Published Online: May 19, 1999
Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Scopes and the Clash Over Science

Scopes and the Clash Over Science

In some ways, the Scopes trial was about a lot more than the teaching of evolution in public schools. And in some ways, it ended up being about a lot less--a sideshow that obscured as much as it revealed real concerns among Americans about religious beliefs, science, academic freedom, and public education.

It was about Southern pride, civic boosterism, and majority rule. It was about massive egos, old grudges, media hype, the American Civil Liberties Union, Christian fundamentalism, Charles Darwin, and monkeys.

One thing it never was about, really, was John T. Scopes.

In March 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law making it a crime to teach evolution theory in public schools. The ACLU advertised in newspapers statewide, offering to defend any teacher charged under the new law.

Civic leaders in the mining and farming town of Dayton saw the notice and in it, a chance to win some attention for their rural backwater. Over sodas at a local drugstore, they pitched their idea to the high school's 24-year-old science teacher and football coach, and Scopes agreed to be the guinea pig.

A grand jury quickly convened and indicted the young teacher on a misdemeanor charge. As Edward J. Larson puts it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book on the case, Summer for the Gods, "the show had begun."

Smelling opportunity, the populist orator William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic nominee for president of the United States, leapt at the chance to join the prosecution.

"In a stroke," Larson writes, "the ACLU lost control of what it initially conceived as a narrow constitutional test of the statute. With Bryan on hand, evolution would be on trial at Dayton, and pleas for individuality would run headlong into calls for majority rule."

The entry of the Great Commoner brought another old warhorse onto the field. Clarence Darrow, the nation's most famous defense lawyer and a well-known foe of many Christian beliefs, joined Scopes' defense.

Essentially, Bryan and the prosecution sought not to attack evolution as a scientific theory, but simply to defend the right of a majority of the people in a state, through their legislature, to determine what could be taught in the public schools.

Scopes' defenders portrayed that line of reasoning as an attack on academic freedom and constitutional protections of freedom of speech and religion. They hoped to introduce lengthy scientific testimony in support of evolution theory.

After weeks of intensive pretrial buildup in newspapers and church pulpits nationwide, the trial began July 10, 1925, in the sweltering heat of a packed courtroom in Dayton.

Outside, in a scene that has become familiar to Americans of a later time, reporters, photographers, hucksters, opportunists, and the simply curious had descended.

"Dayton was having a roaring time," observed H.L. Mencken, the most famous newsman of the day. "It was better than the circus."

The basic facts were never really at issue. After several days of procedural bickering and speeches by the lawyers, the trial reached its dramatic conclusion on July 20. In a surprise move, Darrow called Bryan to the stand as a defense witness and skewered the aging politician with questions about his literal interpretations of biblical events.

Both sides emerged bloody from the encounter. Bryan's ignorance of scientific matters had been laid bare, yet many considered Darrow's questioning mean-spirited and its atheistic tone ultimately harmful to the evolution cause.

Though it made for excellent theater, the stunt did little to alter the outcome. The jury quickly convicted Scopes, who was fined $100 and faded into history. He died in 1970.

In legal terms, the spectacle had accomplished little, giving neither the rousing victory for fundamentalism and majority rule that Bryan had sought nor the platform for a defense of evolution that Darrow wanted.

But for a few weeks, it had focused public opinion on matters of science and education as nothing would again until the launch of Sputnik three decades later.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring that creationism receive equal time with evolution in science classrooms. Variations on the issue continue to play out in legislatures and school boards.

Five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep. Without him, the national debate over the teaching of evolution lost much of its fire, though the embers still smolder more than 70 years later.

PHOTO: Well-known as a foe of many Christian beliefs, Clarence Darrow, far left, joined the defense team in the trial of science teacher John T. Scopes, seated second from right. Scopes ended up in court after teaching evolution theory ata Tennessee high school--a crime in the state in 1925.
—Corbis-Bettmann

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Page 25

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