In a crowded auditorium filled with high school students and community members, ideologies were set aside for a scientific debate about the merits of evolutionary theory and its place in public schools.
The controversial topic was addressed Tuesday night in the latest installment of the Science in the Cinema Film and Lecture Series at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
Gregory Wray, director of the Center for Evolutionary Genomics at Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, led discussions before and after the screening of Inherit the Wind, a renowned film about the famous Scopes Trial.
"Evolution was not Darwin's idea," Wray said. "The biological world, like everything else around it, is in a constant state of flux and things change over time."
The event, which featured a free screening of the 1960 movie, was hosted by NCSSM and co-sponsored by the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research.
Steven Warshaw, senior vice president of academic programs for NCSSM, noted the scientific and historical relevance of evolutionary theory.
"Evolution is kind of a linchpin that underlies biology and much of the rest of science. So it's an advantage for our students to be exposed not only to modern evolutionary theory but also the kind of perspective on history that's presented in the film," Warshaw said.
Inherit the Wind retells the story of the famous 1925 "Monkey Trial," in which the issue of teaching evolution in American schools first received national attention.
In his opening discussion, Wray talked at length about the importance of diversity and adaptation, ultimately arriving at the issue of natural selection.
"The individuals that do survive, the individuals that do reproduce-that's not random," he said. "It's based on the traits they have."
Wray discounted the notion of evolution as a linear process and instead stressed its foundation on adaptation, noting that evolution is an ongoing process that can take unexpected turns.
The film was screened following Wray's lecture. Inherit the Wind, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, focuses on the ideological battle between the trial's lawyers-John Scopes' prosecutor Williams Jennings Bryan and counsel for the defense Clarence Darrow-offering a protest against Biblical literalism.
The film ultimately promotes the notion that Darwin's theory of evolution is reconcilable with Christianity, a theme still relevant in today's ongoing debate.
In the question and answer session after the film screening, Wray touched on the film's political message but emphasized that a better understanding of evolution as a scientific phenomenon was the evening's goal.
"We are of course still in a situation where there's a lot of debate about what's appropriate to teach in the classroom and what isn't," Wray said. "That's not really why we're here tonight."
Nevertheless, the film inspired some discussion regarding the scientific validity of Darwin's theory. One audience member noted that the true evolution of one species into another has yet to be proven.
Wray responded by noting that the similarities between macroscopic and genetic traits indicate a common origin.
"Ultimately this question boils down to what you personally accept as proof," Wray said. "Evolution has stood up to a lot of pretty critical testing."
Wray concluded by extolling the value of evolution as a foundation for biological research.
He noted that in the future, scientists may be able to identify the genes for uniquely human traits such as speech and the ability to walk upright.
"In the next ten years we're going to know many of the genetic changes that distinguish us from all other species," he said. "Those are big, big questions, and we're right on the threshold of being able to answer them."
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.