Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial by Dr. Marvin Olasky and John Perry

[12 July 2005]

By Jodie Janella Horn

Fighting the Religion of Evolution

All things, it seemed, were subject to the laws of nature. This concept supplied my mind with a wholly new pattern into which my religious beliefs refused to fit. In such an orderly universe there seemed to be no place for a wonder-working God…
—Philip Westworth, “What College Did to My Religion”

In 1925, John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, a law that forbade teaching any theory that contradicted divine creation in Tennessee public schools. The trial came about at the insistence of the American Civil Liberties Union, who placed ads in Tennessee newspapers searching for a schoolteacher willing to be tried for breaking the law to create a legal protest of legislature that they believed to be unjust. Town leaders in the rural mining community of Dayton, Tennessee decided that having a high profile trial in their locality would be beneficial to commerce and offered Scopes up to the law, even though he wasn’t quite sure if he actually taught evolution in his classes. What followed was a media circus that deepened the rift between creationists and Darwinists for years to come.

At the 80th anniversary of the trial, authors Dr. Marvin Olasky and John Perry are reopening the wounds and begging for another round of discussion. Olasky and Perry feel that creationists got a bad shake in the Scopes trial due to a liberal media bias, and that the time is nigh for a new battle. This time, however, the authors would like to substitute Intelligent Design for creationism, which makes the argument that evolution is not technically possible and, therefore, the earth must have had a knowing designer, though theorists do not specify who or what that designer is.

The press materials for Monkey Business call it a “groundbreaking exposé,” which may be a bit of an exaggeration, though it is remarkably even handed in its depiction of the trial considering the authors’ anti-evolution agenda. The first two-thirds of the book recount the details of the trial and the media response to the proceedings peppered with restrained debunking of the press’s bias towards the evolutionists. The primary target of Olasky and Perry is H. L. Mencken, a popular columnist for the Baltimore Sun, who used the paper to write “The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they [Tennesseans] themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.” Unfortunately, Mencken’s writing caught the public’s humor and remains as the documentation of the trial today, and Olasky and Perry make a great case for how much this damaged the creationist cause.

The legacy of the trial was further corrupted by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, a dramatization of the trial that opened on Broadway in 1955. The play radically departs from the facts of the case, changing the victor of the trial from the prosecution to the defense, and portrays the diverse spectators and townspeople as ignorant yokels. The authors of Monkey Business are not pleased with the effects of the play on history: “Inherit the Wind was to creation science what the Hindenburg was to Zeppelin travel: a famous event that dramatically misled the public and permanently overwhelmed the truth.” Indeed, most people that know of the Scopes Trial today don’t realize that Scopes was found guilty; that the Darwinists had in fact, lost.

However, the final third of the book is an argument for Intelligent Design and its inclusion in public school curricula. The authors manage to spin the fact that the originator of Intelligent Design theory, Philip E. Johnson, was a law professor, not a scientist into a good thing: “Since he had no scientific reputation or peer standing to worry about, he could pursue his investigation… without worrying about his career.” They helpfully leave out one of the best arguments against Intelligent Design: vestigial traits, such as webbed feet on the frigate bird, which never lands on water. Rarely mentioned are the links to the Republican party and the Religious Right of the movement, though Darwinism is presented as the cause of “the whole contemporary American welfare system that indiscriminately hands out money and other material things with no regard for family structure, past decisions, moral outlook, or other nonmaterial factors”.

The arguments in Monkey Business could have been a powerful critique of media bias in the early twentieth century, but the foray into Intelligent Design and Christian politics turns it all into propaganda for the Religious Right. Large organizations like Promise Keepers and True Love Waits are presented as evidence that the US is full of people seeking “absolute standards in personal behavior and family responsibility”. However, gay marriage is merely “some homosexual citizens and sympathetic judges decided on their own that it [marriage] should mean something else.”

While Monkey Business fails to convince that Intelligent Design is more correct than Darwinism, it did reveal how little has changed in the last 80 years. It’s true that liberals have gained an upper hand in the conflict from the ‘60s through the ‘90s, but that has been lost. Now liberals attack conservatives like cornered, wounded animals and conservatives convey themselves as perpetually oppressed, despite their obvious power in the world today.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/monkey-business-2005/