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Before last year's controversial decision in Kansas, the most famous symbol of the struggle between religion and science was the 1925 John Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee. Heralded as the original "trial of the century," the case pitted conservative Christianity (in the person of William Jennings Bryan) against Darwinian evolution (represented by Clarence Darrow). For decades, the most compelling account of the event was Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 1955 play, Inherit the Wind. The play "all but replaced the actual trial in the nation's memory," says Edward J. Larson, a historian of science and professor of law at the University of Georgia.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997), Larson cogently exposed the myths surrounding the trial and shed fresh light on long-obscured details about the case. Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa recently spoke with Larson about Kansas, Scopes, and the perennial tension between science and faith in America.

What do you think of the Kansas decision to remove evolution and the Big Bang from the subjects on which students will be tested?

I think that students should learn about evolution, and they should learn about the Big Bang. I think that's part of a basic education. I understand it was a political compromise in that state. And I hope that most individual school districts will still be teaching those subjects, because I think students should learn them.

How would you advise a school board on how to handle this issue so that there wouldn't be the need for so much political turmoil?

I would look at the local school district and the local situation, and I would try to educate the teachers ...

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Inherit the Monkey Trial
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May 22, 2000

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