So I recently did one of those very writer-like things. I produced a retrospective on the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas “monkey trial” for the Arkansas Times, our local monthly magazine of culture and politics, and I paid no heed to the word count at all. In that haze of creativity, I just kept writing and writing, and then I compounded the authorial stereotype by sending them the whole damn thing, convinced that they would make room for all of my brilliance. Well, as I should have expected, they cut the piece by about a third. While I admire their editing, I am still enamored of my original, as I believed it developed some of the core ideas a little more deeply, and so I present it here with the hope that this doesn’t seem too self-indulgent.
Creationists v. Arkansas: Re-Evaluating the 1981 “Monkey Trial”
By Guy Lancaster
In his 1874 paper “The Ethics of Belief,” Cambridge philosopher and mathematician William K. Clifford tells the story of a shipowner who worries about the seaworthiness of a vessel about to carry a group of emigrants to their new lives across the ocean: “He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs.” However, he was able to dismiss these concerns from his mind and “put his trust in Providence” and watched the departure of the ship “with a light heart.” In the end, “he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tells.” Clifford concludes that our fictional shipowner should be judged guilty of the deaths of these people: “It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.”
While devout believers of missionizing religions do typically consider the personal belief of others a matter of ethical concern (is it ethical to let people go to hell?), most of us on the liberal spectrum tend to be a little more accommodating, at least as long as personal beliefs do not threaten a society built upon mutual tolerance and respect. But many personal beliefs today do endanger us collectively. Anti-vaxxers believe without evidence that vaccines, by their very nature, cause health problems, and as a result the nation has recently undergone several outbreaks of measles. Today, the cry of “religious freedom” serves as a rallying point for those who would deny public accommodations to non-heterosexual people, just as in decades past the cry of “religious freedom” served to rally those who wanted to keep their schools segregated, and in both cases these proponents of “religious freedom” believed without evidence that the nation would experience divine calamity for extending basic rights to gays and non-whites, respectively. Veritable reigns of terror have been fashioned from deeply held beliefs unsupported by the slightest whisper of evidence, as the parents of Sandy Hook victims can well attest.
Clifford would argue that people like climate change denialists and Pizzagate enthusiasts have no right to their beliefs, not simply because these beliefs do not accord with the evidence at hand, but because these beliefs can and do cause harm to other people. It’s a radical notion–the idea that a belief which has an impact beyond the individual must withstand the encounter with reality in order to be considered ethical. Such radicalism has emerged into our public discourse only a few times in our history. One of those was Arkansas in the year 1982, with Judge William Overton’s ruling in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.
The McLean v. Arkansas case centered upon the constitutionality of Act 590, a law that mandated equal time for so-called “creation science” in public school classrooms where the theory of evolution was taught. Although the people of Arkansas had, back in 1928, outlawed the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools through an initiated act (a law overturned in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Epperson v. Arkansas), the driving force behind what became Act 590 was, perhaps surprisingly, “from off”–that is, from out of state. A man named Wendell Bird of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, California, had drawn up a model bill for teaching creationism alongside evolutionary theory, and this model was picked up by respiratory therapist Paul Ellwanger of South Carolina, founder of the organization Citizens for Fairness in Education. He tinkered with Bird’s original work and sent it to state legislators across the country, hoping to get a bite, thus making Act 590 a clear example of what we call today “cookie-cutter legislation.”
There is some irony in the fact that the ignorance soon associated with Arkansas in the fallout of its own “monkey trial” was imported from California by way of South Carolina. But despite public protestations that the model legislation simply called for “equal time” for both scientific theory and creationism, that it in fact expanded the range of subjects that might be considered by students, those behind the law had no interest in fashioning equality for evolution and creationism. In a letter to State Senator Bill Keith of Louisiana that became public during the trial, Ellwanger wrote, “I view this whole battle as one between God and anti-God forces, though I know there are a large number of evolutionists who believe in God.” He also stated in a letter to one Tom Bethell that “we’re not making any scientific claims for creation, but we are challenging evolution’s claim to be scientific.” As historian Matthew McNair has written: “From a scientific viewpoint, the core problem with creation science is not that creation-scientists believe in a creator… but that creation-science activists have no positive evidence; that is, the sole purpose of the creation-science movement is not to explain but merely to debunk evolutionary theory.”
