Inherit The Wind: A Case Study In Intellectual Polarization

It seems to me that America is becoming an increasingly divided country. Ostensibly the land of plenty, many struggle amidst deep socio-political and economic rifts. This division manifests through a series of false intellectual dichotomies: Republican vs. Democrat, scientist vs. religionist, pro-life vs. pro-choice, peace vs. war, activist vs. apathetic, traditional vs. progressive, etc. The situation has deteriorated such that one can’t even mention God in class or utter the name of Darwin in church without somebody getting all up in arms. What might have contributed to this odd social phenomenon?

In America, the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial was a significant factor contributing to the current relationship between the separation clause and the origin-of-life debate. The false dichotomy is identifiable as early on as WJB’s opening statement: “If evolution wins, Christianity goes…” Unfortunately, for those Americans who are not evolutionists or Christians, these words have tainted the debate ever since.

War is notoriously polarizing to our society and almost always entails varying degrees of social, intellectual and moral redirection. In such times, idealists tend to clash with conservatives and the social chasm grows. It expected that younger citizens will come to reject the values of their elders, often perceived as overly domineering and unilaterally corporate. Whenever there is a war, notions of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ are sure to follow. Post-vietnam hippies strongly rejected notions of American imperialism and meddling. After Desert Storm generation X did the same, and the situation repeats itself with untold intensity in the current situations concerning Iraq.

Known as the roaring twenties, the decade following WWI was one of these transition periods where all values seemed open ground for question. Older Victorians feared a total overhaul of everything their generation and those before them had taken great measures to preserve. Social, sexual and intellectual experimentation flourished, while younger modernists dawned newer and more provocative clothing, danced to jazz, debated Freud and rejected prohibition. As is the case with any perceived social threat, the power structure usually responds with last-ditch efforts to revive or secure the patterns of old, and in post-WWI America these efforts were highly visible in the Bible-belt. Combined with a general consensus of southern conservatism that tends to be unswervingly religious, one could easily see how the stage was set for an explosive social event.

That event occurred at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, during the hot and muggy summer of 1925 when schoolteacher John Thomas Scopes was tried for teaching evolution in the public school system. Part publicity stunt for the waning population of Dayton, a carnival-like atmosphere preceded the trial as the July 10 opening approached. Banners decorated the streets, souvenirs were sold and lemonade stands were everywhere, much to the delight of travelers and looky-loos seeking respite from the sweltering, oppressive heat. Chimpanzees were even brought in for added flair, while Anti-Evolution League members sold books, debated and preached to anyone who would listen. People came from as far as Hong Kong to watch sophisticated New Yorkers heckle the fundamentalist townsfolk, and both took potshots at a flat-earth society dubbing itself the Church of God.

The media-spun hype surrounding the trial did a fine job of characterizing science and religion as enemies. After watching the 1960 film Inherit The Wind it would be difficult to walk away thinking there could be any common ground between science and religion. The central conflict of the story is a clash between contrived intellectual opposites and the jacket describes the film as one that "…pits science against religion," and indeed it does, via symbolism embodied through Drummond and Brady, symbolic of science and religion, respectively.

Directed by Daniel Petrie Sr. and adapted from the original play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the film presents scene after scene depicting religious believers as extremists lacking regard for any semblance of rational thought. In Act One a sign reads, “Darwin is the devil” while press commentary alludes to the Bible-belt town of Hillsboro, Tennessee: “intellectual quotient zero…” Next we have Brady calling supporters of evolution “idolaters” and “priests of evil-ution,” even calling down curses on anyone who would support its teaching including his own daughter. Most disturbing is the hanging effigy of high school biology teacher Bertram Cates, gleefully extolled to the chanting of “His truth is marching on.”

On the other hand, we have Drummond reassuring the jury that the theory of evolution is “…as incontrovertible as geometry to every enlightened community of minds,” with the defense speculating that if the teaching of evolution is not upheld the legal character of the country was somehow in imminent danger.

As usual, we are presented with two extremes and the natural inclination is to side up with one or the other. Of course Hollywood must embellish reality to increase its salability, but like anger, embellishment is best used with caution and restraint. There can be no doubt this film represents a major battle in the culture wars.

The question is who, if anybody, wins.

2 Comments

  1. James says:

    This was an excellent post.
    Not only did the film reinforce this artificial polarization, it also did much to obscure and distort the actual history of what happened in Dayton. It is interesting to note that the real trial itself wasn’t about making a distinction between science and religion. The prosecution, as evidenced by the team of experts it lined up but never went on the stand, wanted to argue that evolution and religion were compatible. Even WJB wasn’t so naive as to think that it must be either science or religion – in his speeches he often criticized evolution as bad science. He even somewhat surprised Darrow, while on the stand, when he admitted that he did not take the 6 days in Genesis literally and accepted that the Earth could be millions of years old.

  2. cl says:

    Thanks much, James. The points you add are both relevant and complementary, and certainly add to the discussion, so again, thanks!

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