An Evolutionary Biologist’s Reflections on the Scopes Trial


David N. Reznick is professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside. His latest book is "The Origin Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species."

Editor's Note: The so-called Scopes Monkey Trial concluded on July 21, 1925, making this year the trial's eighty-fifth anniversary. HNN is pleased to present two articles, one by an evolutionary biologist, the other by a humanist, to mark the occasion.

On weekend mornings I get up at sunrise and run up the Box Springs Mountains.  Lately there has been a marine layer of clouds that lock in cold, moist air at lower elevations.  As I run up through the cloud layer I can feel the clouds dissipate and see them break up into a fine, particulate mist as the sun shines through, then I emerge into a warm, sunny day at higher elevations.  Since the valleys are completely obscured by the cloud layer, I can run along the crest line and imagine that I am in a remote wilderness, rather than on an island surrounded by suburbs.  Two Sundays ago, as I descended back into the clouds, I saw a man ahead of me wearing a black t-shirt with “Science Rules!” printed on the back in bold, white letters.  I don’t like to stop, but I could not resist asking about him or the t-shirt.  He explained that he was a member of the Skeptic Society and that they occasional met on Sunday mornings to take hikes together.  When I mentioned that I was an evolutionary biologist, he replied that, while he was a fan of science, he had problems with evolution.  That was the end of my run.  I asked him about his doubts and tried to answer his questions as we walked down together.  Answering all his questions was easy since they were mostly familiar—“If evolution is gradual, then why are species so distinct?” or “How can a gradual process explain the origin of complex traits?”  A peculiar attribute of evolutionary biology is that, even though it is an arcane science, many people have opinions about it, much more so, I think, than any other science.  Why?

The occasion of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Scopes trial offers some basis for reflection on the peculiar status of evolution.  The trial was neither the beginning nor the end of the public debate over Darwin’s theory.  We could place the beginning at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting that took place in Oxford in 1860, where Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce squared off on a public debate of the newborn theory of evolution by natural selection.  The end of the debate is not in sight.  The Scopes trial instead stands out as a benchmark that adds an American flavor to the controversy, which is to blur the division between science and religion in the public classroom.  The near-term impact was for evolution to recede from science textbooks.  Evolution did not come back in force until the post-Sputnik era, when the U.S. enhanced science and math education.  This renaissance was short-lived and we have returned to the conditions that surrounded the Scopes trial.

So why is there such persistent controversy about evolution?  At one level, we always hear that evolution is “just a theory.”  This descriptor reveals a misunderstanding of the word “theory.”   An unabridged dictionary offers several definitions of the word, with the appropriate one being dependent on context.  In colloquial use, theory means speculation, but when used by scientists it means something like the articulation of a general principle that unites a diversity of phenomena under a single explanatory framework, such as Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.  Darwin’s evolution by natural selection fulfills this goal.  But the source of skepticism cannot be this simple.  We all have heard of the theory of relativity, but we never see headlines like “Relativity—fact or fiction?”  No one debates how the theory of relativity is taught in physics classes, nor is a physicist ever likely to bump into some stranger who expresses doubts about relativity.  Some argue that skepticism about evolution is instead a measure of the inadequacy of science education.  We can certainly do better in teaching science in our public schools, but this is not a good answer either, since all science can be better taught but no other area of science attracts such scrutiny.

A better answer, for which the Scopes trial is a symbol, is that the theory of evolution has been a consistent target of religiously motivated propaganda campaigns.  Two well-funded institutes—the Creation Science Institute and the Discovery Institute—are devoted to churning out anti-evolution literature.  The former arose in the 1960s and was built on “creation science,” while the latter arose to promote “intelligent design” after creation science was discredited by repeated court battles.  The Dover trial revealed that intelligent design is just thinly disguised creation science.  A product of the efforts of these institutes and those who support their views is that most people have heard dozens of times that there is something wrong with the theory of evolution, so it is natural to be skeptical about evolution.

The arguments against evolution have changed little over the decades.  A persistent favorite is the mystery of the origin of complex, seemingly perfect structures like the eye.  The argument today is very much the one made by Archdeacon William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), which is that when we see evidence of design in nature, then we also see evidence for the existence of the designer.  Now that the genetic basis of eye development is emerging from the fog, some have shifted instead to the mystery of the bacterial flagellum.  Otherwise, the argument is the same.  These arguments are reinforced by occasional scientists or philosophers and historians of science who argue that natural selection is the product of circular reasoning.  All of these arguments have been refuted, but they persist.

