Monday, April 10, 2006


This article is a comparative study of Odyssey Communications Pvt. Ltd. Vs Lokvidayan Sangathan AIR 1988 SC 1642 (the Honi Anhonee case), Edwards Vs Aguilard (482 US 510) a similar case in USA where vires of Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act (Creationism Act) was challenged and ‘The monkey trial’ where Scopes, a biology teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’.
Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Darrow during the Monkey trial on the lawns of the court - courtesy  Smithsonian Institution Archives

What The Monkey Trial has got to do with Honi Anhonee case or for that matter the Honi Anhonee TV serial, depends on how you look at it. Honi Anhonee was a television serial. It was televised every Thursday on TV. Many did not like it. It encouraged a blind belief in the supernatural and other superstitions, and spread an unscientific way of thinking. Some time later, a Pune based social organisation filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court asking that the serial be not telecast. The High Court issued an interim order restraining the airing of further episodes. The producer of the serial then filed a special leave petition.

The Supreme Court stayed the operation of the interim order and allowed the serial to be telecast. It was held that: 

  • The right of a citizen to exhibit films of his own viewpoint on Doordarshan is a part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India;
  • The serial could only be curtailed under the conditions set down under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India. 
  • The serial was neither against any specific law nor was there any loss to the public exchequer. 

The court in taking that view misdirected itself. It failed to raise the question that should the Government be party to such a serial? 

The serial was not televised on a private channel. It was televised on Doordharshan, the Government channel and the only channel at that time. The Government itself should not have permitted such a serial to be televised. Unfortunately the court's attention was neither drawn to this aspect nor did it choose to draw the Government's attention to this aspect. This still does neither clarifies what this case has to do with ‘The Monkey Trial’ nor what the monkey trial is. But before we understand it, let's talk about Charles Darwin. (see Endnote:-1)

Charles Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809. Son of a Medical practitioner, he chose not to follow his father’s profession. He thought of becoming a cleric. Then he dropped that. In 1831 he was a young man of 22 without any career and with his future in ruins. It is at this time that he received a letter inviting him to sail around the world on HMS Beagle as a naturalist. This not only changed his world but the World too. 

Five years later, Darwin returned from his voyage with some astonishing theories about the origin of species, that rocked the foundation of the Christian world. So revolutionary was his idea that he could not bring about to publish his theories. After all at some point of time in his life he had wanted to become a cleric. It is only when he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace (see Endnote-2) a young naturalist that he dared to publish his theories as the origin of species.

The Origin of Species did create enemies; strongest amongst them were the upholders of orthodox religious beliefs. If the theory of evolution was true then the account of creation in the Book of Genesis is false; and if evolution worked automatically, there was no room for divine guidance. So controversial was Darwin's theory of evolution that the first edition of his book Origin of Species was sold out within 24 hours of its publication. A record yet to be equalled. 

It was about this theory of 'Origin of Species' that most talked about debate of all times took place: it was between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley. The debate was held in 1860 at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford University. Bishop Samuel had decided that this gathering presented an opportunity to squash the ‘dangerous’ new evolutionary theory. He was a good orator. Huxley sat quietly while the bishop spoke with inimitable spirit, emptiness and unfairness.. Wilberforce made the fatal error of voicing an offensive personal inquiry about Huxley's simian ancestry, whereupon Huxley murmured to his neighbour,
‘The Lord has delivered him into my hands.’
Soon he was called to reply. This he did with devastating effect.
‘If . . . the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence, and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion ... I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.’

The Christian fundamentalist world did not appreciate the Origin of Species. In some of the states in America there was a strong move to enact an anti evolution law. In March 1925, the Tennessee legislature almost unanimously (see Endnote-3) passed a law which declared unlawful, the teaching of any doctrine denying the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible. It banned the theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin. 

John T. Scopes, a high school teacher, decided to violate it as a test case and the Civil Liberties Union promised to defend him. Scopes was arrested and indicted by a grand jury for teaching the theory of evolution. His trial attracted world-wide attention and has come to be known as The Monkey Trial. William Hennings Bryan led the prosecution and the defence lawyer was Clarrence Darrow. (see Endnote-4) Bryan opened the case with the remark,
'The trial uncovers an attack on religion. If evolution wins, Christianity goes.’
Darrow retorted,
‘Scopes is not on trial, civilisation is on trial.’
During the trial, the courtroom echoed with laughter, applause, and demonstration. There were chances that the floor might give way. The judge ordered the trial to be transferred to the court house lawn. The Judge, Jury, and counsel were seated on the raised platform and below the platform tables were set out for newspaper, telegraph and radiomen. The lawn was filled with 5000 spectators. It is in this surrounding that ‘The Monkey Trial’, described as 'the most amazing court scene in Anglo Saxon history' by the New York Times, took place.

The defence was prevented by the judge from producing any expert to prove the authenticity of the theory of evolution. At this stage Darrow asked his adversary if he would like to testify as an expert on the Bible. The offer was accepted and Bryan, the chief prosecuting counsel, entered the witness box. But by doing so he invited his own doom. Darrow tore him apart during cross-examination. The next day the judge ruled to strike out Bryan's entire testimony. This sealed the fate of the defence case. It was admitted that Scopes had taught the theory of evolution. He was convicted and fined one hundred dollars. Bryan died soon after the trial. Many say he could not withstand Darrow's cross-examination.

The matter did not rest there. An appeal was taken to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The decision was reversed, surprisingly, not on the merits of the case but on a technicality. The Supreme Court of Tennessee held that as the judge instead of the jury had fixed the amount of fine, the conviction was illegal. Three of the judges held that the anti-evolution law was constitutional, while only one judge held the law to be unconstitutional.

The anti-evolution law was later repealed in 1976. But the controversy did not end there. It arose again in the 1980's. This time it came in the form of creationism. In 1981 the State of Louisiana passed the Balanced Treatment for Creation Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act (Creationism Act). This law sought to bar the theory of evolution from being taught in public schools, unless it was accompanied by the teachings of creation science. No school was required to teach evolution or creation science. But if either is taught, the other must be taught. Creationism is a belief that some six thousand years ago the earth and all living things were suddenly created in a fashion similar to that detailed in the book of Genesis.

This time again a high school educator, Donald Aquillard challenged the act in a court of law. The previous year, the American Supreme Court in Edwards Vs Aguillard 482 US 510. by a majority of seven to two, had declared that the Louisiana requirement ran afoul of the First Amendment to the American Constitution. The majority of the court held that creation science embodies the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of mankind. It went on to say that the statute advances a religious doctrine and also seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of the government to achieve religious purposes. Of course, the two dissenting judges held that it was a valid attempt to let students decide for themselves based upon a fair representation of scientific evidence about the origin of life.

It is a short but an important step taken by the American courts from a superstitious fundamentalist view to a scientific approach. A contrast to our Supreme Court decision in the Honi Anhonee Case, which instead of moving away from the Monkey Trial as the American Courts have done, has come closer to it.

Endnote:-1: For details see The Origin by Irwing Stone.

Endnote-2: Wallace had proposed the theory of the origin of spices in his letter but it lack evidence. Darwin had collected evidence during his voyage round the world in HMS Beagle.

Endnote-3: House of Representatives by seventy-five to five and the Senate by twenty-four to six.

Endnote-4: For details see Clarance Darrow for defence by Irving Stone; Published by Signet.

1 comment:

  1. A world famous trail so lucidly narrated here. Made a very interesting read. Thanks!


STEPHEN HAWKING: Courage personified

Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest Astrophysicists of all times. He died early morning today on 14th March 2018 at the age of 76. Th...