The Scopes Trial

“The net effect of Clarence Darrow’s great speech yesterday seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan.”

— H. L. Mencken in The Baltimore Sun, 16 July 1925

It was eighty-six years ago today that the famous or infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” opened in the Rhea County Courthouse, Dayton, Tennessee. The trial — much dramatized on stage and screen — was a staged event, pure and simple. Tennessee’s legislature had passed The Butler Act that Spring, and governor Peay had signed it into law, with all parties assuming it would never actually be enforced (Governor Peay himself said “Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute.”) The law prohibited any state school at any level from teaching the Theory of Evolution. The politicians were simply taking what they felt to be a symbolic stand.

The civic leaders of the tiny town of Dayton figured that actually conducting a trial based upon the law would bring nationwide attention to Dayton, and they hoped some measure of prosperity would follow. Dayton was missing out on the booming years of the “Roaring Twenties,” having lost about half its population in the preceding two decades. A spectacular “media event” would be just the thing to attract people to the town. So the movers and shakers of tiny Dayton approached the high school physics teacher and coach in town, John Scopes, to see if he would be willing to take part in this test case.

Scopes had occasionally substituted in Biology, and had used a standard state textbook in which Darwin’s theory was discussed, and so he had in technical fact violated the law. He was arrested under the statute and brought to trial. Much planning and preparation went into the trial to ensure maximum media interest. William Jennings Bryan, renowned orator, three time presidential candidate, and former Secretary of State, was invited to lead the prosecution. Though it had been more than thirty years since he had practiced law, he agreed, for he had organized and led the movement which resulted in the passage of The Butler Act. Upon learning that Bryan would be acting as prosecution, renowned attorney Clarence Darrow volunteered to provide the defense. Darrow was the most famous lawyer in the country, and well known for his opposition to intolerance.

The trial opened eighty-six years ago today with jury selection. Next, both sides presented their motions before the judge. The trial attracted so many people that the judge ordered it moved outdoors to the courthouse lawn, fearing that the building could not bear the strain of so many spectators.

The actual trial was somewhat anticlimactic: Scopes was indeed guilty, and would be convicted. The judge had denied Darrow’s request to allow expert testimony about evolution, reasoning correctly that The Butler Act itself was not on trial. Oddly, though, as memorably dramatized in the play “Inherit The Wind,” the judge allowed Darrow to call Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Darrow ran rings around Bryan, revealed Bryan’s inconsistency in his beliefs, and generally made Bryan look like a fool. Darrow made a great summation and then surprised everyone by asking that the judge direct the jury to return a guilty verdict. The strategy would do two things: it would permit a later appeal to a higher court wherein the law itself could be questioned, and it would deprive the great orator, Bryan, of delivering his summation.

Technically, Bryan had won. But in the court of public opinion he had lost. He was “a tin-pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt,” quixotically resisting modern science with feeble and pointless laws, as Mencken and other journalists portrayed him. Bryan, “The Great Commoner,” lifelong champion of the average American, gadfly against oppression and exploitation, had, it seemed, become myopic and foolish in his dotage. This assessment of Bryan’s involvement is very much the “textbook” interpretation of today. Bryan never had a chance to recover his dignity as he died in Dayton five days after the trial concluded.

The desired appeal of the conviction never happened due to a technicality which allowed the case to be vacated. The Butler Act remained on the books in Tennessee until 1967. The heritage of the Scopes Trial was not, however, the triumph of secular science over religious bias. In fact, in the aftermath of Scopes, textbooks across the nation began a retreat from addressing evolution, a retreat that is still with us today. In the forty-four years since 1967, many other states have attempted to implement modern variations of Tennessee’s Butler Act, and time and again, such attempts to legislate religious belief have been rejected by the Supreme Courts of these states or by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. But publishers of textbooks are catering to the prejudices of their markets, and monetary gain trumps educational principle every time.

The United States is the only developed country today wherein there is any such contention about the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Despite the fact that Science and Religion are distinct realms, and that Science cannot properly make any claims about enlightening religious beliefs any more that Religious beliefs are science, there is has been a rather odd resurgence of this debate in recent years. The current ploy has been to repackage Biblical Creationism as “Creation Science,” bizarrely attempting to give a cherished religious belief the color of actual science.

I have a great respect for religious faith, and I personally find no contradiction between my own faith and the revelations of Science. But then, I am no Biblical Literalist. The message of the Bible, I believe, is indeed Truth, but that message is completely and truly conveyed without every small detail being precisely and wholly true as the objective world defines factual truth. Indeed, I have always been puzzled by the notion of Biblical Literalism, for the Bible itself is by no means internally consistent, and it often contradicts itself. (Look at Genesis 1 & 2.) These contradictions do not in any way diminish the Truth of the Text, though they clearly show that word-for-word literalism is honestly insupportable and unnecessary. What’s more, the very fact that Jesus taught using parables, stories which illuminated a Truth yet which were clearly not literally true, illustrates that The Truth can be conveyed without minute, literal truths.

Proponents of “Creation Science” claim that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is merely a “theory,” trading upon the popular definition of a theory as simple speculation. For some reason, there is no such calling into question the validity and value of Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, nor Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. And though the indisputable fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun contradicts Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5, I Chronicles 16:30, and Ecclesiastes 1:5, no one today seriously proposes teaching “Geocentric Theory” to school children. To do so would be to advocate the production of seriously miseducated students. So why such atavism with regard to Darwin’s theory?

