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Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and…

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over…

by Edward J. Larson

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In Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, Edward J. Larson writes, “During the first quarter of the twentieth century, scientists in western Europe and the United States accumulated an increasingly persuasive body of evidence supporting a Darwinian view of human origins, and the American people began to take notice. These scientific developments helped set the stage in the early 1920s for a massive crusade by fundamentalists against teaching evolution in public schools, which culminated in the 1925 trial of John Scopes” (pg. 14). Of the ACLU involvement, Larson writes, “Already the three main tactics for attacking the antievolution measure had emerged: the defense of individual freedom, an appeal to scientific authority, and a mocking ridicule of fundamentalists and biblical literalism; later, they became the three prongs of the Scopes defense” (pg. 53).
Discussing the Tennessee law and the anticipated media circus, Larson writes, “Those proud of their state’s antievolution statute feared that the upcoming trial would discredit it and Tennessee; those embarrassed by it feared that the upcoming trial would heap further ridicule on their state” (pg. 94). Further, “In a stroke, the ACLU lost control of what it initially conceived as a narrow constitutional test of the statute. With Bryan on hand, evolution would be on trial at Dayton, and pleas for individual liberty would run headlong into calls for majority rule” (pg. 100). Discussing race, Larson writes, “Relatively little comment about the trial survives from African Americans…In any event, the outcome would not affect African Americans, because Tennessee public schools enforced strict racial segregation and offered little to black students beyond elementary instruction” (pg. 122). In terms of legal strategy, Larson writes, “The prosecution maintained that the statute outlawed any teaching about human evolution regardless of what evolution meant of whether it conflicted with the Bible. This position rendered evidence on those questions irrelevant. The defense countered that the law only barred instruction in evolution that denied the biblical account of creation, and therefore such evidence was irrelevant. Indeed, it constituted the defense’s entire case” (pg. 172).
Of the fallout, Larson writes, “In a clever maneuver, the Tennessee Supreme Court managed to end the embarrassing case without overturning the locally popular law. The antievolution statute only applied to public employees acting in their official capacity, and therefore did not infringe on individual liberty, the court ruled” (pg. 220). He continues, “Partly as a result of the Scopes trial, the law came to symbolize different things to different people; it became a symbol of pride and regional identity for some Southerners” (pg. 221). According to Larson, “At the same time, the tendency of northern evolutionists to blame Southerners for the Scopes trial may have weakened antievolutionism in the North” (pg. 222). Finally, “Several of the defense expert witnesses wrote semipopular books or articles expanding on their trial affidavits. Such accounts leave the distinct impression that Scopes won the case in all but the verdict, which ‘hillbilly’ jurors withheld” (pg. 222). In terms of modern curriculum that offer evolutionary theory alongside intelligent design, Larson writes, “Defense counsel at Dayton did not endorse the idea of teaching both evolution and creationism in science courses. Darrow consistently debunked fundamentalist beliefs and never supported their inclusion in the curriculum. Hays and the ACLU argued for academic freedom to teach Darwinism but most likely did not consider the possibility that some teachers might want to cover creationism” (pg. 257). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Dec 24, 2017 |
A look at the Scopes trial of 1925, the history of and the outcome. Interestingly enough it is battle that did not end in 1925 and is still with us today. It was a trial that captured the nation and the world. ( )
  foof2you | Jun 5, 2017 |
The author revisits the Scopes trial in an attempt to place it within the modern clash between science and religion. He does a good job of detailing the facts of the trial, the personalities involved, and the legend making that changed the way the trial was perceived over a thirty year period. The writing is interesting, and moves well; the author knows how to tell a story. The main problem I have is that the author spends way too much time protesting that religion and science are compatible, using the same old argument that some scientists are religious. He evidently approves of the attempts to demonstrate at the trial that evolution does not violate Scripture, but also seems to realize that this could not work. He is unable to resist sniping at Darrow, calling him mean spirited, while exposing an obvious soft spot for Bryan, and trying to rescue him from the dustbin of history. A noble effort, but flawed by the constant accomodationism that his own words often demonstrate to be unworkable, a fact of which he seems to be unaware. Worth reading, and a valuable addition to anybody's history of evolution library. ( )
  Devil_llama | Oct 8, 2016 |
Well written, extensively researched, and with a new Afterword that shows the continued relevance of the Scopes trial today. ( )
  LynnB | Jul 16, 2014 |
The Scope Trial (occasionally referred to with both contempt and fondness as “The Monkey Trial”) has a life of its own, and much of that life has little or nothing to do with what actually occurred in Dayton, Tennessee during the summer of 1925 when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow met to defend the merits of the case. Lawrence and Lee’s 1955 play “Inherit the Wind” and the film based off it five years later form much of the basis for popular (but ultimately false) ideas about the trial. And of course it doesn’t help matters that the topics of science and religious have been held to be, at least in the popular imagination, mortal enemies.

In “Summer for the Gods,” Edward J, Larson retells the story of the trial stripped of all the mythology, without compromising readability or interest for the layperson. Larson is both a law and history professor, so he’s in a unique position to clarify the historical content and the legal matters. He does a stupendous job of doing both.

