Jay D. Wexler

Boston University School of Law Working Paper 05-05


The Scopes Trope
(book review of Larry A. Witham, Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America)

In his book, Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America, journalist Larry Witham introduces the reader to the various characters involved in the ongoing controversy over evolution and creationism. His account is subtle and nuanced, and he demonstrates that the controversy is more complicated than many believe. Far from caricatures of godless scientists seeking to discard religion in the dustbin of history and reactionary religious fundamentalists decrying Darwinism as the downfall of mankind, Witham gives us the real stories of real people who dwell in shades far more gray than usually recognized. This book review builds upon Witham’s efforts to suggest a different way of understanding the most important historical event identified with the creationism controversy—namely, the trial of John Scopes in 1925. The review argues that to reach any sort of policy compromise regarding the teaching of evolution in the public schools, such a policy solution must also be accompanied by a rich and nuanced understanding of the American historical narrative regarding the clash of religion and science in the public schools, of which the Scopes trial was probably the most prominent moment. Specifically, the review argues that the Scopes trial should not be understood as a symbol for either complete academic freedom for teachers to teach whatever they want in science classrooms or as a symbol for the complete rejection of religion from the public school setting. Instead, we should understand that the trial represents several significant and potentially complementary aspirations, including promoting individual liberty as a bulwark against government control, ensuring that students learn about a wide variety of theories regarding the origin of the human species, respecting the scientific profession and its accompanying norms, and resisting governmental imposition of a specific religious perspective on its citizens. Such a nuanced understanding of the Scopes trial would not only be a pragmatic solution that might support much-needed, compromise-based policy reforms, but would also be faithful to the case itself, which indeed did involve all of these important themes.

Keywords: Law and Religion, Evolution, Creationism, Scopes Trial

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Jay D. Wexler Contact Information
Boston University School of Law
765 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA 02215
(617) 353-2789

Presentation and Publication Information:

Forthcoming in the Georgetown Law Journal

On Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection:

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