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Monkey Man

August 3, 2016

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On August 3, 1900, John T. Scopes was born. That no one recognizes this date is no big deal. That few still remember the name John Scopes doesn’t surprise me either. That any controversy would still exist over what brought Scopes his infamous footnote in history, however, is somewhat perplexing.

John Scopes gained his notoriety as the defendant in the 1925 “Monkey Trial.” He faced a court trial for teaching the evolution of man to his Tennessee high school biology class. This apparent collision of Darwin’s scientific theory with the Creationism belief of Fundamentalists was actually more a conflict about legislation enacted in violation of the Constitution. The events that led to the trial were far more complex than first appears involving much behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

When I first started teaching eighth grade English in Rutherford, the play Inherit the Wind was part of the curriculum. Exploring the historical background of the trial laid the groundwork for the play itself. It became clear that this was not so much a struggle between science and religion as it was an indictment of an anti-intellectualism that tends to creep into society periodically. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee indicated that this play was not intended as a historically accurate piece of literature though some of the testimony was verbatim from the trial. Their impetus came from the McCarthyism of the 1950s, a parallel way of thinking being the mutual theme.

The bottom line is this: evolution is science. It is based on observable evidence. Even John Butler’s original Tennessee bill that started the controversy in 1925 conceded this, making it unlawful to teach the evolution of only one species—mankind—in the public schools. The teaching of the evolution of all other life — plant or animal, the earth itself and the solar system too — was allowable as either compelling theory or proven fact. I’m not sure how one can reconcile that evolution would be true for 99.9% of life but not human beings.

Creation stories — whether they be the traditional Judeo-Christian one, Hindu, Buddhist, Sioux, or any other — are a matter of belief. As Americans, the Constitution gives us the freedom to embrace any of them or none at all. However, it also provides that none of them can be imposed.

The proposition by some that Creationism be given “equal time” in public schools flies in the face of both common sense and the Constitution. Science is not religion, and religion is not science. Believing in any particular Creation story is a matter of faith. It is a choice one makes. It belongs in the heart, in the home, in the church or temple. It does not, however, belong in the public school.

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