So, despite Scopes's conviction in court, many Americans have seen the Scopes trial as a defeat for Christian fundamentalism and the anti-rational forces of Darwin Deniers.

The play made it easy to laugh at the true-believing hicks. After all, Bryan and all he represented looks increasingly foolish as he sputters and fumes against science, defending the faith to the cheering faithful packed in the courtroom—or at least he does in the movie version with Spencer Tracy. Scopes may have lost the battle, so the lesson of the morality play would have it, but Darwin won the war.

But perhaps we have drawn the wrong conclusions about the real and symbolic importance of that 1925 trial. Fundamentalists themselves did not slink off the stage, tail between their collective legs, after the trial. Emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory in Dayton, they pushed for similar laws in other states.

By 1927, 13 states, and not all of them in the South, were considering bills modeled on the Butler Act; Mississippi and Arkansas passed such laws. They joined South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, which already had some form of Darwin ban on their books.

Further, and most importantly, the conviction of John Scopes, upheld a year later by the Tennessee Supreme Court, affirmed the most insidious part of the Butler Act in the first place: that the ideas of science can be legislated by politicians. That principle, that the biases and bigotries of elected officials can define what science is or isn't in school curriculum, has been at the root of every Darwin controversy since 1925.

The problem with that, of course, is that science is not democratic. We don't get to vote on gravity, or quantum mechanics, or the location of earthquake fault-zones, and not even as august a body as the Tennessee legislature can change the principles of basic biology.

Act III: In Which That Ol' Time Religion Concedes Defeat (Without Quite Realizing It)

If Inherit the Wind was written as a protest against one form of cold war hysteria, then in a delicious irony, Darwin came back in American education because of another form of it.

After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, and thus took the lead in the "space race," Washington policy makers decided to get serious about American science education. As part of science's return, state restrictions on teaching Darwin were struck down. Even Tennessee got around to repealing the Butler Act, though not until 1967. This was the context in which most people saw Inherit the Wind as a victory.

Fundamentalist Christianity, and the anti-intellectualism that goes with it, did not disappear from American life, but it is probably fair to say that its influence on public policy waned during the mid-century.

It re-emerged with a vengeance with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. As far as I know, Reagan took no public position on Darwin, but he certainly invited a number of Darwin Deniers into the White House. The Darwin wars were back on.

In the 1980s, at one level, we lived the 1920s all over again. There were economic policies that created the largest gap between the rich and the middle class since the 1920s; and the re-emergence of the businessman as a heroic figure. Reagan even brought back the official White House portrait of Calvin Coolidge, which had been banished to the basement since the Great Depression.

So too with the Darwin wars, which were fought on the state level sometimes, but even more often at the level of local school boards. Those battles culminated in Kansas and in Ohio, whose state boards of education debated whether to include creationism in state science curricula. But nowhere was the fight more spectacular than in the little town of Dover, Pennsylvania, which became the modern substitute for Dayton, Tennessee during a well-publicized trial in 2005.

And like in the 1920s Darwin was both the specific issue and a proxy for conservatives to howl at any number of other issues. Recently, Oklahoma-based fundamentalist G. Thomas Sharp blamed Darwin for "the overthrow of America's Hebrew-Christian culture," an apocalypse he dated, quite specifically if somewhat bafflingly, to 1962-63.

The nouveau creationists of the recent past didn't simply reprise the terms of earlier debates, however. They demonstrated their own—dare I say it?!—evolution. The first concession that the new generation of creationists made was that they no longer tried to outlaw Darwinian science altogether. Rather, they wanted to force the teaching of creationism alongside the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the science curriculum.

That seems reasonable enough and it appeals to the American sense of fair play and democratic debate. There are always two sides to every issue, right? And why not teach both and let students decide. Certainly President George W. Bush thought so. As he told a reporter when asked about the issue: "both sides ought to be properly taught so people can understand what the debate is about."

By this logic, astrology ought to be taught as the counterpart of astronomy, and likewise if we teach that the earth rotates the sun, we ought to teach it the other way round too. But as in these cases, so too is there no debate between creationism and Darwin among scientists. There are not two sides to this issue, scientifically speaking. The only debates here are political ones.

Yet this insistence that there is a real scientific debate over the basic principles of Darwinism reveals just how much ground the neo-creationists have yielded since Darwin was put on trial in 1925.

In the first 75 years after Origin was published, religion stood against science—or perhaps alongside it—as a different but equally powerful way of understanding the world and of making meaning out of it.

Now, in contrast, creationists insist that the Bible be understood as science, and they want to support their literal interpretations of Genesis with real, "scientific" evidence. Never mind that the results of this "research" are patently absurd, Darwin Deniers want to be taken seriously as scientists too. Why else, after all, would Darwin Deniers build a Creation Museum on the model of a traditional natural history museum, complete with dioramas depicting human beings cavorting with dinosaurs, thus "proving" that the biblical version of creation must be true?

Indeed, the creationism of the 1920s changed its name to "creation science" in the 1960s and 1970s, which in turn was replaced by the more recent and scientific-sounding "intelligent design." Both of these, of course, were simply the same old religious claims dressed up in different language.

