More than any other event, the 1925 trial in Dayton, Tenn., at which the schoolteacher John Scopes was fined $100 for teaching Darwinian theory in violation of a newly enacted state law, has shaped contemporary American public thinking about the evolution-versus-Genesis debate. And it's amazing how much most people assume about the trial is wrong.

The Scopes trial is best known for pitting William Jennings Bryan, a populist orator and evangelist who was roughly the Billy Graham of his day, against fabled defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan argued that Tennessee's anti-Darwin law should be upheld; Darrow argued for freedom of speech. Scopes was convicted, but his fine was overturned on appeal. Anti-evolution laws were sufficiently discredited by the trial that most were repealed; in 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against teaching evolution were unconstitutional. Today in journalism and public speaking, the phrase "Scopes monkey trial" is commonly employed as a shorthand way of saying that religion is anti-scientific; in popular culture, the notion has risen that at the Scopes trial, Bible-beating zealots ran amok. But the actualities of the trial do not support this view.

The first point to know is that when Darwin initially aired his thesis, with the 1859 publication of "Origin of Species and the Descent of Man," it sparked a science versus religion controversy in England but not in the United States. Most American faith figures initially did not react against Darwin. Asa Gray, a botanist and devout Christian who was one of Harvard's best-known scientists in the late 19th century, championed Darwin in the United States and wrote that evolution did not conflict with faith; this view was widely accepted.

When "The Fundamentals," a popular series of tracts that sparked the modern American fundamentalist movement, began publication in 1909, most of these works spoke kindly of Darwin, suggesting that evolution helped people understand God's process of creation.

Only in the 1920s did Darwin and religion come into regular conflict in the United States. There were several reasons. One was that paleontologists were beginning to accumulate evidence that human beings descended from earlier primates. Scientific findings of "cave men" were banner headline stories of the time, and though some, notably Piltdown Man, turned out to be hoaxes, some were confirmed as genuine. Although Darwin had openly spoken of "the descent of man" from earlier species, this point had tended not to sink in. While many churchgoers might have been content to believe that the horse evolved from the ancient proto-equus called eohippus, they were less than enthusiastic about evidence that Homo sapiens did not come about in a single divine act of creation. This put opposition to selection theory into play as an American public issue.

Another reason that teaching of evolution became a front-burner issue in the 1920s was that it was then that universal publicly funded high-school education was just becoming standard across the country; the question of just what the new high schools should teach was then very much on the minds of activists, newspaper editors, and politicians.
When public attention began to focus on the science versus religion aspect of Darwin's theory, some employed the opening for thoughtful debate, and others to promote an explicitly Christian agenda, instilling into the subject a danger that remains today, the use of what is ostensibly scientific arguments as a cover for promotion of a specific religion. (Read a chapter about the evolution debate in the 1920s from University of Georgia historian Edward Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Summer for the Gods.")

But there was a public-spirited motive for the 1920s shift to fear of evolutionary thought. Many members of the clergy had grown terrified of the then-fashionable "Social Darwinism," which held that that "survival of the fittest" should be applied to human society. Social Darwinism maintained that the poor, the disabled, and the troubled--religion's historical first concern--should be weeded out for genetic reasons, and this idea was being openly praised by respectable figures. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton had published a book arguing for the selective breeding of human beings, dubbing his idea "eugenics." Norman Thomas, the most important American socialist of the early century, and himself a former minister, had announced that childbearing should be restricted among "inferior stock." And of course at the time in Germany, the incipient Nazi Party was beginning to speak of Social Darwinism as a philosophy of government. Owing in no small part to religious fears of Social Darwinism, a move to ban the teaching of evolution began.

In his 1990 book "Under God: Religion and American Politics," the historian Garry Wills wrote that prior to the Scopes trial, Bryan had been on a revival tour of Germany and had been horrified by the signs of incipient Nazism. Before this point, Bryan had been a moderate in the evolution debate; for instance, he had lobbied the Florida legislature not to ban the teaching of Darwin, only to specify that evolution must be taught as a theory rather than a fact. But after hearing the National Socialists talk about the elimination of genetic inferiority, Wills wrote, Bryan came to feel that evolutionary ideas had become dangerous; he began both to oppose and to lampoon them. Banning the teaching of evolution is plainly the wrong approach, but once the subtext of the period is taken into account--fears of Nazism and eugenics--the Scopes trial takes on a dramatically different flavor.

