Today marks the 95th anniversary of the guilty verdict in the Tennessee v. John T. Scopes trial. In the trial, Scopes was accused, and convicted, of teaching evolution to students in a state-funded high school, which was in direct violation of Tennessee law. In honor of this anniversary, I thought I would provide a glimpse into The World Is Yours episode “The Evolution of Life,” which originally aired on November 1, 1936. This episode is also the first introduction to the character “Old Timer,” although he doesn’t become the main host of the show until later episodes.
In this episode, the narrator, James Church, takes listeners on a tour of the specimens and fossils located in the East Wing of the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History). He starts by introducing listeners to “Old Timer,” a gentleman he says “knows the Smithsonian and everything in it.” The pair then introduce a dramatization of the discovery of trilobite fossils from the Cambrian period by Dr. Charles D. Walcott, the fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian.
[Old Timer] To be a real fossil, you must have lived and passed geologic times and be buried in the rocks of the growing Earth. A shell or a skeleton remains buried in the rocks until the rain or the rivers or a collector digs it out of its stony grave. Oh, uh, Mr. Church?
[James Church, narrator] Yes Old Timer.
[Old Timer] Do you remember how this here rock was found?
[Church] Indeed I do.
[Woman] Do you mind telling us?
[Church] Well, one bitter cold day in 1911, Charles D. Walcott, secretary of this museum, was lunching with some scientific colleagues on a glacier, high in the Canadian Rockies.
[Church] The temperature was dropping, and uh, so was the spirits of the gathering.
[Man 1] Well, if it gets any colder we’ll just freeze.
[Man 2] Many years from now they’ll dig us out of the ice.
[Man 3] Slap a label on us, put us on exhibit. Have some more coffee, there’s plenty in the thermos.
[Man 1] No thanks, but Walcott might like some.
[Man 2] Where is he?
[Man 3] I never saw such a man. Food means nothing to him when he’s on an expedition. Look at him over there on the glacier.
[Man 1] Walcott!
[Charles D. Walcott] Yeah?
[Man 1] Come back here and finish your lunch!
[Walcott] No thanks!
[Man 2] What in the devil is he staring at?
[Man 3] Let’s find out. He’s been staring at something for a long while.
[Man 1] Better bring a pick axe George.
[George] Yes sir!
[Man 2] (laughs) This ice isn’t the best surface to walk on by a long shot.
[Man 3] Don’t slip. It’s sure death if you make a misstep.
[Man 1] Walcott, what’s all the hocus pocus?
[Man 2] What are you looking at?
[Man 1] Where?
[Walcott] Right here at m’feet.
[Man 2] What about it?
[Walcott] Better take a second look. Bend down and examine it.
[Man 3] I don’t have to. Why it’s just black and shiny ice due to a lot of dust gathering on it.
[Man 1] There’s nothing very phenomenal about that.
[Walcott] Just dust on ice, eh? Sure of that?
[Man 2] I never knew a man like you Walcott. Stop being so mysterious.
[Walcott] It happens to be dark shale rock.
[Man 2] Nonsense.
[Walcott] I told you to look at it closely.
[Man 2] Well let’s see. (pause) You’re right! George! Bring the pick axe here!
[George] Yes sir!
[Walcott] Now, gently son. Split this rock right here. (tap) Now easy. (tap) Easy. (tap) Easy there. (tap) Now one more blow (tap). There, that does it. Yes gentlemen, I thought so. Look, look gentlemen. Look at this specimen in my hand. Take a good look. Now tell me, what do you see?
[Man 1] Fossils.
[Man 2] By the score.
[Man 1] Marine fossils.
[Walcott] Right, my boy. This rock formation is from near the dawn of life. That means these fossils are among the earliest ever found!
The episode continues on with the evolution from trilobites to armored fish, amphibians, reptiles, and finally, birds and mammals. The last reenactment is Thomas Jefferson’s discovery of the bones of a giant sloth in a cave in Virginia, which he mistook for the bones of a lion instead. Old Timer goes on to reminisnce about how much more information is available about evolution today (meaning in 1936) than was available even 25 years prior when Walcott made his discovery.
[Old Timer] The world at that time didn’t know of entire races of mammals that had lived and died and become extinct. People then knew nothing of the Ice Age. Knew nothing of the periods following, really, very close to our own period since it’s only ten million years ago when mammals such as we know them today began to flourish. You two young people are wiser about the drama of life after a half hour then our forefathers were during their whole lifetime.
[Man 1] A billion years ago, the Earth was formed. 500 million years ago the most primitive plants, the first marine animals, the trilobites, the Cambrian era.
[Man 2] The armored fish in the Devonian period. From them came the amphibians. From the amphibians, the first reptiles.
[Man 3] From which branched off the mammals and the birds. The age of reptiles passed. Gone were the dinosaurs. Now, early mammals walked the Earth looking like few mammals alive today.
[Man 4] The Glacial Era, looking like desolate ice and snow. The mammoth and the giant sloth, and then the beginning of recent history. A short time. Only a million years.
The show ends by stating that the topic of early man will be discussed in the next week’s episode as the information the Smithsonian wished to provide on the subject was too vast to fit in with the rest of the story of evolution.
Check back for highlights from another episode of The World Is Yours next month!
- “90th Anniversary of the Scopes Trial,” by Marcel Chotkowski Lafollette, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- “Hearing “The World Is Yours,” by Kira Sobers, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Sound Recordings, circa 1915-1941, Accession 05-142, Smithsonian Institution Archives