Not that the idea of media sensationalism is anything new, but one of the things I liked most about this book was that it shows exactly how the trial was, in many ways, a Potemkin village. As soon as the Butler Act (the statute which prevented the teaching of evolutionary theory in science classrooms in the state of Tennessee) was passed, the newly founded ACLU offered to defend anyone prosecuted by the state for breaking the law. Their plan – for the case to work its way up through the courts and eventually find itself in the Supreme Court docket – didn’t go exactly as planned.

The trial ended up bringing names that spelled the worst kind of boosterism for the beleaguered small-town residents of Dayton who had probably never seen the likes of the media circus they witnessed for those several days – two of the country’s best-known attorneys, Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan heading up the prosecution. Darrow was fresh out of defending accused murders Leopold and Loeb, whose trial had only a year before also been breathlessly called in the media “the trial of the century”; Bryan was a decade out of his two-year stint as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, from which he resigned due to the international buildup of the First World War. He was a staunch progressive – back when “progressive” meant, among other things, supporting prohibition and belief in Biblical literalism. How times change.

The issues on the table? Well, they weren’t anything resembling what recent similar cases – say Dover v. Kitzmiller – argued. Bryan’s legal arguments really had very little to do with the merits of science or evolutionary theory. Instead, he argued on majoritarian grounds that if a state law is passed, it was obviously the will of the people and, having gained the appropriate number of votes in the legislature and being signed by the governor, it was constitutionally legitimate. It was much more of a states’ rights, or even a people’s rights, approach than the imagined epic battle between science and religion. The lynchpin of the defense was to get Bryan to testify and ultimately push him into a corner about the proclaimed literal truth of Genesis. A little spoiler alert: despite Darrow’s attempt to utterly embarrass and confound Bryan by getting him on the witness stand and grilling him on the timeline of the events in Old Testament (probably the most historically accurate part of the trial that people would remember) the trial ends in a way that most people who don’t know much about it wouldn’t anticipate. The presiding judge dismisses Bryan’s testimony as irrelevant, and Scopes loses. And since the Bryan’s purpose isn’t to shame Scopes or even make him a personal target, he magnanimously offered to pay the $100 fine for Scope’s conviction, which never had to be paid anyway, since the fine was overturned by a higher court.

Being one of the many whose sole knowledge of the Scopes Trial was based mostly on the play and what was casually bandied about in high school science books, I appreciated Larson’s approach, as full of it is of equanimity and balance. Larson says a few things that make it rather obvious where he falls in the “debate” insofar as there is one (and among professional biologists, there really isn’t): he can look down condescendingly on Bryan on the witness stand trying to defend his ultra-literal view of Genesis, but those of us who credit science where it is due have a hard time not having a little fun at Bryan’s expense. Go read, then watch “Inherit The Wind.” Then as a good counterbalance, and some reliable history, read this. It’s one of the best books on science and religion I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while. ( )
  kant1066 | Apr 20, 2014 |
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In memory of my father, Rex Larson, a Darrowlike criminal lawyer and William H. Ellis, Jr., a Bryanesque attorney-politician
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Preface -- The Scopes Trial has dogged me for more than a decade, ever since I wrote my first book on the American controversy over creation and evolution.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0674854292, Paperback)

If you haven't seen the film version of Inherit the Wind, you might have read it in high school. And even people who have never heard of either the movie or the play probably know something about the events that inspired them: The 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," during which Darwin's theory of evolution was essentially put on trial before the nation. Inherit the Wind paints a romantic picture of John Scopes as a principled biology teacher driven to present scientific theory to his students, even in the teeth of a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of anything other than creationism. The truth, it turns out, was something quite different. In his fascinating history of the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson makes it abundantly clear that Truth and the Purity of Science had very little to do with the Scopes case. Tennessee had passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union responded by advertising statewide for a high-school teacher willing to defy the law. Communities all across Tennessee saw an opportunity to put themselves on the map by hosting such a controversial trial, but it was the town of Dayton that came up with a sacrificial victim: John Scopes, a man who knew little about evolution and wasn't even the class's regular teacher. Chosen by the city fathers, Scopes obligingly broke the law and was carted off to jail to await trial.

What happened next was a bizarre mix of theatrics and law, enacted by William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. Though Darrow lost the trial, he made his point--and his career--by calling Bryan, a noted Bible expert, as a witness for the defense. Summer for the Gods is a remarkable retelling of the trial and the events leading up to it, proof positive that truth is stranger than science.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:36 -0400)

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In the summer of 1925, the sleepy hamlet of Dayton, Tennessee, became the setting for one of the 20th century's most contentious dramas: the Scopes trial that pit William Jennings Bryan and the anti-Darwinists against a teacher named John Scopes into a famous debate over science, religion, and their place in public education That trial marked the start of a battle that continues to this day-in Dover, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Cobb County, Georgia, and many other cities and states throughout the country. Edward Larson's classic, "Summer for the Gods," received the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1998 and is the single most authoritative account of a pivotal event whose combatants remain at odds in school districts and courtrooms. For this edition, Larson has added a new preface that assesses the state of the battle between creationism and evolution, and points the way to how it might potentially be resolved.… (more)

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