Discussion Questions

The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 was the first of several trials over teaching evolution in the United States (TIMELINE OF TRIALS). Though these trials are often described as emblems of an age-old ‘conflict between science and religion’ their stories are much more complicated. Each represents a struggle at a particular moment in time between a range of assumptions and forces in American culture and society, from the proper role of science in American life to the best means of democratic governance. Reflecting on what was ‘at stake’ in the Scopes trial, for a range of characters, can help us attend more carefully to the complicated nature of more recent debates.

Part 1 ~ The Naturalists

In The Species Maker, naturalists like Martin are struggling with various pressures on both scientists and citizens to do their part to make the world a better place after a traumatic war. Science is seen, at least by some, as an important means of both technological and social progress. With what values and rules, held by the scientific community, do these pressures come into conflict? What are Phoebe and Erna Gunther’s concerns about how science is being applied to social issues? How do you think scientists should deal with pressures to be useful guides on important issues?

Part 2 ~ The Ministers

Though the debates over evolution are often described as a conflict between science and religion, we see a range of controversies occurring within Christianity and within biology in these chapters. What is at stake in these debates and why do people seem to care so much about them? What are the main differences between Reverend Gray and Reverend Harrison’s reaction to evolution and science? Why do Josiah and Martin read The Descent of Man so differently? Based on conversations between Reverend Harrison, Josiah, Martin, Will and Ben thus far, how and why was evolution being applied to debates over how humans should behave and treat one another?

Part 3 ~ Revelations

Make a list of the various factors that influenced allegiance and the various factors that influenced opposition to evolution that have appeared thus far in the novel. How many versions of Christianity have you seen thus far? How many versions of evolution? How many different stances on the relationship between Christianity and evolution? How and why do evolutionary ideas seem to be drawn upon by different political and ideological stances? Why might Martin, a skilled taxonomist, be so upset by his misclassification of his friends?

Part 4 ~ The Historians

How are stories about the past at stake in the stances of Frank Gray, Ben Cardiff, Helen Gray, Josiah Gray, and Martin? What seems to be at stake in debates over what the past has been like and how we got to the present? Why do you think origin stories seem to be so controversial and important? How are the methods used and challenges faced by historians and scientists (evolutionists, geologists, etc.) similar? Different? Clearly there are debates taking place among scientists and among the public over human origins, human nature, and the best route to true knowledge and ethical action. How are these debates and tensions appearing in and influencing the lives of the main characters?

Part 5 ~ Trials and Tribulations

What are the factors that influenced Martin’s decisions in these chapters? What values and beliefs influenced your response to each character, event, or idea that appeared in the story? How might learning about the range of factors at stake in the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, improve our understanding of today’s debates over evolution, religion, and American culture? What similarities and differences might you expect to see between debates over the role of science & society in the 1920s versus today, and why? How might you go about testing your hypotheses? What lessons might we draw from the debates and dilemmas in The Species Maker as scientists and non-scientists wrestle with modern issues like climate change and genetic medicine? What are the strengths and limitations of 1) historical novel and 2) the history of a debate that took place in the 1920s, for navigating today’s issues?