One of my less guilty pleasures in life is occasionally watching old movies run in their entirety on the Turner Movie Channel. No commercials or interruptions; it’s almost like having HBO without the user fee. So the other night I watched a film produced in 1960 called “Inherit The Wind” about an actual trial in Tennessee in 1925 concerning the teaching of “evolution” in the Tennessee public school system. At that time it was actually illegal to to teach such heresy as Darwin’s theory of evolution to impressionable, young school children. Why they might have actually learn something that wasn’t sanctioned by the “New Testament.” They might even question where all those people on the outside came from when Adam, Eve and Cain were evicted from the Garden of Eden because their mortgage went under water. But I digress.
The movie, shot in black and white, contained big name Hollywood stars, such as Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly, all of whom acquired word-wide acting fame during the 1930s, often considered the golden age of Hollywood. Movies were ultra popular during that period because people could lose themselves in a darkened theater and forget their heartache and pain caused by the Great Depression for maybe 5-6 hours. For the price of a nickel or dime, one received two feature films, a cartoon, a serial, newsreels, coming attractions, and more. What’s not to like. I remember spending hours in air-conditioned local movie theaters in my misspent youth during the 1940s in order to escape the ugly poverty of my surroundings and the smothering heat in an un-airconditioned apartment during humid New York summers. Of course, by the late 1940s the price of all this entertainment had risen to the shocking level of a quarter.
But back to “Inherit the Wind.” As I said, it was actually against the law in Tennessee in the 1920s to teach evolution in the public school system, and breaking that law was punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. One brave teacher in a small town decided to challenge that law and openly taught Darwinism in his classes. Predictably, he was was arrested and put on trial. The whole affair might have been ignored by the press or what was considered the media back then, had it not been for the fame of the attorney’s who became involved in the case. Representing the defendant free of charge was world renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow, who in his later years, often fought for unpopular causes. And representing the prosecution was famed politician William Jennings Bryan, who twice ran unsuccessfully for the presidency on the Democratic ticket, of course. Although Bryan considered himself a populist and champion of the “little guy,” he was also a dyed-in-the-wool religious fundamentalist who believed in the literal interpretation of the New Testament. So it became a clash of these huge legal titans and was thus heavily covered by the press and radio commentators.
Since this was small town Tennessee in the 1920s, the vast majority of its people were also religious fundamentalists, and as depicted by the movie, paraded about town during the trial chanting: “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” It became known as the “monkey trial” and the notion that man evolved from apes was considered beyond absurdity by the townspeople. During the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand to question his dis-belief in evolution. No matter what the question, Bryan stubbornly stuck to his religious fundamentalism. When Darrow held a rock in his hand and stated that scientists believed that rock was millions of years old, Bryan made the now famous exclamation that he “was not interested in the age of rocks, but only in the Rock of Ages.” It was a given that the hapless school teacher would be convicted of the crime of teaching Darwinism, but a reasonably smart judge handed down the mildest of sentences to finally bring that fiasco of a trial to its conclusion.
But the movie got me to thinking whether humankind has evolved to any significant degree in the century since that infamous trial, or wether there has actually been a process of on-going devolution. Fourteen years after the end of the “monkey trial” the world became involved in the most horrific war that had ever been witnessed until that point. Nazi and Imperial Japanese death camps exterminated tens of millions of innocent victims during WWII. In a world history replete with most heinous acts throughout the centuries, the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews and millions of others were gassed to death, will probably stand out as the crown jewel of absolute, unadulterated, pure evil. Nuclear bombs developed by scientists and were used on two Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands. Today, nuclear bomb technology has come into the hands of at least two rogue, tyrannical states, North Korea and Iran, who threaten their use against western democracies. Islamic Jihadist terrorism has sprung up out of the desert heat of the Mid-East, and like the barbarism of old, threatens virtually all of civilized societies. Several on-going wars in the cauldron of all that Mid-East turmoil that the United States has become involved in, show no signs of being brought to a successful conclusion. Is this progress? Is man evolving to a higher state, or actually devolving to a state of death, destruction and misery?
And speaking of evolution, a recent poll in the U.S. still shows that a majority of Americans still do not believe in Darwinism. Despite the fact that a visit to any museum of natural history in any major city will show incontrovertible evidence otherwise. But I guess non-believers in evolution are not big on going to museums. Nor on wisdom or advanced thinking that would normally be signs of the evolutionary process. That was undisputedly proven by the results of the 2016 election held in the U.S. and the Brexit vote held in England, also last year. So instead, perhaps we should welcome one and all to the the age of devolution.