Evolution on Trial- A Legal History of the Battle Over Science Class, Part One- The Scopes Monkey Trial

As a Christian parent, have you ever wondered how science class ended up being the battle ground for the age old controversy of where life began? Were we created by an omnipotent being or did life spontaneously erupt from a primordial cocktail? If you take offense to the idea that a child should be taught the concept of life originating from a Creator, then you should also be offended by the idea that a child should be taught that all life is descended from a single cell organism- and vice versa. Even more difficult to fathom, is how we have arrived at the place where our children are taught that the secular theory of evolution is a confirmed fact and creation science is labeled a religious fanatic’s fairy tale, a “pseudoscience”.

The truth is we’ve all been sold a lie. That lie is that secular scientists have no bias. That secular science merely evaluates the evidence and allows that evidence to propel sound theory. We are told that creation science, on the other hand is unavoidably corrupted by the belief in a Creator. That the underlying belief in a Creator taints and warps a creation scientist’s understanding of this mutually shared evidence, leading to biased and unprovable theories of life as we know it. We are told that secular science deals in reality and creation science deals in myth- end of story.

To be totally honest, I am in agreement on at least two counts: creation science yields theories that are biased due to its foundational belief in a Creator, and the theories that are put forth to explain the existence of life as we know it cannot be confirmed.

However, I also believe that we are deluded if we believe that secular science doesn’t suffer from the same handicap. Secular science has its own obvious and detrimental bias. Its theories are corrupted by the foundational belief that life did not begin with a Creator. And, just like creation science, the theories that are offered up to explain the existence of life as we know it cannot be (and contrary to popular belief) have not been confirmed. If you question that last statement, I hope you’ll read the following posts from my blog: Did the Human Genome Project Confirm Evolution, and Evidence for Darwin’s “Descent of Man”: Mountain or Molehill?

Fundamental truth: Secular science vehemently and dogmatically denies the existence of a Creator with the same fervor in which creation science vehemently and dogmatically declares the existence of a Creator. Secular science has become a religion in its own right. A religion dedicated to denying the existence of a Creator at all costs.

Which science is better? From a logical standpoint, the only answer is neither. Given these truths, secular science and creation science can only be considered equals. But where does that leave science class? How are we to accurately apply the separation of church and state when it comes to what our children are taught about the scientific evidences and theories for the origin of life? If the government bans either theory from the classroom, it has made a law respecting the establishment of a particular religion- a blatant violation of the first amendment. Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

So, how have we come to a place where creation science is legally banned from the classroom and evolution is taught as fact? Christian, the truth of the matter is, historically, we own a share of the blame. A series of court decisions over the last century have shaped the policies that govern how our children are educated today. Unfortunately, these court decisions have warped the application of separation of church and state.

To get a good historical understanding we have to go all the way back to the 1920’s. Darwin’s writings were very well established and had become generally accepted in biology. As a consequence, they were being incorporated into school curricula. Teachers were beginning to unionize and the National Education Association had recommended that the states align their standards nationally. To this end, states began making science class a mandatory requirement and many textbooks were addressing evolution.

At the same time, there was a rise in what began to be called “religious fundamentalism”. The term “religious fundamentalism” was actually coined in the 20’s, and it referred to the strict adherence to certain fundamental concepts of Christian faith, including the literal interpretation of the Bible.

These fundamentalists had a big problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution being taught to their children in science class. After all, the idea of the origin of life being credited to anything other than God is a direct contradiction to the Genesis creation account. In order to keep evolution out of the classroom many states began considering laws that would ban it from being taught.

At first glance, one is tempted to be judgemental of the “fundamentalists” of the 20’s for taking up a crusade to prevent the theory of evolution being taught alongside creationism. To bring a little context to the situation, however, this is an excellent place to insert a excerpt from the textbook in question, William Hunter’s A Civic Biology Presented in Problems, published in 1914: This paragraph is taken from the section titled The Races of Men, “If we follow the early history of man upon the earth, we find that at first he must have been little better than one of the lower animals…At present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man and the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”

This is the perfect example of the fact that the theory of evolution, definitely in its beginning, was unabashedly racist. I can’t imagine that even the most progressive agnostic or atheist today would approve of this very obviously unscientific information being included in a science text intended for educational purposes. Many will cry foul, and claim that religion, and the Bible in particular, have contributed to racist sentiment. However, it should be noted that any Christian harboring racist beliefs does so without any biblical corroboration. The creation account in Genesis makes clear that we are ALL descended from the same two people- Adam and Eve. Race is never even mentioned in the Bible. Today, the theory of evolution has divorced its racist roots.

