the public school system. The Scopes Trial was largely a set-up instigated by the ACLU (a fact omitted in the play) to serve as a test case of the constitutionality of such laws. Bryan and Darrow lent an aura of celebrity to the Dayton, Tennessee, trial, and the media circus that followed sensationalized the event to such a degree that many people today do not realize that Scopes actually lost.
"Inherit the Wind
does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925," the play's preface states. When the play was first published and produced, the year was in fact 1955, the midpoint of a decade in which America saw a tremendous economic boom, likened only to the golden years of the 1920s. But beneath the Tupperware parties and pastel colors, fear lurked in every corner: fear of Communism, fear of rock and roll, and fear of anything that defied convention. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee used the outline of the Scopes Trial to comment metaphorically on their own era: the ease with which a group of people can collectively hunt down an individual, the importance of the unequivocal right to think freely, and the danger of curtailing intellectual progress in the name of religious and societal mores.
And here we are today -- more than 50 years beyond the first production and more than 75 years beyond the trial -- still fiercely divided as a nation about many of the issues at the center of Inherit the Wind
. In a closely watched trial in 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania, advocates for intelligent design argued that living things, from individual cells to human beings, are too complex to have occurred randomly or even organically. Proponents of intelligent design assert that public schools should offer a range of theories to their students, raising questions in the classroom without providing just one answer. This places evolutionists in a corner, as it reflects their own original argument. But one difference -- one colossal difference -- tips the scale: Intelligent Design is not science, and Judge John E. Jones' ruling
on the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District stated that quite emphatically:
To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.
This most recent case and the public debate
that it engendered have raised numerous questions regarding the relationship between science and religion: Is there such a thing as scientific certainty? Does science have moral content? Can it be morally corrupting?
"Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals," Bryan wrote. "It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of the storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo."
On the other hand, as Henry Drummond, Lawrence and Lee's stand-in for Darrow, declares in the play: "In a child's power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted 'Amens!,' 'Holy, Holies!' and 'Hosannahs!' An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man's knowledge is more of a miracle than any sticks turned to snakes, or the parting of waters!"
It is this clash of ideals to which Lawrence and Lee refer in the final sentence of their preface: "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow."
Rosie Forrest is the artistic associate of Northlight Theatre
in Skokie, Illinois, and is currently serving as the dramaturg for the theatre's revival of Inherit the Wind
Links within this article
Inherit the Wind
William Jennings Bryan
Kitzmiller v. Dover Memorandum Opinion
R. Gallagher, "Intelligent Design and Informed Debate," The Scientist
, February 28, 2005