Many fallacies about the trial itself exist owing to the popularity of the play and movie "Inherit the Wind," which has been received by audiences as historically accurate but which alters numerous key facts in the case. (Compare the actual Scopes trial to "Inherit the Wind.") Other fallacies about the Scopes trial have arisen through cultural assumptions and journalistic shorthand.

For instance, "creationism" was not discussed at the Scopes trial; the word never appears in the court transcript. Bryan argued that human beings could not be naturally descended from primates, because only God could create a soul. "Creationism" as the word is heard today--meaning the idea of the "young earth, that the planet was formed only a short time ago and formed with its fossils already in place to present the illusion of age--did not come into common usage until the 1960s, a full generation after Scopes. At the trial, when Darrow tried to bait Bryan into endorsing the Irish bishop James Ussher, who in 1636 famously declared that the genesis occurred in exactly 4004 B.C.E., Bryan replied, "I think it [the earth] is much older than that." Later Bryan said that it is unimportant whether God formed the universe in "six days or in six years or in six million years or in 600 million years." These are not closed-minded views.

Another common misconception is that a mob-like atmosphere dominated the trial, with Scopes and Darrow insulted, jeered, or even menaced. Only H.L. Mencken, reporting on the trial for The Baltimore Sun, claimed this. ("Dayton is full of sickening surges," began a typical Mencken account.) Between Mencken's stature and the desire of northern audiences to believe the worst about the South, the notion of redneck rabble run wild at the Scopes trial has become standard, though contemporaneous accounts other than Mencken's present the trial as quite civil, with the atmosphere pleasantly festive. Town leaders of Dayton had arranged that the trial be held at their courthouse as a publicity device and were extremely conscious of making a good impression, knowing reports would be broadcast around the world. Darrow said of Dayton, "I have not found upon anybody's part--any citizen here in this town or outside--the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier, and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north." Nor, as is commonly depicted, was the courtroom unfairly packed with anti-science factions. When Darrow's co-counsel Dudley Malone gave a thundering speech that declared, "We stand with science... we feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America," the trial transcript reports there followed "profound and continued applause."

It is also a fallacy that Scopes was dragged out of his classroom and jailed; he volunteered to be arrested as a test of the law.

A Dayton geologist named George Rappalyea asked Scopes, a friend who was a young high school mathematics teacher, if he would be willing to be tried, arranged with the American Civil Liberties Union to finance Scopes's defense, then himself swore out the warrant for his own friend's arrest. Scopes did not lose his job, was never jailed, and certainly was never the target of stones hurled by a lynch mob, as the 1960 movie "Inherit the Wind" preposterously depicts the Scopes arrest. Actually, there were polite negotiations among Scopes, the ACLU, and prosecutors regarding whether he could even stand accused--Scopes was a math teacher, not a biology teacher, and had only mentioned evolution once while filling in for his school's regular biology teacher. Because of this, prosecutors felt he wouldn't make a perfect test case and tried to talk Scopes out of insisting on his own arrest. When the trial ended, Scopes' high school asked him to return, but he opted to attend the University of Chicago on a scholarship financed through a fund raised by scientists and journalists, ultimately becoming a petroleum geologist. For Scopes, the Dayton events were all positive: He paid neither defense fees nor fine, was vindicated, became a nationally known figure, and for his troubles was compensated with a scholarship to a top university. Not exactly the sinister treatment that popular culture suggests he received.

Additional Resources

Read the transcript of Clarence Darrow's examination of William Jennings Bryan. (In an unusual ruling, the Dayton judge gave Darrow permission to put opposing counsel on the stand, on the premise that Bryan could serve as an expert witness on Scripture.)

Read Bryan's summation statement--read outside the courthouse, not into the formal record--in which he cautions, "Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals."

Read Dudley Malone's exhortation in favor of science.

More detailed transcripts for this and other famous trials can be found at www.umkc.edu/famoustrials, a much-praised site assembled by Douglas Linder, a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Linder's site also offers the opportunity to test your knowledge of obscure legal cases by playing Bills of Rights Golf, one of the nuttier trivia games on the web.

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