The Evangelist and the Evolutionist

From William Jennings Bryan to George Bernard Shaw

GBShaw1900It might seem like a rather big leap from our previous two blog posts to this one — from the Bible-thumping Bryan to the vitalist Shaw. But consider what Shaw had to say about the theory of Natural Selection:

[W]hen its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration…. To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter, but eternally impossible to the spirits and souls of the righteous.

jpegThis is from the preface to Shaw’s monumental five-play cycle Back to Methuselah, written some six years before Bryan took the witness stand in Dayton, Ohio. Of course, he and Bryan had both fallen for a gross caricature of what Daniel Dennett calls “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” But that’s hardly a surprise. Theirs was the heyday of “Social Darwinism,” the idea that “might makes right” in human society as well as in nature.

Also, as William Jennings Bryan says in the play I recently posted, “There was a war, remember?” Bryan believed that neo-Darwinism had done nothing less than bring civilization to the brink of suicide during the years 1914 – 18. Shaw said precisely the same thing in Back to Methuselah

Neo-Darwinism in politics had produced a European catastrophe of a magnitude so appalling, and a scope so unpredictable, that as I write these lines in 1920, it is still far from certain whether our civilization will survive it.

140px-William-Jennings-Bryan-speaking-c1896Bryan and Shaw were of sharply opposing mentalities, to put it mildly. Even so, they were both men of faith for whom the idea of a universe devoid of meaning was intolerable. But Shaw’s faith, unlike Bryan’s, was by no means conventional. As he wrote to Leo Tolstoy,

To me God does not yet exist; but there is a creative force constantly struggling to evolve an executive organ of godlike knowledge and power; that is, to achieve omnipotence and omniscience; and every man and woman born is a fresh attempt to achieve this object.

Shaw was seeking a new religion that would harmonize with scientific thought. At the same time, he yearned like Bryan for a creed that the materialistic science of his age seemed actively to deny. But did “faith” mean the same thing for Shaw as it did for Bryan? I think they would at least have understood each other’s meaning.

Both Shaw and Bryan studied and admired the Christian anarchist writings of Leo Tolstoy, who rejected St. Paul’s definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” His was a definition of faith that Bryan and Shaw could have agreed upon:

Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something. If he did not believe that there was something he must live for he would not live. If he does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite he will believe in the finite. If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live.

A Play and an Idea

“… and did you know that William Jennings Bryan died on the last day of the trial, right there in the courtroom?”

I was sitting in a café listening to two customers at another table holding forth about the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. They seemed to be valiantly trying to outdo each other for ignorance. For absolutely nothing they said was historically true.


William Jennings Bryan

No, William Jennings Bryan didn’t die that day in the courtroom. He died in his sleep five days after the trial ended. And no, John Scopes was not a biology teacher but a high school football coach. And no, the text Scopes got into trouble for teaching was not Darwin, but a chapter in George William Hunter’s textbook A Civic Biology. And so on, and so on, and so on …

None of this misinformation surprised me. All of it comes from Inherit the Wind, that perennially popular 1955 drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Neither Lawrence nor Lee ever claimed that their play had much to do with history. In a 1996 interview, Lawrence explained that it was really intended as a parable attacking the McCarthyism of its era …

It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.

Nevertheless, Inherit the Wind is all-too-widely accepted as a factual account of the trial.

Now why should this bother me? It’s not that I object to the play’s status as a rousing polemic against Creationism. Pat and I are passionately devoted to evolutionary thought, and we’re constantly exchanging and discussing the latest news stories about discoveries in natural history. To us, the simple fact of evolution is wonderfully and endlessly pertinent to our ongoing fascination with Story.

But as a storyteller, I think that a cultural milestone as momentous as the Scopes Trial merits a more reliable account than you’ll find in Inherit the Wind. And the politically progressive William Jennings Bryan deserves fairer treatment than the character assassination he has suffered from being equated with his fictional proxy, the laughable but dangerous buffoon Matthew Harrison Brady.

Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow

The actual Scopes Trial and the media circus surrounding it were quite melodramatic enough without recourse to Lawrence and Lee’s extravagant distortions. And the trial did not bring out the best in either Bryan or his nemesis Clarence Darrow, especially during Darrow’s climactic cross-examination of Bryan. Bryan managed to fit perfectly the image that Darrow had drawn of him as a Bible-thumping bigot. And by embarking upon an obsessive (if also eloquent and effective) defense of science against religion, Darrow succeeded in botching what ought to have been a fairly straightforward legal defense of free speech. Despite all this, a deeper historical and intellectual subtext lies beneath all the melodrama.

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould offered a remarkably nuanced view of both Bryan and the trial itself in his essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” which appeared in his 1991 collection Bully for Brontosaurus. And now I’d like to do likewise.

In our next post, I’ll offer a sort of 10-minute thumbnail revision of Inherit the Wind. In it I hope to portray both Bryan and Darrow somewhat more favorably than they did themselves in 1925.

Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie

Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind”