Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

 

“Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion” by Edward J. Larson offers a thorough rendition of the trial of John T. Scopes and the case against the teachings of evolution in public schools. It was a debate that first took America by storm in 1925 and still remains a prevalent topic in society today. Larson presents the elements of the Scopes trial in terms of what took place before, during, and afterward not just in the town of Dayton, Tennessee where the trial took place but all across America as the country reflected on its conclusion. By providing historical and archeological context in the first chapter Larson allows readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the Scopes trial an opportunity to brief themselves on the then-newly-discovered fossils that “provided persuasive new evidence for human evolution and as such provoked a response from antievolutionists”[1], before delving into the dizzying complexity of the trial itself. By providing this background Larson is giving readers the tools they need to form their own opinion before the story gets underway. From that point on the reader no longer sees a black and white trial of science versus religion, but how “staging a test case”[2] in Dayton, Tennessee was meant to challenge Tennessee’s newest antievolution law by “indicting one of its own schoolteachers.”[3]

The man chosen to play this role was John T. Scopes, a high school “general science instructor and part-time football coach”[4]. Although he was not a biology teacher Scopes happened to be implementing a textbook in his classroom that contained a chapter on human evolution. This was enough for him to be accused of “violating the law”[5] and was to serve as “something that will get Dayton a little publicity”[6] which is where the real story begins. “Anyone capable of reading between the lines…could see that Tennessee v. Scopes was not a normal criminal case.” [7] When the trial began Dayton’s governor “refused to attend the proceedings, despite a request from town officials. ‘It is not a fight for evolution or against evolution, but a fight against obscurity”[8], which is exactly what it turned into.

The trial starred Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, an anti-Darwinist who claimed that “Darwinism is not science at all; it is guesses strung together”[9] and Clarence Darrow, who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and “by the twenties…stood out as the most famous trial lawyer in America.”[10] What began as a debate over whether or not evolution should be taught in American public schools quickly progressed into a debate over religious principles. From that point it developed into a debate reminiscent of the witch trials, with the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association “commending Tennessee for ‘prohibiting the teaching of the unscientific, anti-Christian, atheistic, anarchistic, pagan, rationalist evolutionary theory.”[11]

“The thing that we got from the trial of Scopes, a Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial observed, was that most ‘sincere believers in religion’ simply wanted to avoid the origins dispute altogether. Some have their religion, but they are afraid if they go out and mix in the fray they will lose it. Some are afraid they will be put to confusion. Some are in the position of believing, but fear they can not prove their belief,’ the editorialist noted, so they leave the field to extremists such as Darrow and Bryan.”[12] The trial of the century sparked a new interest in Darwinism among Americans, and served as a catalyst to educate the public about evolution. Yet it ended on a low note, with no clear winners or losers. “The state law against teaching evolution and the resulting trial of John Scopes did not settle the matter in Tennessee or anywhere else”[13] yet it did help to serve a bigger purpose that led to exposing the “cultural divide that deeply troubles American society”[14] and the diversity that proponents for and against the teachings of evolution must learn to be able to approach with tolerance.

Works Cited

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.

[1] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Pg 31

[2] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Pg 89

[3] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Pg 89

[4] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Pg 89

[5] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 90

[6] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 89

[7] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 93

[8] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 93

[9] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 42

[10] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 69

[11] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Pg 97

[12] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Pg121

[13] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 269

[14] Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. 278

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