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

By | September 22, 2006

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.
Rosie Forrest Links within this article Inherit the Wind Scopes Trial William Jennings Bryan Clarence Darrow Kitzmiller v. Dover Memorandum Opinion R. Gallagher, "Intelligent Design and Informed Debate," The Scientist, February 28, 2005


Avatar of: Frances Kral

Frances Kral

Posts: 1

September 22, 2006

What if we seek out and find the truth and the value and the intention for "the greater good" in science and religion and put them together?
Avatar of: David Bump

David Bump

Posts: 15

September 23, 2006

I should clarify: Haters of relgion that includes a God who actually made a difference in the world that's detectable. Although perhaps some, like Richard Dawkins, really hate every form of religion.\n\nThe preface to the play may say it wasn't intended as journalism, but to untold numbers of people, _Inherit the Wind_ is about the only representation of the Scopes trial they've ever seen. And this little review doesn't touch on just how far from reality it is.\n\nIt is noted that it was written when there was a lot of fear going around, and a lot of over-reaction due to that fear. Well, this dramatic production is full to the brim of this fear-sickness. It has lead to just the sort of thing it feared, only perpetrated against those who believe that scientists can recognize signs of intelligent design in nature (other than signals from aliens, as in the SETI program). \n\nSure, Judge Jones and others have ruled against ID, but how much of that has been from indoctrination by propaganda such as _Inherit the Wind_? The Kitzmiller decision seems to have been ghostwritten by Eugenie Scott. \n\nOne thing people were afraid of in the '20s and '50s was that teaching children they were apes with overblown brains and a hair problem would lead to misbehavior, and sure enough, we've gone from problems like talking and chewing gum in class to drugs, sex, and shootings. \n\nAnd it's not that Darwin's theory doesn't explain everything -- Darwin didn't even understand heredity. What's left of Darwinism is just that animals vary and some reproduce more than others, points perfectly compatible with ID and creation, too. \n\nRather than a theory, we have faith and a dogma: explain everything as (ultimately) nothing more than unguided interactions of energy and matter, or else. Thus, the right chemicals just happened to form at just the right time and place and come together in just the right way to create life. Then time after countless time, random forces altered (mutated) some life form in just the right way to give it a better reproductive success under the conditions it happened to be living in. This is not science, this is faith that nothing in the universe, including life, is any challenge at all to atheism. \n\n"Natural selection" is just a catchphrase like "abracadrabra." Are two things, thought to have split from a common ancestor fairly recently, found to be surprisingly different? "Evolution was accelerated by the pressures of natural selection" (Poof!). Are fossils interpreted as showing a rapid radiation right after an extincition? "Evolution was accelerated as niches opened up and less natural selection allowed more variants to appear" (Poof!). \n\nMeanwhile, people who are skeptical of a "theory" that can't demonstrate ANY siginficant point, doesn't explain a number of things, and yet at the same time seems to explain EVERYthing (when nobody is looking too closely), are still being demeaned, vilified and demonized by _Inherit the Wind_, PBS, Scientific American, National Geographic, and, it seems The Scientist.
Avatar of: Danny R Faulkner

Danny R Faulkner

Posts: 1

September 26, 2006

Why were you so lazy in researching this? Nearly everyone thinks that the play was "about the Scopes trial," but it is about the Scopes trial as much as Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible" was about the Salem witch trials. The two plays were written about the same time and were intended to address McCarthyism. The playwrite used something like the Scopes trial as a vehicle to convey a message, but, alas, almost no one got the point. You have drawn far too much from this.

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