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The Scopes "Monkey" Trial Revisited

DENYSE O'LEARY

In the summer of 1925, a small town in Tennessee became a hub of intense international interest when famed defence lawyer Clarence Darrow squared off against progressive politician William Jennings Bryan over a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools. The really interesting part this story is the difference between what actually happened and how the case was presented later, particularly in the stage play and movie, Inherit the Wind.

If you enjoy faith and science issues, here's a book you should ask someone to buy you for Christmas:
Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion
by Edward J. Larson (Basic Books, 1997).

William Jennings Bryan

The really interesting part of Summer for the Gods (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998) is the difference between what actually happened and how the case was presented later, particularly in the stage play and movie, Inherit the Wind. Relying on massive documentary research, Larson cuts through layers of myth, and reveals much more interesting facts.

To start with, at the trial, almost nobody actually held the position that later commentators have claimed.

Most religious people of the day actually thought that evolution and the Bible could be reconciled. The issue was not controversial in the United States for many years. But some Fundamentalists, including Bryan, became concerned by the growth of Social Darwinism, a philosophy that conveniently justified social injustices as merely an outgrowth of Darwinian evolution — the strong killing off the weak. Bryan saw Darwin's theories as "the operation of the law of hate — the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak."

Bryan's charge sounds a little strong to modern ears. But he had reason to be concerned. Of six well-known scientists who would have testified in favour of evolution at the Scopes trial, none showed up, partly because they all favoured coercive eugenic measures (and Clarence Darrow opposed them). Biology textbooks reflected the scientists' view. In one edition, the text Scopes used (Hunter's Civic Biology) cheerfully announced, with regard to society's unfortunates, "If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading." Obviously, the conflict between orthodox religious beliefs and this sort of belief goes much deeper than controversies about the Seven Days of Creation.

When, on Bryan's instigation, the Tennessee legislature banned evolution theories from the classroom, the legislators ignored his warning against setting a penalty. Thus they unintentionally set the stage for a possible martyr and a show trial.

The prosecution was not originally spearheaded by famed defence lawyer Clarence Darrow, but by the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, after losing out on various anti-patriotism efforts, was looking for an "individual liberty" platform and saw the Tennessee act as an opportunity. Darrow actually horned in on the ACLU case, because he saw it as a chance to attack religion. The ACLU wanted to dump Darrow, precisely because they were trying to avoid a confrontation over religion. But Darrow stuck to the case like a fly and took it over from the ACLU. Although he did humiliate Bryan on the witness stand, he probably alienated the jury.

And Scopes himself wasn't really a martyr. He was a well-liked football coach-cum-biology teacher who agreed at a meeting with friends at the local soda fountain to be the one who would be prosecuted. His way was paid to go to graduate school after the trial.

Incidentally, the town of Dayton, Tennessee, far from being the scene of massive intolerance, as it was later portrayed, reveled in the case, seeing it as a huge commercial opportunity and a chance to boost the "new South." Monkey dolls and paraphernalia turned up everywhere.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of townsfolk remained unconvinced by the theory of evolution. One reporter quoted a student's remark about Scopes that probably captured the attitude best: "I like him, but I don't believe that I came from a monkey."

Indeed, Larson offers a poignant observation: Inherit the Wind was written in the Fifties in reaction to McCarthyism. And, not too surprisingly, the "Bryan" character in the play has more in common with Joe McCarthy, who wrecked lives without apparent conscience, than with the Christian progressive politician of the Twenties who offered to pay Scopes's fine. By the Fifties, the gentility of the Twenties was not even a memory.

Fast forward: In 1982, when George Gallup Jr. asked the poll question, half of Americans said they did not believe in any theory of evolution, theistic or otherwise.

I suspect that groups like the ACLU, running to the courts defend evolution, have done far more to discredit it than its opponents could. There is something odd in principle about a theory of science that always seems to need a legal defence fund.

And — this just in — following the recent Kansas decision, an Oklahoma state schoolbook committee has decided to put a disclaimer in textbooks stating that evolution is a controversial theory. Well, I guess few would argue with that.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Denyse O'Leary. "The Scopes "Monkey" Trial Revisited." Chapter excerpt from Faith & Science: Why Science Needs Faith in the Twenty-First Century 2001.

To order the book, call 1 800 461-1365 or visit Hull's Family Books Stores.

(Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing Inc. 2001, 172 p. sc) Adult Religion (Christianity General) US$14.95/CDN$19.95/£UK8.75 (plus shipping) For more information on journalist Denyse O'Leary, go to www.denyseoleary.com

THE AUTHOR

Denyse O'Leary has been a freelance writer since 1971. She writes and edits regularly on science and faith issues for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and trade journals.

Copyright © 2001 Denyse O'Leary

 

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