One July day in 1925, during a summer as long and hot as the one through which we are now suffering, H.L. Mencken left Baltimore to cover the trial, in a small Tennessee town called Dayton, of John Scopes, a teacher of science at Rhea County High School. Scopes was accused of teaching the theory of evolution to the young innocents of Tennessee. Before his departure Mencken wrote, for the Baltimore Evening Sun, a column (under the heading "Homo Neanderthalensis") in which he made the self-evident observation that "enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed."
The Scopes trial certainly underscored the point, with the forces of superstition, led by the "ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest" William Jennings Bryan, triumphant (though he died before the trial ended) over the "men of the educated minority," led by Clarence Darrow and, need it be said, Mencken himself. But it was, Mencken thought, a fleeting victory, as he wrote at trial's end:
"Scopes was duly convicted, and the constitutional questions involved in the law will now be heard by competent judges and decided without resort to prayer and moving pictures. The whole world has been made familiar with the issues, and the nature of the menace that fundamentalism offers to civilization is now familiar to every schoolboy. And Bryan was duly scotched, and, if he had lived, would be standing before the country today as a comic figure, tattered and preposterous."
But Mencken failed to reckon with the powerful appeal that fundamentalism and its various offshoots exert on the minds of what he called "the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic." Every schoolboy may have grasped "the menace" for a while, not to mention the readers and viewers of "Inherit the Wind" and innumerable other books, plays and films based on the famous trial. But the human memory, like the human attention span, is short. The battle between science and superstition is never-ending, as we were all too vividly reminded last week by the news from Kansas.
There, after many months of orating and wrangling and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the agents of "creationism," the Kansas Board of Education was persuaded to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the science curriculum required by the state. This does not mean that schools cannot teach the subject--some local school boards and individual teachers have indicated they will continue to do so--but it does mean there will be no questions about evolution on the state's standard tests. Living as we do in an age in which test scores are held in greater esteem by educationists than real knowledge, it's obvious that much of the incentive for teaching evolution has gone out the window in Kansas; it means that many youngsters who receive high school diplomas in Kansas will be utterly ignorant of what one biologist called "a unifying principle of biology."
The speaker of those words (as quoted in the New York Times) was Steve Case, who sat on a committee appointed a year ago to write a Kansas version of the new national science guidelines. This seemed a fairly routine business until a member of the committee, a former state Republican chairman named Steve Abrams, declared that "it is not good science to teach evolution as fact" and began to engineer its removal from the state curriculum. The committee decided, after much discussion and acrimony, to leave the decision about evolution to each locality, which permits the well-organized creationist forces to swoop down upon, and terrorize, districts vulnerable to pressure.
There really is not a great deal to be said about all this, everything having been said over and over again in the nearly one and a half centuries since Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species." The subject touches on basic conflicts about which people hold deep and vehemently opposed views: science vs. superstition, church vs. state, piety vs. agnosticism, belief vs. skepticism, new vs. old, etc. For myself, I find the self-righteousness and political tactics of the Christian right offensive, and scarcely share their belief that "creationism" explains the origins and evolution of the world, yet neither the sincerity nor the passion of their convictions merits reflexive belittling. Mencken, as in most matters, got it just about right: "Even the superstitious man has inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred."
But it is precisely this that the creationists are demanding, in Kansas and everywhere else, as they press their cause. Theirs may be religious convictions, but they have made them into a political issue, and they are using political means to advance them. They demand that creationism be established as the state-sanctioned explanation for the origin of species, that--in the words the aforementioned Steve Abrams tried but failed to include in the Kansas science guidelines--the state teach: "The design and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer."
These demands are in direct contradiction to every basic American belief about church and state. They do violence to the Constitution. That Kansas has capitulated to them is shameful and abhorrent. The fight goes on.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.