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As both the Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law and University Professor of history, Edward J. Larson writes and teaches about science, medicine, and law as viewed through an historical lens.

With eight published books, one of which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and more than one hundred published articles, Larson is a curious and prolific scholar on a mission to explore how American law shapes society and how society shapes American law.

Pepperdine Law sat down with Larson to discuss his work.

You grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, attending public schools. At what point did you want to be a professor and scholar?

Mansfield is a working class town. My brother worked in the steel mill, and I worked in the assembly lines in the summer, but my mother's cousin—who was like an uncle to me—was a professor. He seemed to have a wonderful life. I thought law was a possibility because my father was the county judge. I thought about going to college, about going to law school, and about going on in history, so I did them all.

How do history and law intertwine?

One thing that history and law have in common is that they are both very fact-oriented, and I always contend with my students that the facts drive the law. Whether writing a book or a law review article, teaching a class or arguing a case in court, you've got to tell a story, you've got to lay out the facts. The law and the results should follow from those facts. Stories are all about people and society. We learn about ourselves and we learn about others through stories. We learn about justice, law, and culture through stories.

Is there a story or a key moment when you first became interested in the whole creation/evolution debate?

I was going to write my dissertation on the history of eugenics. I was working on that, which eventually became my second book, and then my major professor died. I had to switch major professors and my new major professor was an expert on the creationist movement. He knew I had a law degree and studied the interface of law, society, and science. He wanted me to work on the creation/evolution controversy. My first reaction was, "I don't know why there is a controversy," because that is not something I had ever lived with.

I wrote my dissertation with him on the creation/evolution legal controversy—the battle in the courts—going all the way back to the 1800s. Later I wrote the Scopes book, which in some ways was an elaboration on one small part of my dissertation. The creation/evolution controversy has remained with us and is as alive today as it was during the Scopes trial and the issues are much the same.

Why is that?

Because religion matters. This is not an American issue; it's worldwide, certainly in Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia. If people are presented with the choice between choosing God and religion, or choosing Darwin and science, most of them are going to choose God and religion. Extremists on both sides of this issue will say that there are only two choices: science or religion. This is sad. The choice causes a lot of disquiet, antagonism, and division. I don't think you're forced to make that choice. I think they're reconcilable and compatible.

Now that you're an established scholar writing on law, history, and science, how do you choose what you want to write about?

To write anything well, you've got to have passion. I care about law, I care about science, and I care about how they impact us. I care about culture. So first you've got to care about the topic and then second you should have something to say. If you have something to say, the article or book should write itself. I like to research even more than I like to write. When I get a topic that interests me I want to keep digging and digging until I know everything about it, until I understand it.

The other factor is to try to pick a topic that is significant or makes a difference. That is what I anticipated about working on eugenics because I have followed science closely. I worked on genetics in college and graduate school. I saw the growth of recombinant DNA technology and human gene therapy. Eugenics was largely forgotten; most people had never heard of eugenics back then, so it was something new I could bring back. I knew it was growing increasingly relevant with the emergence of human gene therapy.

The Scopes trial was like that. I knew the real story was very different from the legend that appears in the play and movie Inherit the Wind. I believed that the actual trial was more relevant to what was happening in the 1990s and 2000s. Inherit the Wind was more about McCarthyism than creationism. What was coming in 2000 and beyond was Intelligent Design. I knew the real events of the Scopes trial spoke to these new issues. It was a story I felt passionate about. It was an historic legal battle involving a dispute between science and religion in America's culture. So, I had something to say, and I thought it was significant to say it.

Does your book A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 fall into this category?

Yes, no historian or legal scholar had ever really told the blow-by-blow story of the 1800 election. Conventional wisdom doesn't give enough emphasis to the election of 1800 in shaping American democracy. The focus tends to be upon the Constitutional Convention and the Revolutionary War. Those were relevant, but I view the 1800 election as the third leg of the stool in designing how our American democracy actually operates.

Beyond this, the story was timely. The level of partisanship in American politics tends to rise and fall over time. 1800 marked one high point in partisanship. The last few years mark another. So the election of 1800 was a relevant story for today. It's also a gripping story involving larger-than-life characters: John Adams, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. You couldn't have a greater cast of characters.

What's your advice for the next generation of scholars?

Pursue your passions and a particular job will follow. Take opportunities to speak and to write as often as you can. Agree to give talks and write articles on anything that interests you. Try to study under, take classes from, or just meet, people who are experts in that field. There are still endless opportunities for people who work hard and follow their dreams.

Career Highlights

  • Earned his JD from Harvard University and an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin
  • Holds the Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law and is University Professor of history
  • Recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997)
  • Author of eight books, including A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (2007), Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory (2005, 2006 rev. ed.); Evolution's Workshop: God and Science in the Galapagos Islands (2001); Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (1995); Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution (1985, 2003 rev. ed.)
  • His next book, An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science, is due out in 2011.

History's Evolution

Professor Ed Larson describes how art and culture affect history and law in the case of the Broadway play Inherit the Wind and the notorious 1925 Scopes Trial.

Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion illuminated the history of the famous 1925 Scopes trial, in which science teacher John Scopes was tried and convicted for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution—violating a Tennessee law that forbade teaching any theory that conflicted with a literal reading of the biblical account of creation.

The book reveals how the fictionalized play and movie versions of the trial affected culture and changed how Americans perceived the trial. The original play opened on Broadway on January 10, 1955, and played for nearly three years. Inherit the Wind was revived on Broadway in 2007, starring Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. The following excerpt of Larson's book ran in the play's commemorative program.