Multiple Arkansas legislators received copies of Ellwanger’s model bill and passed on it. But not James L. Holsted, a state senator from North Little Rock and a “born again” Christian. He introduced the legislation, Senate Bill 482, into the Senate without ever once consulting with the Arkansas Department of Education or any educators or scientists, and the bill passed the Senate on March 13, 1981, without ever going through a committee for hearings and with only a few minutes of discussion on the Senate floor. The House of Representatives conducted only a fifteen-minute hearing before passing the bill 69–18.
At this point, the general public was awakening to the likelihood that Arkansas was about to perform yet another act of self-inflicted harm. A passage from Jack Butler’s novel Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock speaks to the panic that was rising among the more liberal denizens of Arkansas:
“What did the Senate do?” Suddenly terrified by a number. The number of the beast. No, not that, another number: 482. Senate Bill 482. As if he had forgotten a murder, as if the dizziness at the back of his head was in fact a whirlpool, a spinning drain, as if something vital was spilling away down it, lost forever. “The Senate bill,” he insisted. “The one in the news.”
The bill now went to Frank White, whose bid the previous year to be only the second Republican Party governor since the death of Reconstruction was initially regarded as a long shot at best. But this obscure Little Rock banker hammered first-term wonderkid Bill Clinton relentlessly over “Cubans and car tags”–that is, the discord at Fort Chaffee due to an influx of Cuban refugees, and Clinton’s having increased automobile licencing fees. After eking out a 32,000-vote margin of victory, Frank White proclaimed his win “a victory for the Lord,” and so perhaps it was not at all surprising that the new governor signed the creation science bill into law on March 19, 1981. Nor was it surprising that he later admitted not having read the bill before signing it. Frank White had not really expected to become governor and entered office without the sort of legislative program that might guide the bills coming to his desk. This bill no doubt spoke to his own religious sentiments. After signing it, the governor extravagantly exclaimed to assembled reporters that Arkansas had assumed the scientific leadership of the known world.
(From this point onward, Arkansas Gazette cartoonist George Fisher would depict Frank White holding a half-eaten banana in one hand. Some things just stick like that–you enter office without a legislative plan and end up being forever defined by a bill you didn’t even read.)
Suddenly, national media attention was focused upon Arkansas, with the inevitable lawsuit fostering predictions of a sequel to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. In response, some state legislators pleaded ignorance about the bill they had just passed. Senator Holsted himself acknowledged knowing very little about the subject of his bill, saying that if he had foreseen so many people asking him about creationism, “I might have gotten scared off because I don’t know anything about that stuff.” But he stuck to his guns, unlike others, who had turned around to denounce SB 482 as unconstitutional. Sure, they had voted for it, but they had not expected it to actually pass–they just wanted to make sure they were on the right side of religious issues when the next election rolled around. As McNair notes, “This casts dubious light on the assertion by some that SB482 was purely a bill to promote science education.” Some legislators floated the idea of a special session in order to revoke the law, but Governor White pledged to veto any such bill, and so everyone waited for the ACLU and others to file suit. And when they did, Act 590 became the new cause celebre for the Moral Majority. Arkansas had stumbled right into a new monkey trial, with national attention fixated upon the goings-on in Little Rock.
The trial began on December 7, 1981, and continued through December 17, 1981. Among the plaintiffs were a number of clergy representing Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Jewish, and other groups whose inclusion was designed to counter the Moral Majority framing of the debate as one of atheism versus Christianity (the name of the court case takes itself from a United Methodist minister, Reverend William McLean). Other plaintiffs included biology teachers and organizations like the Arkansas Education Association. The ACLU took a two-pronged approach, with a “religious team” of witnesses arguing that creationism was an explicitly religious doctrine, and a “scientific team” whose job was to undercut the supposed scientific claims of creationism.
The state honestly had the more difficult job, and not just because it was forced to defend a law that had undergone no debates and that the few who voted for it even understood. Attorney General Steve Clark was seen as, at best, a reluctant defender of Act 590, and a number of state and national groups attempted to sign on as institutional defendants, citing a statement of Clark’s that he had “personal qualms” about the constitutionality of the act as a sign that he would not represent the case for creationism with full fervor. However, Judge Overton refused to allow any outside intervention. A September 2, 1981, Gazette cartoon by George Fisher, titled “The Intervenors,” depicts Clark, wearing old-fashioned riding gear and driving the sort of car that carried the Clampitts to California in The Beverly Hillbillies. The car is labeled, “Creation Science Case,” and in the voluminous back seat is a rowdy assemblage of men (along with one woman and a monkey), one at his own pulpit, one throwing leaflets into the wind, and one, with a steering wheel of his own, shouting, “Judge Overton or no Judge overton–I just don’t trust that driver!”