This was the central issue in the Dover, Pennsylvania court case. There, a group of parents sued the local school board after that board insisted that creationism be taught in the science classroom. The parents argued that "intelligent design" was simply another version of religious creationism and thus violated the separation of church and state.

Judge John Jones, who presided over the case, issued a devastating ruling against the creationists, and in his opinion made it unarguably clear that "intelligent design" was nothing more than a religious point of view masquerading as science.

The important thing to notice is that creation science and intelligent design were dressed up in the language of science. In this sense, the creationists acknowledge that at the turn of the millennium calling anything "scientific" confers the greatest truth-value on it. It gives legitimacy to any claim in a way nothing else can. In the end, one might argue, it is a pretty anemic faith indeed that needs to justify itself scientifically.

There are two final ironies about Darwin denialism over the last two decades. First, unlike their predecessors in the late 19th century, the religious figures who have denounced Darwin in the recent past have been perfectly comfortable with the revival of Social Darwinism that the nation has also witnessed since the 1980s. Indeed, many were vocal advocates for it.

Over and over again, Christian fundamentalists sided, Social-Darwinist style, with the powerful over the oppressed. In the mid-1980s, for example, Jerry Falwell, Reagan's favorite preacher, encouraged his congregation to buy Krugerrands to bolster the apartheid regime in South Africa against the black majority. Poverty ceased to be a moral issue for American fundamentalists as Reaganite economic policies plunged more and more Americans into it. God wants you to be rich, many fundamentalists trumpeted, suggesting that if you were poor God must not be very happy with you.

For these new Social Darwinists, God doesn't approve of Darwin but apparently he does approve of Donald Trump. Small wonder that George W. Bush, the born-again Darwin Denier, enjoyed so much support among fundamentalists; or that they cheered his economic policies that made the rich richer at the expense of the middle class and poor. The socially expansive vision of the Social Gospel that we are all our brother's keepers has been replaced by the narcissistic Promise Keepers.

Likewise, those who rejected Darwin in earlier generations saw themselves as fighting a rising tide of modernity—developments like urbanism, immigration, the emergence of feminism, and more beside—that made them profoundly uneasy. Many did not like any of the ways in which the world was changing. By contrast, today's Darwin Deniers want to enjoy all the benefits of the modern world—medical breakthroughs, the internet—without acknowledging the role science has played in creating those things.

Recently, I stood in line with 2500 of my closest friends to get an H1N1 vaccination. Statistically, about half those waiting with me were Darwin Deniers of one stripe or another (in fact, in this rural Ohio county probably more than that). But there they all were eagerly awaiting an inoculation whose very invention was built upon a biological foundation laid by Darwin. There may or may not be any atheists in a foxhole, but no one wants a faith healer treating them for influenza. Not even Darwin Deniers.

In this sense, the current generation of Darwin Deniers isn't anti-modern, as their predecessors were, but decidedly post-modern. Perfectly happy to enjoy all the fruits of modern science, they also have imbibed a post-modernist point of view that all claims to truth are political claims and each has equivalent authority. In this view, scientific "evidence" is treated as so much propaganda if it disputes dearly held belief, and facts are simply dismissible if they are inconvenient.

Among the very few academics who would testify on behalf of "intelligent design" in Dover, PA, was Steven Fuller, a professor at the University of Warwick in England. Fuller is not, nor has he ever been a practicing scientist. Rather, he is a sociologist of science, a vantage so lofty it gives him a much better understanding of how scientists work than the scientists themselves, or so he claimed.

And from that vantage he testified that what we call "science" is merely a set of power relations enforced by a set of "elites" in order to keep opposing ideas outside the boundaries of debate. Sure, he went on, science should include investigations of the supernatural (however that might be done) and that creationism was just as much as science as Darwinian biology. Once again we witnessed the perils of confusing "social science" with actual science.


In a lecture he delivered in 1886, Joseph Leidy reminded his listeners that major scientific advances have always met with conservative reaction. When Newton "announced that law of gravitation, people objected to it, for they regarded it as a denial of God's control of the movements of the universe." More recently, "when Franklin suggested the use of the lightning-rod, it was denounced as an impious attempt to deprive the Deity of his thunderbolts." And so it has been with Darwin.

In 1992, the Catholic Church got around to apologizing officially for charging Galileo with heresy, thus acknowledging officially the heliocentric solar system. It only took 360 years. Eventually, most Americans too will come to terms with Darwin even if some percentage never does. Most Americans, after all, have in fact put lightning rods on their houses, despite Franklin's impiety.

Which is not to say that Darwin Deniers haven't created tremendous mischief for American education—mischief that was foreshadowed in the decision written by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the Scopes case. The justices wrote that while the Butler Act banned teaching Darwin, it did not mandate teaching creationism or anything else.

While public schools today do not teach creationism in the science classroom, many teachers have chosen to skip the subject entirely as a way of avoiding controversy and hassle. In surveys I do with my students, very few were taught creationism in biology class; just as few learned about evolution and natural selection. A wide majority report not learning anything at all.

The legacy, therefore, of creationism is not to have defended fundamentalist Christianity against the corrosive effects of science, but to have struck a blow for ignorance over learning.