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The Debate That Won’t Die

by Neil Jumonville on Sep 19, 1999

For a half-century after the end of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, historians thought that the struggle against teaching evolution, led by Christian fundamentalists, was dead. It’s not.

As a rule, historians who wrote of the “monkey trial” ended their accounts with the creationists vanquished and the debate buried. But in retrospect it appears that the populist resentment against evolution never ended. Instead, for decades it remained seething beneath the surface of our political culture unnoticed. Then, twenty years ago, with the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, the hostility against teaching evolution in the schools resurfaced among fundamentalist Christians.

One remembers that John Dewey, a prominent voice of the 1920s, warned that “problems are often not solved. . .they merely give way to others.” Dewey might have added that these unresolved problems sometimes return. Clearly the creationism issue had not been settled in the 1920s, but had only been forced into a fitful hibernation.

The return of the problem today has been accompanied by its earlier logic. There is a striking similarity between the reasoning used in the current debate over the teaching of creationism, centered at the moment in Kansas, and the debate seventy-five years ago in Tennessee. In both cases creationist forces have employed a plea for popular sovereignty, asking that the great mass of people, acting in a decentralized fashion, be able to decide for themselves the truth they will teach their children.

“Teachers in the public schools must teach what the taxpayers desire taught,” William Jennings Bryan, the most recognized of the creationist leaders, announced in 1923. “The hand that writes the pay check rules the school.” This was so because “the essence of democracy,” as Bryan said, “is found in the right of the people to have what they want.”

The creationist debate is using the language of popular sovereignty today, too. The Kansas Board of Education has instructed each of the state’s 304 districts to decide for itself what proportion of creationism and evolution it will teach.

And presidential candidates, both Republican and Democrat, are affirming that populist logic. George W. Bush has said that “children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started.” (Would he suggest, in that spirit, that the “creationism” taught in schools include the creationist stories of the American Indians, African cultures, or Mexicans?) Even Al Gore, according to an aide, suggests that “matters of curriculum should be decided by local school boards.”

In the United States we have a long tradition of debate about the virtues of popular sovereignty with respect to major policy issues. Those opposing popular sovereignty have not always been considered scoundrels. Consider, for example, the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery. It was Stephen Douglas and the slave interests, after all, who encouraged popular sovereignty as a way to decide whether there should be slavery in the Western Territories,  insisting that “the great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself, whether a thing is right or wrong.” It was Lincoln who opposed popular sovereignty and maintained that there are public actions that a simple show of hands can’t justify.

And anyway, the virtue of popular sovereignty aside, it’s not clear whether a show of hands can adjudicate science. While they are voting on evolution, should we encourage localities to vote on how electricity works, or on how planes are suspended in air? In the face of current genetic discoveries, today’s Christian populists will have a much harder time refuting science and evolution than they did in Tennessee in 1925. And because of that they will have a much harder task making their case for popular sovereignty.

Now more than ever, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology will be threatening our longstanding conceptions of what constitutes human nature. History suggests that opponents of these changes will try to settle the issue by political means, asking that the people be allowed to decide. But the apparent victory for democracy, in that case, would be a harmful blow to education and science.

Neil Jumonville is professor of history at Florida State University and a writer for the History News Service. He is author, most recently, of "Henry Steele Commager."