Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Other Bicentennial

Today, as most people probably know, is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

You may not know that today is also the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution changed the way people look at themselves and their very existence. That theory also is at the heart of an academic battle that continues to rage.

The bicentennial of Darwin's birth may have received more attention in the scientific community than it has in the public at large, where the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth has been the focus of much discussion, coming as it does only a few weeks after the inauguration of the first black president. I would expect that to be the case.

When I was in college at the University of Arkansas, the debate in my home state took the form of a law that pitted the teaching of evolution against the proposed teaching of "creation science" in the public schools. At the time, it was the latest incarnation of the law that led to the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Tennessee more than half a century earlier.

The law in Tennessee was the Butler Act, which made it unlawful for any state-supported school to teach any theory that denied the account of creation as described in the Bible "and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

That trial was the inspiration for a play 30 years later, "Inherit the Wind," which gave a fictional account of the proceedings but wasn't intended to tell the story of the trial as much as it was intended to be a warning against the evils of McCarthyism.

I was first introduced to the play when I was about 11 or 12, and I received a paperback copy of the original play for Christmas. I vaguely recall that my mother made that paperback book one of my "stocking stuffers," and I read it — twice — during my Christmas break.

The play has been turned into films on several occasions, the best of which (in my opinion) was the first one — the Hollywood version that was released in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly and several people who became better known for their work on TV (i.e., Dick York, Harry Morgan, Norman Fell, Claude Akins). A clip from the movie can be seen above.

Subsequent films based on the play were made for television.

The law in Arkansas was overturned, but the ruling influenced later cases. "Creation science" now seems to have been replaced by newer "theories" that embrace the concept of "intelligent design," but the real legacy of the debate seems to be that the same position has been re-packaged under newer, more politically correct names, each of which has been presented as science but continues to fail the basic tests that have long been used to determine the validity of scientific disciplines.

The debate over Darwin's theory of evolution may never be resolved. Fundamentalists believe in the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis; more progressive Christian denominations tend to treat it as poetry or allegory. It is hard to find much common ground.

Some people may regard the origin of life to be something of a moot point. The fact is that we're here. Where do we go from here?

But, if nothing else, Darwin's 200th birthday is the occasion to think, at least for awhile, about how we got here.

And about the man whose questions continue to spark debates, more than a century after his death.

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