A consequence of the controversy is that every time I step in front of a lecture hall full of students, I can count on many of them being doubters of the theory.  It also means that evolutionary biologists will often encounter people who have thought about and are skeptical of evolution, so evolutionary biologists feel more of a need to explain themselves in a way than those who represent any other branch of science.  One response was to write books that counter the arguments against evolution, to little effect.  The bicentennial of Darwin’s birth has brought on a different wave of books.  Evolutionary biologists are now more inclined to just write about evolution and to present it in a light that makes it more accessible to a general public.  We are all wondering who the silent majority really is and how to reach them.  Our hope is that some of them are skeptics who are willing to read a well-crafted presentation of science and evaluate its virtues with an open mind.  Some historians and philosophers have helped by articulating how evolution fits in to the development of science, but also by dealing with the relationship between science and religion as a topic for the humanities classroom, rather than the science classroom.  We need the help, so I encourage my colleagues in the humanities to expand these efforts.

HNN Special: The Scopes Trial at 85

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james joseph butler - 8/2/2010

Eugene you sound like you've got a lot of agendas to attend to. Evolution is the relationship between an organism and its environment past present and future.

Eugene George Windchy - 7/31/2010

Scopes never taught evolution. He went along with a publicity stunt. And the chief adviser to the evolution side of the trial did not believe in Darwin's theory. He had his own theory which he called "aristogenesis." But he wanted the kids to learn Darwinism anyway.

As for evolution, what is it? Is it biological change over time? The scientists and the courts don't like that definition.

Is it biological change as theorized by Charles Darwin? Biologists now reject the term Darwinism. "Let's get rid of Darwinism" said Olivia Judson in the New York Times.

Darwin's natural selection theory was not accepted until the 1940s. It lasted three or four decades labeled "neo-Darwinism" and bolstered by a mathematical theory rejected by mathematicians at the Wistar debate of 1966.

What we have now is called "the theory of evolution." It is more a research program than a theory.

I wrote a book about this: The End of Darwinism: And How a Flawed and Disastrous Theory Was Stolen and Sold.

james joseph butler - 7/29/2010

I agree with your "few opportunities exist for undergraduates to discover evolution, geology or paleontology." Instructors from elementary to post-graduate need to structure evolutionary science in a fashion that lets pupils discover the science for themselves rather recognizing a politically correct construct.

Donald Wolberg - 7/26/2010

I realize Dr. Reznik has limited space, and this writing is interesting, but where is the "Scopes" history in all of this. I know, and regularly encounter, the confusion about what we mean by "evolution" and there is a literature that can fill libraries, but I think Dr. Reznik get tangled in the generalities of scientific apologetics and not the specifics of Darrow v. Bryan with poor Scopes himself lost in the self-generated muddle of these two political and legal giants. That is what is interesting about Scopes these days, I think. Mr. Scopes in fact seems never to have been sure if he actually taught "evolution" in his classroom and had to convince three of his students as I recall reading, that they should complain that he did teach evolution so he could be charged and tried. The issues in court ending playing to the press--was it not the press that paid Mr. Darrow?--and the religous/plitical dogmatics of an ailing Mr. Bryan. Now if Mr. Scopes never really taught what he thought, rightly or wrongly was "biological evolution" (and I suspect Mr. Scopes was quite befuddled by "evolution," "paleontology," the evolution of Hyracotherium to Equus,etc.), and if Mr. Scopes contrived to have students complain about what he did not really teach, what then is the real significance of the Scopes trial? Mr. Scopes never went to jail for "academic freedom" and was the $100 fine revoked because of a legal technicality?

I wonder if our energy educationg would be better spent explaining better what biological evolution is all about, and explaining the geological and fossil record of this world, and why the free and open discussion of ideas is so important. I think that sometimes the reality of our icons lose a luster we think they have, but in fact they never had. In that loss, we get diverted, overstate or understate, but do get diverted. In education today, I suspect our current crisis is the lack of adequate rigor in college programs where few opportunities exist for undergraduates especially to discover evolution, geology or paleontology.