The play was not history, as Lawrence and Lee stressed in their introduction. "Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes trial. Some of the characters of the play are related to the colorful figures in that battle of giants; but they have a life and language of their own—and therefore, names of their own."

For their two starring roles, the writers chose sound-alike names: Bryan became Brady and Darrow was Drummond. The role of the Baltimore Sun's H. L. Mencken was expanded to become the Baltimore Herald's E. K. Hornbeck. Scopes became Cates. Tom Stewart diminished into a minor role as Tom Davenport. Malone, Hays, Neal, Rappleyea, and the ACLU disappeared from the play altogether, as did the WCFA and all the hometown prosecutors. Dayton (called Hillsboro) gained a mayor and a fire-breathing fundamentalist pastor who subjugated the townspeople until Darrow came to set them free with his cool reason. Scopes acquired a fiancé—"She is twenty-two, pretty but not beautiful," the stage directions read, and she is the fearsome preacher's daughter.

"They had to invent romance for the balcony set," Scopes later joked. It may not have been accurate history, but it was brilliant theater—and it all but placed the actual trial in the nation's memory. The play wove three fundamental changes into the story line (in addition to countless minor ones), all of which served the writers' objectives of debunking McCarthyism.

The first change involved Scopes and Dayton. Ralph Waldo Emerson once described a mob as "a society of bodies voluntarily bereaving themselves of reason." In Inherit the Wind, Cates becomes the innocent victim of mob-enforced antievolution law. The stage directions begin, "It is important to the concept of the play that the town is always visible, looming there, as much on trial as the individual defendant." In the movie version, the town fathers haul Cates out of his classroom for teaching evolution. Limited to a few sets, the play begins with the defendant in jail explaining to his fiancé, "You know why I did it. I had the book in my hand, Hunter's Civic Biology, I opened it up and read to my sophomore science class Chapter 17, Darwin's Origin of Species."

For innocently doing his job, Cates "is threatened with fine and imprisonment," according to the script. This change provoked trial correspondent Joseph Wood Krutch. "The little town of Dayton behaved on the whole quite well," he wrote in a rebuttal. "The atmosphere was so far from being sinister that it suggested a circus day. Yet he complained, "The authors of Inherit the Wind made it chiefly sinister, a witch hunt of the sort we are now all too familiar with." Scopes never truly faced jail, Krutch reminded readers, and the defense actually instigated the trial. "Thus it was all in all a strange sort of witch trial," he concluded, "one in which the accused won a scholarship enabling him to attend graduate school and the only victim was the chief witness for the prosecution, poor old Bryan."

Second, the writers transformed Bryan into a mindless, reactionary creature of the mob. Brady was "the biggest man in the country—next to the President, maybe," the audience heard at the outset, who "came here to find himself a stump to shout from. That's all." In the play, he assails evolution solely on narrow biblical grounds (never suggesting the broad social concerns that largely motivated Bryan) and denounces all science as "Godless," rather than the so-called false "science of evolution."

"Inherit the Wind dramatically illustrates why so many Americans continue to believe in the mythical war between science and religion," Ronald Numbers later wrote. "But in doing so it sacrifices the far more complex historically reality"… Drummond remains a self-proclaimed agnostic, but loses his crusading materialism. At the play's end, it is Hornbeck who delivers Darrow's famous line that Bryan "died of a busted belly" and ridicules the Commoner's fool religion. Drummond reacts with anger. "You smartaleck! You have no more right to spit on his religion then you have a right to spit on my religion! Or lack of it!" he replies.

The writers have Drummond issue the liberal McCarthy's plea for tolerance that everyone has the "right to be wrong!" The cynical reporter than calls the defense lawyer "more religious" than Brady, and storms off the stage. Left alone in the courtroom, Drummond picks up the defendant's copy of The Origin of Species and the judge's Bible. After "balancing them thoughtfully, as if his hands were scales," the stage directions state, the attorney "jams them in his briefcase side by side," and slowly walks off the now-empty stage. "A bit of religious disinfectant is added to the agnostic legend for audiences whose evolutionary stage is not yet very high," the radical Village Voice sneered in its review.

At the time, most published reviews of the stage and screen versions of Inherit the Wind criticized the writers' portrayal of the Scopes trial. "History has been not increased but almost fatally diminished," the New Yorker drama critic complained. Reviews appearing in publications ranging from Commonweal and the New York Herald Tribune to The New Republic and the Village Voice offered similar critiques.

Both the play and movie proved remarkably durable, however, despite the critics. After opening at New York's National Theater early in 1955, the stage version played for nearly three years, making it the longest-running drama then on Broadway. A touring cast took the play to major cities around the country during the late fifties. The script gained new life as a screenplay in 1960, resulting in a hit movie starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly. John Scopes attended its world premiere in Dayton, and thereafter promoted the movie across the country at the studio's behest.

"Of course, it altered the facts of the real trial," Scopes commented, but maintained that "the film captured the emotions in the battle of words between Bryan and Darrow." Sue Hicks, the only other major participant to attend the premiere, reacted quite differently to the film. He called it "a travesty on William Jennings Bryan," and nearly purchased television time to denounce it. Since its initial release, the movie has appeared continually on television and video, while the play has become a staple for community and school theatrical groups. By 1967, trial correspondent Joseph Wood Krutch could rightly comment, "Most people who have any notions about the trial get them from the play, Inherit the Wind, or from the movie."

Excerpted from Edward J. Larson's Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Basic Books 1997).