Then, it came to light in December 1981, in the very midst of the trial, that Clark had allowed the ACLU to auction off a dinner with him as part of a fundraising campaign. This raised the ire of the Moral Majority. On The 700 Club, Pat Robertson described Clark as “crooked,” while Jerry Falwell accused him of “collusion or worse.” Adherents of creationism felt that the fix was in.
From the moment Act 590 was passed, on up through the trial later that year, many equated their advocacy for creationism with democracy itself. Senator Holsted, who introduced the bill, said, “My job as a politician and as a senator from North Little Rock is to introduce something that represents my beliefs and the beliefs of the majority of my constituents, which I am convinced that bill does.” According to Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist of science who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the McLean trial, many state witnesses accused “evolutionary biologists of ‘censorship,’ of ‘country club exclusion,’ of keeping those theories which were incompatible with their personal or philosophical views ‘out of the marketplace of ideas.’” Governor White liked to brag that the mail he received was five-to-one in favor of Act 590. Letters to the Arkansas Gazette regularly echoed the democratic rhetoric of those who promoted the bill, with one being titled, “Can 22 State Senators Be Wrong?” And when a judiciary not subject to democratic limitations dared to sit in judgment upon a popular idea, it evoked a great deal of ire; or as one correspondent to the Gazette wrote: “The majority did not vote these judges or laws, but enemies and subversives have infiltrated the security and legal systems, the courts, the schools, including Communists and the Mafia and evil moral perverts in every form of disguise and deception.” Even Attorney General Clark could not help implying that popular acclaim somehow legitimized the law, saying of the religious leaders testifying against Act 590: “I don’t think they represent the cross section of Christians in our state.”
Creationism may have been (and perhaps still is) popular, but as a philosophical point of view, is it actually democratic? No. As one of the founders of modern young-earth creationism, Henry M. Morris, whose work was cited in the McLean ruling, wrote in an early textbook of his: “… it is … quite impossible to determine anything about Creation through a study of present processes, because present processes are not creative in character. If man wishes to know anything about Creation (the time of Creation, the duration of Creation, the order of Creation, the methods of Creation, or anything else) his sole source of true information is that of divine revelation. God was there when it happened. We were not there … Therefore, we are completely limited to what God has seen fit to tell us, and this information is in His written Word.” Likewise, Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, and a prominent witness for the defense, once wrote, “God used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to divine creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the creative processes used by God.” In other words, in the creationist mindset, average people themselves cannot access the truth about the world by observing the present state of things and working backward, building upon our knowledge, making new discoveries as our technology advances. Harold Coffin, a creationist writer and witness for the defense, admitted in a deposition that scientific inquiry would lead to the conclusion that the earth was billions of years old but that his view “is not so much based on scientific evidence as on Scriptural-historical information”–or counting backward through the generations listed in the Bible to determine when God created the world. Such claims show up across the spectrum of modern Christian fundamentalism, but there were elements of this from the early years of the Church; as St. Augustine put it: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but rather to believe that you may understand.”
Creationists like to accuse real scientists of constituting a “country club” set with an undemocratic hold upon education, but the scientific method is fundamentally democratic. Anyone can, for example, test the rate of acceleration due to gravity on Earth, regardless of the experimenter’s nationality, age, race, religion, or gender, and come up with the same answer. The recent Netflix documentary Behind the Curve features a group of flat-earthers engaging in experiments to test flat-earth ideology, and despite their fervent belief, each one of these experiments only helped to confirm that the earth is, in fact, a globe. Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote: “The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge.” However, according to creationists, God, the creator of the universe, designed this world of ours to lie to us. The only people who have access to the truth are those who not only believe in a God but believe in the right kind of God the right kind of way, and the only way to evaluate claims of knowledge is via one of these self-appointed emissaries of God. And to think that they call scientists “elitists.”
It honestly surprised no one when Judge Overton ruled, on January 5, 1982, that Act 590 was unconstitutional. As expected, he based a large part of his ruling on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, finding that creationism was a religious doctrine which could not be supported by the state, and that no amount of public support justified its inclusion in educational curricula: “The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.”
