Make way for intellectual freedom

After navigating the metro and trekking six blocks of sidewalk, fresh with rain, in heels to the Saturday night production of Inherit the Wind at the Segal Centre, I wobble to my second row seat, and find the pointed toes of my shoes at the edge of faux cobblestone flooring. The stage runs right under the feet of the front row audience, placing the entire first set of cherry-red seats on a street in Hillsboro, – a fictionalized version of Dayton, Tennessee – “a sleepy, obscure, country town about to be awakened,” according to the program.

The “Scopes Monkey Trial” took place in 1926, but it’s been played out again and again on stage ever since the script was published in 1955. School teacher John Scopes, on whom the play’s character “Bertram Cates” is based, was put on trial for discussing evolution with his high school class in a town where God’s six-day creation, as outlined in the Bible, was not to be questioned.

In this iteration, the set consists of a jail with a single cell, a front porch, a general store with a Coca-Cola ad, telephone lines strung on telephone poles that resemble crosses, and a banner that says “Read Your Bible” hung up in the town centre. In the second act, the little town is converted into a courtroom. With the addition of several rows of chairs, a fast-talking reporter from Baltimore, a small silver microphone that descends from the invisible ceiling on a long black cord, and Scopes’s defence lawyer, the town is no longer sleepy and is about to become unobscured. “Helloooo Chicago! This is live from Hillsboro!” shouts a man into the microphone.

The entire cast of townspeople is present for the trial. Clapping and booing at the appropriate times, they act in perfect unison – just like they did while praying and singing hymns in the previous scene’s church service.

Now, in the 100-degree heat of the courtroom, the absolute certainty of the scripture is called into question. The beliefs are still there, but they are slowly fraying and being pulled apart at the edges – giving way to the mere possibility, the simple right to wonder, if man might have been put on Earth by a means other than God. Has the 16-year-old school boy ever thought that his teacher might be right about evolution? Has the prosecution ever even tried reading On the Origin of Species, the text they oppose so vehemently? The defence wants to know.

Even though Scopes lost the trial on his home turf, the $100 fine did not stand up to the appeal, as outlined in the epilogue of the play. And the members of the jury that day looked nervous in their decision. The townspeople left the trial, perhaps a little less sure of their convictions. And after the trial, there was no reversing the flood of outside opinion and information let loose into Hillsboro, and every corner of America that could be reached by newspapers and telephones. The space of “small sleepy town” was no longer entirely holy, no longer wrapped up in dogma. Gone was the space dominated by a single opinion that banned questions or new ideas.

Nearly a century later, the trial is still playing itself out outside the courtrooms of Inherit the Wind productions. Religious believers still take peer-reviewed meritocratic biology up against the law – though time has brought us technologically further than freshly installed telephone wires and snail-mailed newspapers. Coverage of these trials is accessible by the same means as six-part prime-time specials on Darwin and televised mega-church Sunday morning sermons. The number of books on the subjects of evolution and faith in any given bookstore is enough for many, many sermons.

And the ground being fought for in courts is coming down to the very smallest of physical spaces. In a 2004 trial in Cobb County, Georgia, a courtroom argued over whether or not it was constitutional to place six square inches of sticker in the front of high school biology textbooks stating, in part, that, “evolution is a theory and not a fact.” The court ruled that even the small sticker was not to be granted a place in the science classroom.

These days, dogma is struggling to find its space. It’s a nice epilogue.

Shannon Palus will be writing in this space again in two weeks. Write to her at