Updated: January 25, 2013 20:55 IST

Slow evolution

Latha Anantharaman
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Inherit the Wind.
Special Arrangement
Inherit the Wind.

Even those of us who do remember history seem condemned to repeat it

Just when we thought that fight was over, one political party wants to bring back caste segregation, and especially to prevent women of one caste from marrying men of another. So all those stories in which boy meets girl-from-another-team, which seemed so dated as we turned another century, suddenly look fresh again.

We replay many fights in India, but there has been one honourable exception. In biology class, alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution, we don’t teach students that the universe is supported on a giant tortoise, or on the little finger of the infinitely patient Bhoodevi. That smidgeon of our scientific temper has remained robust.

On the other hand, in a country that firmly separated church from state in its own Constitution centuries ago, teachers in one school district were obliged, as recently as 2004, to present a form of creationism alongside the theory of evolution. Most people probably expected a natural end to the idea that the world was created in six days, but a few months ago a conservative American politician declared that there was no way to tell which of these stories was true.

That’s when a small volume on my shelf, cheaply re-bound in an oily red, its pages scalloped by tiny termite bites, looked fresh to me again. In Inherit The Wind, an American play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, a young science teacher stands trial for having taught the theory of evolution to his students. He lives in a conservative, vaguely Southern town, presided over by a dogmatic minister. A famed lawyer has come into town to prosecute the teacher. The defence attorney is younger but equally capable, and the two fight over the most fundamental human right, the right to think for oneself.

The play is dry and spare. There are brief displays of sentiment, but mostly readers must pay attention to delicate tone and argument. It is based on an actual trial, commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, which was deliberately set in motion in the 1920s by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools. In a small Tennessee town, the test case State vs John Scopes became the circus God vs Darwin. Nearly 30 years separate that trial from this play, but in 1955 freedom of thought was again under attack by politicians fearful of socialism and communism. Like Arthur Miller, who used the 17th Century Salem witch trials to expose political witch hunting in the 1950s, Lawrence and Lee recalled the argument over evolution to comment on their own times.

Many films have been based on Inherit The Wind, and the play was being staged as late as 2007. The anti-Darwin conservatives may not manage to introduce flat globes into geography class, provided their opponents keep up the fight. But such a play always has relevance, wherever witches are burnt, wherever freedom of thought is constrained, and whenever someone wants to drag us back into our caves.

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