This just goes to show that issues are not always black and white. Today, we can look back (with our new and improved, non- racist, theory of evolution) and proclaim that these Christians had no right to ban the secular creation account from the classroom. However, these “fundamentalists” were not dealing with the new and improved theory of evolution. They were dealing with a version that is even less compelling than the one espoused today.

It is true that religious individuals didn’t want their children being taught a curriculum that would cause them to question their faith, but it was not a cut and dry religious issue as secular history would recount, it was more complicated than that. I mentioned earlier that strides were being taken to move toward a national education standard. While a national standard of education certainly has its benefits, parents in the 20’s had an underlying issue- they didn’t want to give the government full control over what was taught in public schools. After all, public schools are funded by public tax dollars. Parents wanted to be sure they had a say in what was taught, rather than relinquishing control to the government.

So, in January of 1925, the Butler Act was introduced in the state of Tennessee and it was passed as law in March of the same year. This law established a $100- $500 fine for teaching evolution.

In response to anti-evolution laws, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) began to publicly advertise that they were looking for a “test case” to challenge the validity of these laws. The ACLU advertised that they would defend anyone accused with violating these anti-evolution laws.

In the small, economically struggling town of Dayton, Tennessee, a group of civic leaders read one such ad in a Chattanooga newspaper and hatched a plan while sitting at the table in Fred E. Robinson’s Drug Store where they met regularly.

Photos from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville digital library: https://digital.lib.utk.edu/collections/islandora/object/scopes%3A1319#page/2/mode/2up

Hoping to resuscitate their ailing town with the influx of tourists and attention that a high profile trial would bring, this group of men enlisted John T. Scopes (a 24 year old college graduate who had taught algebra and physics for one year at Rhea County High School) to be the center of a trial hosted in their city. Scopes was chosen because he was well liked, and he didn’t have a family whose livelihood would be threatened if he ended up losing his job. Scopes recalled that while substituting in a science class the prior April, he had done an exam review out of the state approved biology book (Hunter’s “A Civic Biology”) and thought he had probably gone over the chapter on evolution. (Scopes later refuted this statement.) Scopes agreed to play along and this telegram was sent to the ACLU:

“Professor JT Scopes, teacher of science Rhea County high school, Dayton, Tenn will be arrested and charged with teaching evolution. Consent of superintendent of education for test case to be defended by you. Wire me collect if you wish to cooperate and arrest will follow.”

Photo of John T. Scopes

Secular history tends to glaze over this point, but it’s important to highlight the fact that this trial did not arise organically from Tennessee citizens who felt oppressed by the fact that evolution was being banned in the classroom. The ACLU was shopping for a test case and the civic leaders of the town of Dayton had ulterior motives for volunteering. It should be noted that although Scopes himself did not agree with the Butler Act, he was not atheist or agnostic. He, like many others, did not believe that the theory of evolution was necessarily incompatible with the Bible.

The ACLU agreed and Scopes was arrested on May 7, 1925. He was immediately released on $1,000 bond paid by the ACLU, so he never spent any time in jail. The trial that resulted is sometimes called the most famous trial in history and became a circus comparable to the legendary Barnum and Bailey.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

Rhea County Courthouse in 1925

The town of Dayton pulled out all the stops to prepare for what they hoped would be an onslaught of visitors. They formed a Scopes Trial Entertainment Committee which presided over the building of a tourist camp to accommodate visitors, added an outdoor speaking platform to the courthouse, added camera platforms inside the courthouse to accommodate reporters, turned Dayton’s main road into a festival ground complete with vendor stalls, relabeled the constables motorcycle the “monkeyville police”, businesses hung pictures of monkeys and apes in their windows, Fred Robinson’s drug store began serving “simian sodas”, and a famous chimpanzee dressed in a suit and bow tie was flaunted around town. Evangelists from all over came to Dayton to preach about the evils of evolution.

A picture is worth a thousand words:

Local shop owners taking advantage of the trial.

Scopes, Neal, and Rappleyea walking in front of huge “Read Your Bible” sign.

Joe Mendi, a chimpanzee movie performer was in attendance.

The Scopes Trial was the first trial to be broadcast nationwide and it was also filmed for newsreels that were distributed to movie theaters. Two of the most famous lawyers of the era prepared to face off:

William Jennings Bryan, an outspoken Christian and famed orator, was the prosecuting attorney. He was the leader of the Democratic party for 25-30 years and had run for president on the Democratic ticket three times. Bryan had served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Lest you erroneously equate Bryan’s outspoken Christianity with conservatism (a common trait in politics today), as secretary of state Bryan proved himself to be a true liberal progressive of his day by establishing the Federal income tax, downgrading the nation from the gold standard, championing minority rights and women’s sufferage, and establishing minimum wage, the departments of labor, health, education, and welfare just to name a few. (Not that some of these things weren’t good ideas at the time. Instead, they are prime examples of how good intentions can balloon into monstrosities.)

The famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, represented the defense. Darrow was an outspoken agnostic and critic of fundamentalism. He defended a lot of unpopular people and radical causes. Most notably, was his defense of Leopold and Loeb, two young men found guilty of murdering a young boy in what was called a “thrill killing” (just for the fun of it) in an effort to commit the perfect crime. Darrow kept them from getting the death penalty.

Darrow pictured left, and Bryan pictured right

Many aspects of society were completely different as compared to today, but one commonality shared is the media bias that was portrayed. Political cartoons of the day portrayed the favorable attention given to Darrow versus the mocking afforded to Bryan.

Political cartoon portraying Bryan as so naive that Darrow has to tell him Santa isn’t real.

Here Bryan is portrayed as “Don Quixote” taking up a pointless battle against the “windmill” of evolution.

The only legal question in the trial was whether or not Scopes had violated the Butler Act. However, both sides knew that this was a “test case” and ultimately Scopes’ guilt or innocence meant nothing.

These were the objectives of each side given in Bryan and Darrow’s own words:

Bryan: “First, to establish the right of the taxpayers to control what is taught in schools. Second, to draw a line between the teaching of evolution as a fact and teaching it as a theory. Third, to see that any teacher that might be found guilty of this offense should be given an opportunity to resign.”

*** Notice, Bryan states that his main goal is to place the control over what is taught in the hands of the public and designating that evolution is theory and not to be confused with fact. Interestingly, this is the same thing that most of us would like to achieve today- evolution taught alongside creationism, both as theories. Science class is not the place for indoctrination from either side of this argument. ***

Darrow (per his autobiography “The Story of My Life”): “My object and my only object, was to focus the attention of the country of the program of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America.”

*** Notice, Darrow’s goal, rather than aiming for equal treatment for both sides (a fulfillment of separation of church and state), is stated as the much more personal (and bitter, if I might add) intention of exposing the prevalent teachings of fundamentalism as indoctrination. The focus of “religion vs science” was coming directly from Darrow. Even the ACLU viewed the Butler Act as an infringement on freedom of speech- not on freedom of religion.

As a matter of fact, due to Darrow’s repeated insults aimed at the judge and the jury, he was held in contempt of court.

Today, we would all laugh at Darrow’s entire presentation of his case to validate the theory of evolution. First of all, instead of focusing on all life coming from a single primitive cell (the foundation of evolution), they equated evolution with embryology. This illustrates the fact that scientists of the day actually had no idea how evolution was supposed to work. Embryology is the the study of life forming from a single cell. A sperm cell enters an egg cell (called conception), the cells then divide repeatedly and result in a fully formed organism. They argued that this was what evolution was all about- if you believe this, then you believe in evolution. Today we know that the two are unrelated.

Although embryology highlights that life does indeed form from one cell, that one cell is species specific and always gives rise to its same kind. For example, dogs will always have dogs, cats will always have cats, etc. Obviously, this is not to say that natural selection does not lead to changes within a species (the emergence of different types of dogs, cats, horses, etc.) However, nowhere do we witness any evidence of a dog evolving into a cat or any “kind” evolving into any other “kind”. To this day, science has been unable to provide even one example of a transitional form. Darwin himself expected in the years following his theory that a preponderance of evidence for his theory would be unearthed in the fossil record. Over a century has passed and scientists are still looking for this proof.

The testimony of Darrow’s expert witnesses would be nothing less than embarrassing by today’s standards. They all equated evolution with embryology and when asked to define evolution, their responses are some of the most unintelligible rambling you’ve ever heard. If you’re interested in reading the transcript of the trial complete with these ramblings, you can view it in its entirety at this link: http://moses.law.umn.edu/darrow/trials.php?tid=7

Interestingly, all evidence entered as support of evolution in the trial has been discredited today. For example, a fossilized tooth was entered into evidence in support of the existence of “Nebraska Man” as a transitional ape-man. The tooth was later found to be a fossilized pig tooth.

Darrow’s initially planned tactic was to have multiple scientists testify as to the scientific validity of evolution. However, the judge would not allow the jury to hear the testimony of the scientists due to the fact that the validity of evolution had nothing at all to do with whether or not Scopes was guilty of breaking the law, which was the only purpose of the trial. So, the jurors were not allowed to hear the scientists and their expert testimonies were entered into court records by deposition. Faced with this formidable obstacle, Darrow came up with a brilliant and unconventional plan of attack. He got Bryan to agree to take the stand as an expert witness to defend the Bible.

