First California, now Arkansas. Where will it stop? In the backwoods of Tennesssee, it is generally suspected, in a reprise of that notorious "monkey trial" where, received wisdom has it, Clarence Darrow made a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan.
There was hardly an account of Segraves vs. the State of California that did not herald it as a new Scopes case. And it is to be expected that, when the recently enacted Arkansas law requiring something like "equal time" for creationism is challenged in the courts, as it certainly will be, it too will be held up as a new Scopes case.
A new Scopes case? Well, not quite. In fact, it was the other way around.
Scopes was prosecuted by the Stated of Tennessee for violating a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. In the California case, a private individual brought suit against the State of California, which mandates the teaching of evolution in public schools.
In the Scopes case, the issue was scientific freedom. In the California case, the plaintiff and the judge agreed, it was religious freedom. "All we are concerned with now," Judge Perluss said, "is whether someone's religious liberties are offended" by the manner in which evolution is taught in the schools.
In the earlier case, the authority of the state was brought to bear against the evolutionists; in the recent case, in their favor. But in both cases the decision was deliberately abiguous. Scopes was found guilty (the defense admitted -- indeed insisted upon -- his guilt so as to test the state law) and fined $100, a sum chosen because it was the minimum penalty for the illegal transportation of liquor; and the conviction was then overturned on a trumped-up technicality. In the 1981 California case, although the decision was acclaimed a victory by the plaintiff, it was little more than a reaffirmation of teaching "guidelines" previously adopted by the State Board of Education providing that evolution be taught in science classes as a scientific "theory," and that alternative theories be presented in social studies classes.
Geared for the fireworks of the earlier Darrow-Bryan confrontation -- a nice, clean battle between science and religion, enlightenment and bigotry -- the press could barely conceal its displeasure with the moderateness of both parties and the prudence of the judge. The creationists, it turned out, did not seek to prohibit the teaching of evolution, only the teaching of it as fact rather than theory. Nor did they seek "equal time" for creationism, as was originally reported; indeed, they did not insist upon it at all in the science curriculum, and only as an altnernative "model" in the social studies program.
"Theories" and "models" -- it is hard for scientists to object to such unexceptionable scientific language. It is harder still because of the controversies within the scientific community on the subject of evolution. Twenty years ago it was rank heresy to suggest that "Natural Selection" was a theory rather than a fact. Today not only Natural Selection but also alternative theories of the way evolution operates are the subject of much dispute among scientists. This controversy, the scientists insist, has to do not with evolution itself but with the mechanisms of evolution. But one remembers that earlier time when anyone venturing any doubt about Natural Selection was accused of attacking evolution itself, since without this particular mechanism, it was argued, evolution was inexplicable and therefore indefensible.
It is this disarray in the ranks of evolutionists that has emboldened the creationists. And it is perhaps because the scientists feel so vulnerable that they are closing ranks against the outsiders who presume to challenge them. Committees of Correspondence (shades of the American Revolution!) have been organized by teachers of science in a dozen states to resist the assault on their profession. A spokesman for the New York committee explained that it was not only the teaching of science but also science itself that was at stake: "I urge scientists especially to become involved, because you are next."
This beleaguered mentality is a peculiar phenomenon of our times, afflicting not only scientists but also any group that enjoys a considerable -- a dominant, some would say -- social power. Civil libertarians, for example, who have had the satisfaction of witnessing, in recent decades, the abandonment of one restriction after another, press the panic button when it is proposed to rescind the latest marginal gain. Thus a proposal to prohibit the hardest of hard-core pornography is greeted as the prelude to a regression that can only culminate in the bowdlerization of Shakespeare and the burning of Ulysses."
It is in this spirit that Clarence Darrow, more than half a century ago, concluded his famous speech for the defense: "If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school . . . at the next session you may ban books and newspapers.
. . . We are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."
Walter Lippmann went him one better. Hailing Scopes as a letter-day Galileo, he accused the legislature not only of impeding the progress of knowledge but also of establishing a "state religion," the religion of "millions of semi-literate, priest-ridden and parson-ridden people." The Scopes trial, he said, was one of the symptoms of the "tyranny of the majority" that was becoming an unhappy feature of America, and that could be remedied only by preventing the legislature, the instrument of the majority, from dictating what could and could not be taught in the schools.
It is ironic to find Lippmann's fears of a "state religion" echoed by those fundamentalists he so despised. It is they who now complain that the "religion" of "scientific humanism" is being imposed on their children in violation of their religious beliefs, and that the legislature is excerising a tyranny that denies them their religious rights. Whatever claims they may make of being a "moral majority" it was as a professed minority that they sought, and obtained, in Segraves vs. the State of California, the small concessions that were granted them.
One wonders what Lippmann today would have made of this case, in which science and religion, majority and minority, state law and private conscience, have so clearly reversed roles. One suspects that, like most of his colleagues, he too would have evoked the specter of Scopes, appalled by this regression to a "new Dark Age" in which evolution has been demoted to the status of a mere "theory" and the Bible elevate to a fit subject for "social studies." Yet that compromise might well prove to be a model of judicial prudence. When the Arkansas law comes before the courts, the scientific establishment could do worse than to invoke the California decision.