2016-06-30
Monday, July 10, marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of the "trial of the century," the Scopes monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee, at which schoolteacher John Scopes was fined for teaching evolutionary theory in defiance of a state statute. The Scopes trial left a lasting impression on American culture, in part because it was the first modern media event, elaborately covered by newspaper and radio, and in part because science and religion were pitted against each other.

Beliefnet has compiled an extensive collection of documents, transcripts, and articles about the Scopes trial and the 1999 decision by the Kansas Board of Education advising some schools not to teach Darwinism (see links to the right).

We are much more scientifically informed today than in 1925. What might the Scopes trial be like if it were held today?

DAYTON, TENN., July 10, 2000 (AP)--Thousands jammed the steps of the Rhea County Courthouse on the opening day of the trial of Jessica Scopes, granddaughter of John Scopes and a part-time biology teacher at the town's Central High School, who is accused of teaching creationism in violation of state and federal law.

Demonstrators for and against Scopes were joined by hundreds of journalists from around the world. Scopes was arrested after volunteering to serve as the defendant in a test case sought by Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist group run by James Dobson. "It is an outrage that in the United States today, schools can teach children about sex and DNA and evolving monkeys but cannot tell them about the Garden of Eden," Dobson told a press conference held at a basketball arena, the only local structure large enough to accommodate all the journalists present.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that states cannot prohibit the teaching of evolution in public schools. Some states responded by enacting laws saying evolution and creation theories would be taught side by side. But the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that public schools cannot teach divine-creation theories at all, because such theories inherently promote religion.

To protest this situation, Scopes deliberately brought a creationism book into class, held it up, and said the words "God created humanity" as federal marshals looked on. She was immediately taken into custody, though processing of the arrest was interrupted repeatedly as Scopes and the officers paused to sign autographs, give CNN interviews, and pose for souvenir pictures with students.

Speaking at a campaign stop, Vice President Gore declared, "If we're going to make America a fully digitized, LAN-compatible, wireless networked country for the 21st century, we must have nothing but the best scientific education in our schools." Gore quickly added, "Buddhist creation stories are fine, though."

Governor Bush of Texas released a prepared statement that read, "This is a matter for the states, for the states to--and I believe this sincerely--God and country, sure, but science is really out there, and anyway, Tennessee is one of the states."

One of the central issues in the case is expected to be the fact that in the 75 years since the first Scopes trial, biologists have discovered a great deal but still have not found any explanation for the origin of life. (Darwin's theories apply only to how living things that already exist react to changes in their environments; natural selection theory says nothing about how life itself began, which Darwin considered an impenetrable mystery.) Critics of evolutionary theory says this leaves open the possibility that a creator God started the process of evolution. Also, they charge, Darwinianism has become a new dogma, which now seeks to repress religious thought in the same way that churches once tried to repress evolution.

In a shift from the first Scopes trial, the pro-creationism forces are expected to make heavy use of scientific evidence. The Scopes defense team, led by former federal judge Kenneth Starr, plans to present credentialed, scientific witnesses who will testify that, contrary to the popular conception, science has hardly disproved the possibility of divine creation. Among the witnesses the Scopes defense will present:

· Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University. He will testify that at its cellular level, life is "irreducibly complex" and therefore could not have come into existence without the aid of some higher intelligence.

· Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado, a Nobel Prize winner in biology and originator of the theory that the first living organisms were based on RNA, a precursor of DNA. He will testify that the origin of life is so improbable, it must have been "a near miracle."

· Stephen Jay Gould, a zoologist at Harvard University and a past president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Gould has often criticized natural selection theory and will testify that the idea that evolution solves all riddles of biology is "Darwinian fundamentalism," a new dogma replacing the old.

· Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the book "Darwin on Trial." He will contend that modern biologists have tried to conceal the internal problems with evolutionary theory. Johnson will testify that, "My specialty in law is the rules of evidence, and whenever I hear biologists talk about how natural selection explains life, I say to myself, 'They're bluffing, they are using the same kind of verbal tricks that lawyers use when they have to bluff.'"

· Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He will testify to his personal opinion that although the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits public schools from endorsing Genesis or teaching biblical views as historically confirmed, "The Constitution does not require that the public sphere be hostile to religious thinking. There is no constitutional reason why both evolution and divine creation could not be taught in public schools as two competing accounts of an event that no one can currently explain."

Chief prosecution attorney Johnny Cochran--"If she said that line, the lady will do time!" Cochran vowed at the press conference--plans to present many witnesses who will speak against the creationist view. Playing to a jury that promises to be a mix of religious and secular locals, Cochran plans to present both scientific and religious witnesses. Among them are:

· Biologist Francis Collins, head of the federal government's human genome initiative and a Christian, who will assert that "the evidence for natural selection is as strong as anything in the history of science." Collins will also say, "There is no conflict between belief in evolution and belief in the Bible" and that "creationism has done more to harm faith than any other movement in our era."

· Richard Harries, the Anglican bishop of Oxford, England, who will testify that "Darwinian theory is not only compatible with belief in God, but I find it enriches and deepens my understanding of how the Lord creates." Harries will say that he opposes the teaching of divine creation theory in biology classes because "religious ideas should be taught in Sunday school, not public school."

· Stephen Jay Gould again. For the prosecution, Gould will accuse creationists of "ignorance" and declare that anti-evolution forces "might as well contend that, for 'balance,' schools should teach that maybe the Earth revolves around the sun and maybe the sun revolves around the Earth." Though Gould criticizes Darwinian theory, his criticisms are widely misunderstood: He is not opposed to evolutionary thinking, merely to the idea that natural selection explains everything about life. That Gould should appear as a witness for both the defense and the prosecution is unusual but "great for air time," his press agent noted.

Courtroom spectators and the international web audience are in for a dramatic confrontation between Starr and Cochran, similar to the Clarence Darrow-William Jennings Bryan colloquy that highlighted the first Scopes trial. A group of secular Hollywood producers have already acquired rights to a movie version of the new trial: "Inherit the Wind II--The Fundamentalists Strike Back."

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