But Judge Overton also took the time to expound upon the nature of science and thus illustrate just how far creationism was removed from actual scientific method. Namely, he listed five essential characteristics of science: (1) It is guided by natural law; (2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) It is testable against the empirical world; (4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and (5) It is falsifiable.
In other words, science is the pursuit of understanding reality, and in that, science is not so different from other pursuits of ours. Harvard University biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who testified in the McLean trial, recounted later how, when he returned to his hotel room in preparation to leave Little Rock, he encountered a plumber looking for the source of a water leak that had caused the ceiling in the room below to collapse. Said plumber gave the biologist “a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls” that “was perfectly logical and mechanistic.” However, when Gould asked the plumber his opinion on the trial across the street, “he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.” Apparently, the plumber did not recognize the fact that the principles underlying his own work–tracing effects back to causes–also served as the foundation of evolutionary biology.
A plumber operating according to the tenets of some faith–doctrines which tell him to disregard his observations and tests–would not long remain in business. As University of Chicago biologist Jerry A Coyne has written, “science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe. ‘Knowledge’ acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions. In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding this reality.”
The McLean case was never appealed–likely thanks to the strong opinion written by Judge Overton–and thus never had the chance to establish a precedent at the Supreme Court level. However, five years after McLean, the U.S. Supreme Court had the opportunity to weigh in on a Louisiana law that also demanded “equal time” between creationism and actual science in the classroom. While Justice William Brennan’s ruling in Edward v. Aguillard found that the Louisiana law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, it did little to address the fundamental inaccuracies of so-called “creation science” and even evinced a sympathetic attitude toward creationism in how it tackled the issue of “balance.” For Brennan, the key to his ruling seemed the fact that, despite its contention otherwise, the law did little to advance “equal time.” As he writes, the Louisiana law “evinces a discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science and against the teaching of evolution by requiring that curriculum guides be developed and resource services supplied for teaching creationism, but not for teaching evolution, by limiting membership on the resource services panel to ‘creation scientists,’ and by forbidding school boards to discriminate against anyone who ‘chooses to be a creation scientist’ or to teach creation science, while failing to protect those who choose to teach other theories or who refuse to teach creation science.” The real kicker comes in the following line: “A law intended to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction would encourage the teaching of all scientific theories about human origins.” But Brennan never defines “scientific theories” the way that Overton did, and this rhetoric of teaching “all scientific theories about human origins” seems to reflect the demands of creationists themselves. In other words, for Brennan, the issue was not the fundamental invalidity of creationism but rather the fact that creationists, in this case, were simply too greedy and sought absolute dominance in the marketplace of ideas. Or as McNair has written, “Rather than draw upon Overton’s definition of science and rejection of thinly veiled religious dogma, Brennan has instead codified the High Court’s sympathy with religion-infused pseudoscience, even as the bill championing such pseudoscience is rejected as unconstitutional.”
In the Book of Genesis, there is the story of Joseph, whose jealous half-brothers conspire to sell him into slavery. He undergoes a series of adventures and ends up right-hand-man to the pharaoh of Egypt. Many years later, a famine sends Joseph’s half-brothers to Egypt to seek food, and Joseph finds that he is in the perfect position to help his family. As he tells them of their original crime, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.”
In like manner, those who foisted Act 590 upon Arkansas intended evil for its citizens; they intended to inaugurate a reign of ignorance that would leave the state crippled and its citizenry without the tools to understand reality. And as with William K. Clifford’s shipowner, it matters not in the slightest that they truly believed in their cause and wished only the best: “For although they had sincerely and conscientiously believed in the charges they had made, yet they had no right to believe on such evidence as was before them.” We are lucky that the only major harm they caused was to Arkansas’s image.
But although these creationists meant evil, the result of their efforts was, as manifested in Judge Overton’s eloquent ruling, a full-throated defense of the scientific method, one that would remain unparalleled in jurisprudence until the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case that similarly destroyed the intellectual pretensions of intelligent design (and, like the McLean ruling, was never appealed to the Supreme Court). Many who lived through the trial remember McLean as a blight upon Arkansas, an embarrassment for a state that perennially lingered at the bottom of any ranking (save for, maybe, rice production and teen pregnancy). But we should remember, instead, the rousing vindication of rationality and democracy that emerged from this time of trial. For although the creationists meant it for evil, Act 590–in the hands of the plaintiffs and Judge Overton–was turned into an opportunity for good.