I suspect the answer is one of simple pride. The usual (and erroneous) gloss upon the Theory of Evolution is that man descended from monkeys; whom among us would like to acknowledge *that* sort of family tree? I am at turns amused and appalled by a billboard which appeared around Dallas a few years ago, “If Man Descended From Monkeys, Why Are There Still Monkeys?” I am amused because the question is funny, appalled because the question betrays a complete ignorance of biology, Darwin or no Darwin. Those who have little more to take pride in than the simple accident of their births simply cannot bear the thought that their personal heritage is anything other than untainted by biological realities.

So, despite the eighty-six years that have passed since the Scopes Trial began, our biological education has nevertheless moved in the very direction that William Jennings Bryan so ardently advocated, and which Clarence Darrow so passionately opposed. The average American receives no training in evolutionary theory unless he or she enrolls in a biology class at the college level. Bryan and his Fundamentalist allies triumphed both in Dayton in 1925 and in the commercial court of textbook publishing, no matter the subsequent rulings of other courts. Scopes is with us still.

Thus, today, most of what anyone recalls about Bryan is his involvement in the Scopes trial. His legacy of courageous populism and his tireless efforts in support of Women’s Suffrage, The Forty-hour Work Week, the prohibition of Child Labor, the Direct Election of Senators, and many, many more progressive issues is all but forgotten. And if these legacies are occasionally remembered, his later-life adherence to fundamentalism is explained away as an aberration.

But it was no such thing.

As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his superb essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” Bryan’s anti-evolutionary stand was wholly in keeping with his principals. Bryan, champion of the common citizen, had seen Darwinism perverted into “Social Darwinism” which held that the rich were the successful in the struggle for survival, and that they therefore were worthy of their wealth, while the poor, crippled, and mentally defective, were doomed to failure and death. From this theory grew the Eugenics movement — breeding better humans selectively — which enjoyed much popularity until Hitler and his henchmen damaged its reputation for good. The notion of “survival of the fittest” became nearly a religious creed among the German General Staff during the First World War, and it was applied to the fitness of nations and used to justify atrocities against the peoples of France and Belgium as smaller, weaker states were less worthy of survival. Bryan was particularly influenced by Vernon Kellogg’s account of Social Darwinism’s impact upon the German High Command, Headquarters Nights. Kellogg described how a belief in Social Darwinism among the German General Staff had replaced Christianity and traditional moral values. The prominent thinking among the German officer corps was that any means required to secure the triumph of their superior nation would be justified by Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest.”

Of course, Darwin’s theory implies no such thing. It is a scientific explanation for observed phenomena, and it is not a moral prescription. (In the natural world, a “weak” and “lowly” creature may well be the fittest to survive in its niche. The typical lifeform on earth is a bacterium, after all!) But the idea that human society and social prejudices could be explained and justified using a “scientific” explanation had great appeal.

After World War I ended, Bryan saw the horrors that had been perpetrated under the guise of Social Darwinism, both at home and abroad, and his last great campaign was to oppose Social Darwinism. Bryan did not want the next generation of America’s leaders to emulate the German High Command. So Bryan not only rejected Social Darwinism but any aspects of Darwinism. He did so not because he favored scientific ignorance, nor because he wanted to deny religious freedom. Rather, Bryan was simply taking up one more cause in his struggle to ease the oppression and exploitation of the average citizen. Far from becoming a mere dottering, inconsistent fool at the end of his life, Bryan was standing by his principles, and as he saw it, trying to make the world a better place.

In taking a stand against the teaching of the Theory of Evolution, Bryan joined the forces of reaction and ignorance. His goal of fighting the oppression of the common man was completely in character for him; he never abandoned his fight. But in the case of the Scopes Trial, he did so in the most ignoble of ways, appealing to prejudice and fear to resist inevitable change. Despite his lofty motives, he ended up as a tragicomic caricature of himself. But he was not alone, and his type is legion even to this day: well-meaning in an earnest desire to ameliorate society’s ills, but shooting at the wrong target.

It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and end it as a buffoon.

— H. L. Mencken on Bryan

Further Reading:

There have been many excellent books, plays, and movies about the Scopes Trial. Here are some fairly brief but extremely worthwhile treatments of it:

Attorney For The Damned, Arthur Weinberg; University of Chicago Press, edition of 1989 [1958]: ISBN: 0226136493

This book covers Darrow’s most famous cases with extensive material from trial transcripts. The Scopes Trial is covered in about 50 pages as “You Can’t Teach That!”

Hen’s Teeth And Horses Toes, Stephen Jay Gould; Norton, 1983: ISBN: 039301716A

The essay “A Visit To Dayton” provides an excellent summary of the trial and its issues.

Bully For Brontosaurus, Stephen Jay Gould; Norton, 1991: ISBN: 039302961

The essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” addresses Byran’s motives and his reasoning for his anti-evolutionary stand. I am deeply indebted to Professor Gould for helping me to make sense of what I had long considered an inexplicable aberration on Bryan’s part.

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