Why the judge would agree to allow the validity of the Bible to be questioned when he rightly refused to allow testimony on the validity of evolution is beyond me. Neither had anything to do with the case. The result of the judge’s decision not to allow expert testimony on evolution or creation, was that the jurors had both accounts explained by lawyers in lieu of experts. This proved to be Bryan’s biggest and most detrimental mistake.

Bryan, although undoubtedly an intelligent and educated Christian, was most definitely not a Bible scholar. Darrow proceeded with a line of questioning that focused, first, on illustrating Bryan’s belief in a mostly literal interpretation of the Bible, second, highlighting many supernatural (and therefore scientifically unexplainable) biblical accounts, and third, pointing out Bryan’s imprecise and sometimes contradictory responses. Bryan himself, had a compromised fundamentalist belief at best. His belief in the day age theory as opposed to the 6 day creation account, and a local rather than global flood, among other things, rendered him incapable of providing a consistent defense of either creation or biblical inerrancy. Darrow was particularly adept at making a mockery of Bryan’s belief that the creation account can be understood to impart that creation occurred over millions of years as opposed to 6 literal 24-hour days. Darrow took Bryant to task, reading directly from the biblical creation account as it is written- with the terms “morning” and “night” to define what the term “day” means in context.

Inside the courtroom.

Bryan had agreed to take the stand believing that Darrow would take the stand as an expert on evolution the next day. Instead, Darrow came in the next day and instructed the jury to find his client guilty as charged which ended the trial. The jury returned 10 minutes later with a guilty verdict. Scopes, who never took the stand, was fined $100. The goal of the ACLU at that point (and the reason Darrow recommended that Scopes be found guilty) was to appeal the verdict, ideally all the way to the Supreme Court in a case that would find laws like the Butler Act unconstitutional nationwide. However, that never occurred. Scopes’ appeal was overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality, and the ACLU had nothing left to pursue.

Five days after the trial ended, William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep during an afternoon nap.

Tennessee, the city of Dayton, religious fundamentalism, and anti-evolution laws were mocked in the media.

Darrow was a brilliant man. He succeeded in duping the judge as well as the prosecution into framing the argument as “religion vs science” which set, what has proved to be, an inescapable legal precedent of equating creation science with the promotion of a particular religious belief as opposed to the equation of secular science with an unbiased, non-religious collection of facts. We still operate under this fallacy today.

While the theories presented by creation science do corroborate the Bible, the only aspects of creation science that have a place in the classroom are the evidences that point to a Creator as the origin of life- not theological interpretation of the Bible. By the same token, the only aspects of secular science that have a place in the classroom are the evidences that corroborate their theory of the origin of life- not a secular “theology” that claims the superiority of their unproven theories negate the existence of a Creator.

In the beginning, I stated that we Christians share in the blame for the legal battle over science class. I say this because of the early fundamentalist Christian’s refusal to allow secular science to have a voice in the classroom. The creationists were made to look like fools in the media, but the most devastating effects of the trial wouldn’t be felt for decades. Bryan was hands down outwitted by Darrow in a court case that set a biased legal precedent that proves insurmountable to this day.

Bryan’s death and the trial coverage had coalesced the anti-evolution movement into an entire social movement. Despite the negative media portrayal, many states tried unsuccessfully to introduce similar laws in the following years. Arkansas and Mississippi, however, did pass laws banning the teaching of evolution. Many textbook publishers quietly removed references to evolution from their textbooks. Attempts to repeal the Butler Act in Tennessee began in 1935, but they all failed. The Butler Act was on the books until 1967.

In 1955, a play based on the Scopes trial came out called Inherit the Wind. The play was made into a movie in 1960 and that movie was redone in 1990. However, neither the play or the movies are historically accurate. They portray the trial as a witch hunt carried out by lynch mobs of fundamentalists against Scopes, with no mention of the fact that the entire trial was a set up.

In fact, Scopes himself seemed to be bothered by his conscience and to take issue with the way the trial played out. In a recorded conversation with William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service that took place in the last days of the trial, Scopes said, “There is something I must tell you. It’s worried me. I didn’t violate the law…I never taught the evolution lesson…The kids they put on the stand couldn’t remember what I taught 3 months ago. They were coached by the lawyers.”

The Scopes Trial, historically, had an incredible effect on public education and the legal battles that have ensued in the years to follow. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a walk through the legal history that has resulted in cementing the fallacy that secular science is unbiased and creation science is a collection of unfounded myths. I’ll illustrate how the theory of evolution has been elevated to a fact protected by law, not on its scientific merit- but on its erroneously proclaimed non “religious” basis.