howard: What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once!
melinda: (Shocked) I wasn’t neither.
howard: You was so! When the whole world was covered with water, there was nothin’ but worms and blobs of jelly. And you and your whole family was worms!
A play intimately concerned with the nature of education, Inherit the Wind begins with an appropriate image of two young, inarticulate children discussing a controversial modern theory. Their argument is a miniature form of the play’s central conflicts: creationism versus evolutionism and religious orthodoxy versus freedom of thought. Melinda reacts to Howard in the same way that most of the people of Hillsboro react to Bert Cates—she becomes frightened and calls him sinful. Although Howard’s grip on evolutionary theory is rudimentary at best, the new ideas to which Cates has exposed him clearly excite Howard. Howard’s pronouncements humorously equate humans—specifically Melinda and her family—with monkeys and worms. His disrespect for Melinda’s father points to the threat these ideas pose to the social order of a town like Hillsboro.
The man who has everything figured out is probably a fool. College examinations notwithstanding, it takes a very smart fella to say “I don’t know the answer!”
At the close of Act One, Drummond reassures Rachel that she need not worry about Bert’s confused state. These lines emphasize Drummond’s belief that intellectual curiosity—which inherently involves uncertainty—is essential to an individual’s growth. To Drummond, absolute values close people’s minds to the truth, for they restrict people’s investigation of problems that might call such values into question. Drummond feels that the human mind demands that any given issue be approached from all possible angles. He rejects a literal interpretation of the Bible as a solution that is reached too easily. Through his questions to Brady, Drummond later proves that such an incessantly literal interpretation of the Bible necessarily contradicts itself. Drummond resists the church because it rigidly dictates the moral behavior of small-town America and forces its members to accept its terms without question. Drummond’s ideas, on the other hand, proceed not from answers but from unknowns.
The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “Amens!”, “Holy, Holies!” and “Hosannahs!” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is more of a miracle than any sticks turned to snakes, or the parting of waters!
In Act Two, Scene II, Drummond strives to demonstrate to the court the power of the human mind. To Drummond, human intellect has the power to advance humankind, while religion stifles human inquiries. This quotation not only defines one of Drummond’s most strongly held personal philosophies but also speaks to the main conflict of the play—that of creationism versus evolutionism—on an abstract level. The Hillsboro townspeople initially see Drummond’s words as extreme, for, in their conservative mindset, they see any free thought that questions the Bible as dangerous and blasphemous. However, Drummond’s case gains momentum as the trial progresses. He wins over the townspeople by probing witnesses playfully and ironically, exposing the contradictions beneath their too easily assumed beliefs. Ultimately, by trapping Brady in the inconsistencies that riddle his fundamentalist thinking, Drummond turns the tables and changes the momentum of the case.
All shine, and no substance! [Turning to Cates] Bert, whenever you see something bright, shining, perfect-seeming—all gold, with purple spots—look behind the paint! And if it’s a lie—show it up for what it really is!
At the beginning of Act Three, Drummond, awaiting the court’s verdict, speaks to Cates about the importance of an individual’s personal search for truth. Drummond recounts the story of the “Golden Dancer,” a rocking horse he had been given as a child, to emphasize the importance of this search. Golden Dancer seemed beautiful in the store window but broke into pieces as soon as Drummond rode it, for its manufacturing was shoddy. Drummond uses the story to emphasize the deceptive nature of superficial beauty, as a way to encourage Cates to persevere in searching for the underlying truths of the world for both himself and his community.
You see, I haven’t really thought very much. I was always afraid of what I might think—so it seemed safer not to think at all. But now I know. A thought is like a child inside our body. It has to be born. If it dies inside you, part of you dies too!
At the end of Act Three, while conversing with Cates and Drummond, Rachel expresses her newfound appreciation for freedom of thought. In doing so, she addresses one of the most important lessons of Inherit the Wind. In the playwrights’ view, ignorance and fear combine to create conservative, fundamentalist value systems, like the one we see in the Hillsboro townspeople’s initial attitudes toward evolution. People cannot accept new ideas if they are not exposed to new ideas. Authority figures like Brady and Reverend Brown repress new, unorthodox thinking out of fear that unconventional ideas might disrupt the social order that they command. Over the course of the trial, Rachel overcomes this ignorance and fear of individual thought and combines this transformation with romantic feelings for Cates. This change in Rachel demonstrates the power of thought and of love.