June 2002

Michael Schaub

hundred books

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence

Reading Inherit the Wind the week after Stephen Jay Gould died is like reading The Natural after Joe DiMaggio passed away. As
clumsy as that simile is, Gould, a lifelong baseball fanatic and Yankees fan, would have appreciated it. Joltin' Joe was the best athlete to ever play the game, and Professor Gould was probably the most influential evolutionary biologist since Charles
Darwin. And nearly 50 years after its first performance, Inherit the Wind is still more compelling than any other play (or novel) to deal with the topic of evolution and its fundamentalist deniers. Gould himself was one of the play's biggest admirers.

Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account of America's infamous 1925 "Monkey Trial," in which a Tennessee football coach and teacher, John Scopes, was prosecuted for breaking a Tennessee state law that forbade teaching evolution, or mentioning Darwin at
all. Despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, Scopes was convicted, and the religious right scored a Pyrrhic victory -- winning the case but losing a lot of credibility. The play isn't historically accurate -- it's not meant to be -- and its authors point out that "It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as 'Not too long ago.' It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow."

My first encounter with Lawrence and Lee was my seventh-grade English class. The teachers in the Catholic school I attended were always looking for new ways to distance their church, which accepts human evolution as fact, from the right-wing Protestants who still insisted that their ancestors weren't apes, by God. They needn't have worried, though -- a few pages into Inherit the Wind and I fell in love. Months after I read it for the first time, I saw the movie, a brilliant film that starred Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly. I had found a new hero in Clarence Darrow (called Henry Drummond in the play) and a new enemy in the ultraconservative Jesus fans who wanted to imprison John Scopes (in the play, Bertram Cates) for teaching scientific fact in place of right-wing religious dogma.

It wasn't until I went to college in east Texas that I started regularly running into anti-evolutionists. For some reason, I tried to debate them. "It's called the theory of evolution, isn't it?" they'd ask. "It's not fact, it's just a theory." Sure, evolution is a theory. So is gravity. A few of them had even read, or at least heard about, Inherit the Wind. One friend of mine, a Southern Baptist who believed in evolution, warily raised an eyebrow when I mentioned the play to him. "Isn't that the play that makes fun of Christians?" he asked.

And he has a point. Lawrence and Lee are unsparing in their depictions of the Christian townspeople. But they're also not too flattering when it comes to atheists and agnostics -- H. L. Mencken (in the play, E. K. Hornbeck) comes off as an arrogant jerk.
There's a reason for that, though -- Mencken really was an arrogant jerk, and the Christians who were calling for Scopes' head really were ill-informed and easily led. If evangelical Christians are still upset about Inherit the Wind, it's probably because it hits too close to home.

I hadn't picked up my copy of the play in years before I decided to read it for the 100 Books Project. The battle between evolution and its detractors has been in the news of late, from the controversy in Kansas to the increased popularity of an unscientific little "theory" called "intelligent design." It seemed as good a time as any to reread the play.

And as breathless and dewy-eyed and hyperbolic as this will inevitably sound, I fell in love again. John Scopes was my age when he was prosecuted for failing to teach the fiction of "creationism" in a science class, but I found myself reacting to the play the same way I did when I was twelve.

That's no surprise. Although Darrow and Mencken get the best lines, the real hero of Inherit the Wind is the sense of wonder. It's hard to find wonder in dogma; it's incredibly easy to find it in science. That's what Stephen Jay Gould and Clarence Darrow both
understood; that's what captivated me at age 12 and at age 24.

Professor Gould has written that religion and science are two separate domains, each with different methods and topics of inquiry. There's no reason, Gould maintained, why the two fields can't coexist. Lawrence and Lee make a very similar point in the final scene of Inherit the Wind, when Darrow prepares to leave the courtroom after his client's conviction. He picks up a Bible in one hand, and a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species in the other, and pretends to weigh them as if his hands were scales. Finding them both of equal weight, he smiles and puts both volumes in his briefcase.

It's a pretty glib device -- depending on your politics, it might even seem heavy-handed, considering that the real-life Darrow was a pretty unapologetic atheist. But Lawrence and Lee never insinuate that Darrow ever even thought of backing down from his defense of science in the face of religious intolerance. And as little as I know about science, that's why Darrow is one of my biggest heroes. It's
also the reason that every American should read this play -- as the authors somewhat chillingly note, "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow."