Inherit the Wind :The struggle over Darwin (2009.10.1[Thu.])

 

Following on last column's literary review, I'd like to talk a bout a movie this time: "Inherit the Wind," a film from 1960 directed by Stanley Kramer. The story takes as its theme the Tennessee "Monkey Trial" of 1925, which took place after a teacher at a public school was arrested for the crime of teaching evolution, and gives us a fictionalized version of the courtroom and human drama surrounding the case. Many readers might hear this and think how typically and uniquely American the premise sounds, but I would encourage them to watch it first. Evolutionary illiteracy is spreading in Europe now as well, and the problems raised in this film are problem shared by the entire modern world. So for those of you who haven't seen it but plan to, I should give you all a spoiler alert, because I will be giving large parts of the story away below. You have been warned...

The setting is a small town in the American South, where the peaceful and God-fearing community seems to be living in unadorned humility. But then the Devil's teaching, evolution, sweeps into town, stirring the hearts of the young. The teacher guilty of this heresy is arrested and the citizenry is roused into a witch-hunting mob. When the renowned prosecutor Matthew Brady (played by Fredric March) is invited to try the case, a cynical reporter named Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) calls attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to aid in the defense. The film's title refers to a biblical passage that refers to inheriting the wind, which is quoted by the Christian Brady in his oratory. The town, which has been thrown nearly into mass hysteria by the excitement surrounding the case is guided by its resident preacher, whose daughter is none other than the arrested teacher's fiancée. The preacher insists that he wil reject even his own flesh and blood if they reject God, and begins to accuse his own daughter of blasphemy. Brady sees this and says that if you curse your won family, nothing will remain, and cites the verse from the Bible about those who shall the wind. This is a criticism, in fact, of the entire case, and one that will return to haunt him as well. When he questions the preacher's daughter overzealously, she questions whether this too is not the Devil's work, but Brady's wife defends him, saying that he is after all only human, and can be wrong sometimes just as he can be right - when he is on the side of righteousness, he acts as a servant of God, but there is no cause to demonize him when he errs. It struck me that this is a sentiment that we might keep in mind when examining the mainstream media. In any event, the humanity of Brady's wife pervades the film, right up to its denouement.

The trial concludes with a somewhat anticlimactic compromise by the judge, at the prompting of the controversy-shy mayor of the town, and the teacher is found guilty but fined only $100. The whole grand debate over the truth or falsehood of evolution, and the legality of teaching it in schools, is summarily dismissed through the strict application of the state's laws. Brady refuses to accept this laodicean decision and begins to read loudly from a speech he has prepared, which triggers a fatal stroke. His now-widow is the sole character with insight into the human conflict that has surrounded the trial, and having loved her husband truly, for better or worse, is left as the only one to truly grieve his passing as well.

For me, the social context is one of religion becoming aware of the obsolescence of roles it once played, its bonds weakened by the advance of science. And I remain optimistic in believing that human thought has moved increasingly toward a scientific foundation since the revolution that took place in the 19th century, and will continued to do so although it is not clear how long this will take. I attended the Darwin Festival in Cambridge this year, marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and 150 years since the publication of "The Origin of Species." As Richard Dawkins explained there, the true greatness of Darwin was his ability to build on the work in evolution and natural selection of those who went before him in such a way as to effect a change in the popular consciousness, elevating evolution to a globally shared concept. Scott Gilbert remarked to me that it is too bad that Darwin did not join the fight himself; it was instead the scientists who understood Darwin's work, led by Thomas Huxley, who rallied to the flag of evolution. This was around the same time that scientist was being recognized as a distinct profession. And the relationship between science and society has continued on the same path ever since.

There is no humanistic problem in teaching that evolution is a scientific fact - how could there be? As I wrote before, even Darwin struggled with the implications of his theory for religious beliefs, and Haeckel in his monism tread up to a line that even the scientists of today would find difficult to accept. Even we Japanese admit that there are no atheists in foxholes. It is difficult to resist this most powerful of memes. But the sociological phenomenon of religion itself is an evolutionary one. In the film, there is a scene outside the courtroom where Brady tells Drummond that many people are living in peace through their belief in God, which evolution is set to kill, and asks why those who believe in the new science can't just leave well enough alone. This is Brady's true belief, and Hornbeck has seen through his façade. This fight, born from beliefs in people's correctness against the background of a majority-rule sentiment that empowers the religion meme, seems destined never to end and the conflict only acts as more oil poured into an already smoldering fire. That appears to be Hornbeck's true hope.

What Drummond seeks to protect is the freedom of individual thought and the right to pursue the truth; if there is a villain to the story, it is Hornbeck, sitting on the sidelines of the debate and reveling in the spectacle. Everyone else - the townsfolk, the preacher, the engaged couple - are all no more than lambs lost in a tempest. Drummond and Brady are the figures locked in a life or death struggle to shepherd this lost flock. And how do they view the struggle? The suggestion is that most of the people in this world are simply buffeted by the winds of history, with no true peace of mind, beliefs, or sense of right and wrong... By the end of the story, it is clear that Brady is the martyr. Depicting an embattled area of science education struggling within a foolishly dogmatic system, the film seems almost as if it was written with the problems of today in mind. The teacher is played by Dick York, familiar in Japan in the 1960's as the husband in the sitcom "Bewitched", and he is portrayed sympathetically in his pure love of science. But it is hard to deny that he is the sacrificial Christ figure in this allegory. Perhaps that is the real religious value... This film uses little trickery, its worth is in its multi-layered composition and in the sadness of Brady's widow, and for me addresses a problem we that still face today, for both science and religion, of what to do to elevate the ordinary. It is not just a question of right and wrong. One can never ignore the human value of ideas. This is the message of the film that resonates just as clearly for us today.