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Has the Evolution Debate Evolved?

Science and faith–the two can be more friends than enemies.

Inherit the Wind movie poster.

We had a big snowstorm on the East Coast this week which meant I got to hunker down and watch a couple of classic movies.

That included the 1960 Hollywood courtroom drama Inherit the Wind, based on the hit play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, itself a fictionalized account of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” where schoolteacher John Scopes was tried in a Tennessee court for violating a state law against teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.  

Inherit the Wind movie poster.Of course the film is more than just the verbal slugfest between lawyers Henry Drummond, appearing for the defense and played by Spencer Tracy, and Matthew Brady, appearing for the prosecution and played by Fredric March, though there are plenty of oratorical fireworks with the two actors chewing the scenery to absolute shreds.  

In real life it was legal heavyweight Clarence Darrow, backed by the ACLU, locking horns with William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson’s former secretary of state and three-time Democratic presidential candidate, a devout Christian and one of the great populist speakers of his time. 

The trial was a national sensation and was famously covered by journalist H.L. Mencken, an avowed atheist and cynic, played by Gene Kelly, an odd bit of casting for such a caustic character.

John Scopes was portrayed by a young Dick York who would go on to play the TV husband of a witch in Bewitched…but we won’t go there.  

Behind the great acting is a debate that, 90 years later, we Americans are still having: Are science and faith compatible?  

Darrow and Bryan didn’t really settle the matter, and the movie version of the trial is decidedly slanted in favor of Darrow’s position. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.

Bryan dropped dead five days after the trial–right after attending church services–and Darrow eulogized him as a great and compassionate man. The two were always more friends than enemies…and I think the same can be said about science and faith.

My Uncle Eddie was a research biochemist of considerable accomplishments, especially in recombinant DNA technology. He was also a man of faith who saw no conflict between attending daily Mass at 8 a.m. and peering through an electron microscope at 9 a.m. 

From him I learned that the material world worked the way God intended it to work. If God used the process of evolution to create a being with the capacity to worship its creator, then so be it. It didn’t bother Uncle Eddie. And it didn’t bother me, either, once I gave it some thought. 

The universe is an astounding thing. From the microsecond of creation, it had rules and structure with which it could not possibly have endowed itself. Science studies how nature works but not necessarily why.

Knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, is the product of our God-given intelligence. As we move deeper into the 21st century, we will have no choice but to reconcile scientific truth with the metaphysical. I believe that the more we learn, the more the two will come together.

Despite its prejudice against the anti-evolutionist position, Inherit the Wind ends with the cynic, Mencken, disillusioned by hearing Darrow, the putative agnostic of the trio, sitting in the empty courtroom quoting Scripture by memory. The expression on the journalist from Baltimore’s face says it all–Oh no, not you too?

By the way, I read recently that a genetic study has revealed that every man on the planet is descended from a single male who lived approximately 135,000 years ago. Could his name have been Adam?

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