To say that history is contingent upon a certain event happening is redundant. A certain event happens because of a certain event preceding it. Going into the what-ifs of history is enough to make even the most far-sighted historians head spin. What if British spy Eddie Chapman had been given the go-ahead by Churchill to assassinate Hitler? Would it have ended the war or allowed Hitler’s generals, now unhindered, to make the right battle field calls? What if The U.S. had not given lifesaving aid and support to Ho Chi Minh prior to the Vietnam War, would we have found ourselves entangled in that military debacle? Kyoto was not chosen to be nuked because Secretary of War was fond of it because of his honeymoon there! The list of what-ifs and historical possibilities goes on and on but we are left with is the history that has actually happened. Personally I think the path that world history has followed has been plenty interesting without any of the what-ifs coming to fruition.
The historical sense of contingency must be taken into account when discussing the Scopes Monkey Trial. While the defense attempted to turn the case into an epic showdown of religion vs. science, attorney general Stewart deftly kept the case within the narrow confines he favored. Had it remained that way the case could have been a little more boring, but when Darrow shocked the courtroom by calling Bryan to the stand, they had an all-out verbal battle on the merits of literal biblical interpretation in which, as history has shown, Bryan was the clear loser. But what if Darrow had succeeded in being allowed to call his expert witnesses on evolution to the stand? It is entirely possible that many Americans, uneducated or ignorant to the idea of evolution, would have been informed of the scientific basis for evolution. Perhaps public perception could have shifted towards intellectual progression then and there. However that did not happen, instead rural Americans got to hang onto their religious ideals and would continue to remain blissfully unaware of scientific progress for the time being. As one juror stated as his reason for being unaware of evolution, “I can’t read,” because,” I am uneducated.”(153) it is important to put yourself in the context of the trial when reading this book. The idea of evolution is taken for granted nowadays, however in the South at this time, many uneducated people had nothing but the Bible and the exhortations of fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan to learn from. For them Evolution was blasphemy and the idea that their children would learn about it was simply unacceptable. Still there were so many close calls in this case regarding our nation’s future development that if the trial were to be replayed it’s hard to imagine the same outcome. Had Malone not followed Bryan’s virulent speech with an impassioned, fervent speech of his own, the trial would have been won right then and there. Malone commanded the floor, excoriating anti-evolutionists by declaring, “We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America. We are not afraid” (179). Such a robust response to Bryan’s camp brought the crowd to thunderous applause. While the judge inevitably ruled against allowing the evidence, it did give the defense enough leeway to include the testimony in their eventual appellate review, their initial intention anyways. Had Bryan simply commanded the stage there is no telling if that would have been possible. Finally, Clarence Darrow’s cross examination of William Jennings Bryan revealed the severe shortcomings in both reason and science that Bryan’s beliefs had. The public realized the path they would head down if they blindly followed the Bible, a path marred with corpses burned at the stake and intellectual ineptitude.
Thankfully history took the course it did and we now live in a society in which we are free to think and say as we feel. However we should never think that we have progressed to a point where we can’t fall back to our dark ages. There are many fundamentalists and extremists out there who would do anything it takes to make a world in their view. One shaped by intolerance and persecution. History has come close many times to allowing people to form societies like this and for the most part people with strong convictions have stood up for what is right. We cannot let ourselves become complacent and let our society progress backwards or 100 years form now, students living in a police state will be wondering, “What if we hadn’t let the government have unmitigated access into our private lives?”
“We stand on the cusp of a new age, which path shall we take, one of fear and safety, or one of wonder and freedom.”
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” -Benjamin Franklin