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A Dramatization of Science:

The Play, Inherit the Wind

by Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.

from Interdisciplinary English, 2nd edition
© 1998--McGraw-Hill

 

            Inherit the Wind is a play based on the Scopes Monkey Trial.  The Scopes Monkey Trial juxtaposed, or placed,  science, in the form of Darwin's theory of human evolution against religious beliefs concerning divine creation.   By pitting a scientific principle (Darwin's theory of evolution) against a religious principle (the belief in divine creation) in a court of law, this trial brought science and religion into the political and legal fields. 

            The Scopes Trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.  John Scopes, a science teacher, was accused and convicted of violating a Tennessee statute known as the Butler Act, which prohibited teachers in any state-supported schools from teaching the theory that man descended from the apes.  Through the Butler Act, the state used the law to control the dissemination, or circulation, of ideas which it believed to be subversive.  Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.00 for his offense.  Clarence Darrow, the attorney for the defense, knew that his client was guilty of violating the law, but he wanted to have the law reviewed and thrown out by the Supreme Court.  Darrow maintained that the Butler Act violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits the mixing of church and state.  Darrow's argument appealed to scientific knowledge, logic, and progress. 

            The attorney for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan maintained a creationist point of view, arguing that the Bible contained the entire history of man.  The argument advanced by William Jennings Bryan appealed to and reinforced the dominant, traditional fundamentalist religious views and emotions. 

            The play, Inherit the Wind, represents a fictionalized account of a historical event.  The two main characters in the film who represent the two antithetical, or opposing, points of view are Matthew Brady and Henry Drummond.  Matthew Brady argues for the Creationist viewpoint and cries out against "the gods of science."  Brady's legal argument is based primarily on the interpretation of biblical/religious dogma, or belief.   Brady argues for the creationist position by saying that scientists cannot explain the most basic of God's creations, e.g., the watermelon.  Brady believes that science could not be used to explain creation (religion).  He argues that since God made everything on earth, he can change everything, even Natural Law.  He says that we should only believe in the things that are in the Bible.  Brady quotes Bishop Usher, an "authority ," as to the time of creation.  According to Bishop Usher the earth was created in the fall of the year, 4004 B.C. at 9:00 AM.  Therefore, Brady's argument is totally based on biblical precepts, or principles, and is not the kind of evidence that is usually presented in a court of law.  Brady presents his opinion as fact, and because he is considered to be a respected authority, the citizens of the town are persuaded by his argument.

            Henry Drummond's legal arguments are different.  Drummond represents the Evolutionist viewpoint held by Clarence Darrow.  Drummond argues that our fundamental right to think was on trial.  He states that "truth has meaning" and that "we're here to serve truth."   Drummond argues that the individual human mind is holy and that an idea is a greater monument than a cathedral.  He says that the advance of man's knowledge is a miracle.  He asks Brady if we are to accept everything on faith, then why did God plague us with the power to think?  He counters Brady's argument that we should only believe in the things that are in the Bible by asking if a tractor or a telephone are sinful because neither is in the Bible.  He calls several scientists as expert witnesses on Darwin's theory of evolution.  When the judge disallows each of the experts, Drummond calls Brady as an expert witness on the Bible.  The idea is to subvert, or destroy, Brady's position and argument by revealing its inherent fallacies, or basic inconsistencies.

            Drummond uses Brady's own beliefs to deconstruct Brady's legal reasoning, thereby trying to prove that the theory of evolution can be blended with the belief in creation. Drummond asks Brady how he knows that Darwin is irreconcilable with the Bible.  Drummond asks if everything in the Bible should be taken literally; for example, it says in the Bible that the Sun stood still and that the Sun moves around the Earth.  According to Copernicus' theory of Natural Law, if the Sun stood still the Earth would be destroyed.  To this, Brady replies that God can control even Natural Law because God created Natural Law.  Drummond then shows Brady a 10 million year old fossil remains of a prehistoric marine creature.  Drummond asks Brady if it is possible that, at the time of creation, a day were longer than 24 hours.  Eventually Brady admits that he does not know how long a day was at the time of creation. After this admission, Brady, and his legal argument, begin to unravel. 

            Inherit the Wind presents us with several antithetical positions: custom versus progress, religion versus science, old versus new.  Legally speaking, the defendant had broken the law; he had in fact taught Darwin's theory in his science class.  Morally and ethically however, some questions posed in the play are: What should have a higher position in the law, our right to think and choose our own beliefs, or our responsibility to blindly obey a law which limits our right to think for ourselves?  Should our beliefs about science and religion become political, legal issues, or should they remain personal issues?  Ultimately, can scientific progress and new theories be reconciled with traditional religious beliefs?

            Drummond and Brady, the two protagonists in the play, each make powerful and passionate statements in support of their respective, antithetical positions.  We can analyze the method and the effectiveness of the legal arguments presented by Brady and Drummond.  These arguments and counterarguments can provide us with an effective model for how to persuade and convince, both orally and in writing.

Posted to the Web on October 17, 2003