Olasky and Perry: Monkey Business (Full Text)

Head Note: The passage below is from a book called Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial by two journalists, Marvin Olasky and John Perry. Olasky and Perry argue that the Scopes trial gave rise to the common stereotype of creationists as backward and stupid. As you read the passage below, think about how Olasky and Perry would answer the main inquiry question.

Journalists who descended on Dayton in 1925 had often gone through similar processes of theological change. They carried with them antipathy toward fundamentalist Christianity. Their newspapers were religiously committed to evolution. The New York times editorialized that modern man needed "faith, even of a grain of mustard seed, in the evolution of life... If man has evolved, it is inconceivable that the process should stop and leave him in this present imperfect state. Specific creation has no such promise for man.... No legislation should (or can) rob the people of their hope." The Times quoted Bernard Shaw's statement that "the world without the conception of evolution would be a world wherein men of strong mind could only despair," for their only hope would be in a God to whom such modernists would not pray.

Other newspapers featured more spokesmen for evolutionary beliefs. The Chicago Tribune gave front page space to zoologist H.J. Muller's faith concerning man that "so far he has had ony a short probationary period. He is just at the beginning of a great epic adventure in the course of world evolution." Belief in evolution had grown ever since Darwin had reinvigorated the age-old concept through his mid-ninetweenth century writings, but World war I had given it new impetus. The great and terrible war so decimated hopes for peaceful progress of mankind that millions came to believe in one or other of two ways upward from misery: either God's grace or man's evolution.

Newspaper editors backed up their editorial rhetoric with strenuous effort. They dispatched more than one hundred reporters to the trial, and those reporters wired 165,000 words daily to their newspapers during the twelve days of extensive coverage in July 1925. The New york Times itself received an average of 10,000 words per day from its writers on the scene. In theory trial coverage was an opportunity to illuminate the theological bases on which both evolutionist and creationist superstructures were built. For instance, even a pro-evolution journalist at one point admitted that one creationist was "a sound logician." Another reporter wrote with amazement of a Tennessee mountain man who had, along with his old clothes and unpolished boots, a scholar's knowledge of Greek and the ability to make careful comparisons of New Testament translations.

In practice reporters described the story as one of pro-evolution intelligence versus antievolution stupidity. We've seen how the era's most famous journalist, H.L. Mencken, put aside his typical amusement with life to ride Paul Revere like through the land with dire warnings about the trial: "Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in its details, it serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience."

Mencken summarized his view of the debate's complexity by noting, "On the one side was bigotry, ignorance, hatred, superstition, every sort of blackness that the human mind is capable of. On the other side was sense." Other journalists from the Northeast and the urban Midwest shared that view. Nunnally Johnson, who covered the trial for the Brooklyn Eagle and then became a noted Hollywood screeenwriter, remembered years later, "For the newspapermen it was a lark on a monstrous scale.... Being admirably cultivated fellows, they were all of course evolutionists and looked down on the local fundamentalists."

Source: Excerpt from Marvin Olasky and John Perry’s book, Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial, 2005.