Inherit the . . . Air: Dialing for Darwin on His 200th Birthday

Before settling down for a small-screening of Inherit the Wind, I twisted the dial in search of the man from whose contemporaries we inherited the debate it depicts: Charles Darwin, born, like Abraham Lincoln, on this day, 12 February 1809. Like Lincoln, Darwin was a liberator among folks who resisted free thinking, a man whose ideas not only broadened minds but roused the ire of the close-minded–stick in the muds who resented being traced to the mud primordial, dreaded having what they conceived of as being set in stone washed away in the flux of evolution, and resolved instead to keep humanity from evolving. On BBC radio, at least, Darwin is the man of the hour. His youthful Beagle Diary is currently being read to us in daily installments; his “Voyages of Descent” with Captain FitzRoy have been newly dramatized; and his theories are the subject of numerous talks and documentaries.

The bicentenary celebrations got underway early at the Natural History Museum in London, where last December I visited an exhibition of artifacts and documents from Darwin’s journeys of discovery, quests that had their origin here in the west of Britain: “In August quietly wandering about Wales, in February in a different hemisphere; nothing ever in this life ought to surprise me,” young Darwin noted.

Nor should resistance to change. Back in 1935 (as Erik Barnouw reminds us in A Tower in Babel), when the hostile response to Darwin’s theories resulted in a media event known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, station WGN, Chicago, took the microphone straight into the courtroom so that listeners might hear defense attorney Clarence Darrow ask prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, “Mr. Bryan, do you believe that the first woman was Eve?”

Bryan professed to believe just that; and unable to sway the jurors from thinking otherwise, Darrow lost the case—a case that, if some politicians had had their way, would not have been made public. It was not just the espousal but the very mention of Darwin’s ideas that was considered a threat. An amendment to ban all broadcasts of “discourses” about Darwin was proposed in the 69th United States Congress. If that amendment had passed, the evolution could not be televised today.

It comes as no surprise either that the two men who penned Inherit the Wind were former broadcast writers; in fictionalizing the trial, they disowned the medium that had imposed so many restrictions upon them, that kept potentially incendiary ideas from being disseminated; that, in the interest of public calm—as opposed to the public interest—was apt to cast aside what it did not dare to cast broadly.

It was not until long after his death that Darrow, once known as the “boy who would argue against everything,” became the subject of a CBS radio documentary; in it, many outspoken thinkers—including Edith Sampson, the first black US delegate appointed to the United Nations—were heard arguing in his defense.

Perhaps, I am overstating my case when say that Darwin was too hot for radio; yet even when his ideas were presented on the air, they needed to be cooled down so as not to inflame anew. In 1946, a dramatization of his career was attempted for The Human Adventure, an educational program produced by CBS in co-operation with the University of Chicago. As Max Wylie put it in his foreword to a published script from the series, The Human Adventure presented

dramatic interpretations of the progress being made in university research throughout the world, progress in any of the thirty thousand research projects that are now being worked on by scholars and scientists in this country and in the centers of learning throughout the civilized world.

The description does not quite fit the episode in question, which transports listeners to a less civilized, less enlightened past. It opens on a “leisurely day in London” anno 1859. On 24 November, to be precise, the very day on which Darwin’s Origin of the Species went on sale. The scene is a bookstore, the dialogue between a young scholar and his formidable aunt who disapproves of Darwinian notions:

When I was a girl, we knew exactly how old the world was. Bishop Ussher proved it in the scriptures. The world, he proved, was created in the year 4004 BC, on a Friday in October at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Not that the lad is particularly up-to-date; “everyone knows that animals don’t change” and that “species remain exactly as created,” he argues. “Every kind fixed and separate.” Darwin’s new book was flung at that rickety bandwagon, as the play drives home. “Instantly, overnight, the lines of conflict are drawn. The complaisant, orthodox world, which is Victorian England, erupts into a storm of controversy.”

The narrative soon shifts from social agitation to the thrill of exploration and pioneering. It emphasizes the spirit of “Adventure” over the dispiritingly “Human” by introducing us to the younger Darwin aboard the Beagle, the eager scientist in his laboratory, and the ailing researcher supported by a loving spouse. Without diverging from facts, the drama suggests that Darwin’s theory were not quite so earth-shattering after all, a similar treatise having preceded it that threatened to render Darwin’s own publication redundant. Without omitting a reference to monkeys, the broadcast refuses to acknowledge that its subject matter continued to make zealots go ape.

Defusing Darwin’s prehistoric time bomb, The Human Adventure argued the “storm of abuse,” the “bitter intemperate, all too human controversy” to be “behind us now.” The voices of protest give way to a demonstration of how Darwin’s words echo the theories of scientists from around the world, an enlightened world united through science. Science fiction, in short.

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