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  • Writer's pictureRKPROST

The Scopes Trial

Dudley Field Malone once said, “We shall prove by experts and scientists in every field of scientific knowledge that there is no branch of science which can be taught today without the theory of evolution and that applies to geology, biology, botany, astrology, medicine, chemistry, bacteriology, embryology, zoology, sanitation, forestry, and agriculture” (Malone). In 1925 substitute teacher John Scopes taught his general science classes that man descended from apes which is known as the theory of evolution (Pierce). This action violated the Butler Act which led to Supreme Court case, State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, about science and religion in the classroom. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is taught in American public schools because of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial impacted the incorporation of the evolutionary theory in biology textbooks, violated separation of church and state, and established that the Bible is not scientific.

The Butler act was the reason behind Scopes’ time in court. The Tennessee Legislature made it a crime, “...for any teacher in any of the universities, normals, and all other public schools in the state, which are supported in a whole or in part of the public-school funds of the State, to teach the theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals" (Allen). Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler and religious fundamentalists lobbied to have anti-evolution acts enforced in classrooms (Liu).

The South was highly centralized around religion and literally interpreting the Bible whereas the North was progressing scientifically. Senior Lecturer and Director of the UMBC History Program at the Universities at Shady Grove, Andrew Nolan writes in his academic journal, “The Scopes trial took place in a decade of rapid economic expansion, cultural experimentation and widening fractures within the social order” (Nolan). New scientific discoveries were made which caused modernists to push for evolution in schools, but religious parents argued with the school board and education system.

The trial was nationally publicized because of the lawyers. Scopes Trial prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, supported the Butler Act because he believed that evolution in classrooms would lead to the American youth threatening the nation’s Christian faith (Pierce). Any science teacher in Tennessee that was willing to challenge the Butler Act would be supported by the American Civil Liberties Union in court. Clarence Darrow became Scopes’ defense lawyer due to that offer (Liu). The Supreme Court found Tennessee substitute teacher John Scopes guilty and fined him $100 although the verdict was eventually overturned due to a technicality in the ruling. State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes has long lasting effects on the science curriculum today because of the points outlined in the trial.

The Scopes trial impacted the evolutionary theory and the way it is presented in textbooks. Author Paul Sann writes in his book The Lawless Decade, “[Scopes] read his class this sentence from Hunter’s Civic Biology: ‘We have now learned that animal forms may be arranged so as to begin with the simple one-celled forms and culminate with a group which includes man himself” (Sann 120). The biology book that John Scopes used to teach his class was the approved by the Tennessee state board of education and by the local school board (Streissguth 169).

Not all biology books in the 1920s had the same content. Randy Moore, editor of The American Biology Teacher and professor of biology at General College, University of Minnesota reports, A few textbooks did not mention the word evolution (e.g., Hunter's Elements of Biology, published in 1907; Peabody and Hunt's Elementary Biology, published in 1913), whereas others devoted entire chapters to the subject” (Moore). Scientists dedicated many textbook pages to evolution in the period between Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species and Scopes’ court case. After the Monkey trial, many teachers did not want to be convicted like the high school substitute teacher, so they justified the reason why evolution was no longer taught. They claimed the concept was too hard for high school students to understand and was better suited for advanced courses (Moore).

Teachers and publishers like Scopes felt that students should understand how science influences all areas of life. In The Scopes Trial a Photographic History written by Edward Caudill, he informs that, “...teachers and professors [were] incorporating Darwinian concepts in disguise, often using words like ‘development’ in place of ‘evolution’” (Caudill 64). The Scopes trial sparked discussion on a controversial issue and publicized scientific information. Although the verdict removed evolution for decades, when it was reincorporated it had some of the best science available. Eventually biology books across the nation, including states with anti-evolution laws from the 1920s, had “long and detailed sections on Darwin, natural selection, and different models of evolution” (Caudill 80) which allows students to have unlimited academic freedom.

John Scope’s academic freedom was violated because there was not a separation of church and state. Judith S. Baughman author of the book American Decades 1920-1929 writes, “The ACLU was convinced that excluding an accepted scientific theory from the classroom violated a teacher’s freedom of speech in teaching science as scientists understood it” (Baughman 379). Clarence Darrow argued that Scopes’ freedom of speech was infringed upon because he could not express his professional views. On the contrary, William Jennings Bryan “had no concept of academic freedom, of the freedom of scholars to follow their thinking and develop their understanding and that of their students without restriction” (Grant & Katz 153). Bryan believed that majority rules and teaching in evolution in schools was against public consensus (Grant & Katz 153).

The Butler act applied to public schools which means there was a wide range of student beliefs. Tom Streissguth, author of Eyewitness History the Roaring Twenties states, “...people had the right to determine, through state law, how their education dollars were spent and how they would have teachers instruct their children” (Streissguth 166). Parents pay tax dollars for their children to receive an education so they will be prepared for the future. Religion on the other hand is private and can be taught at home. The Butler act “...violated [the] section of Tennessee's constitution which held that ‘no preference shall be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship’” (Grant & Katz 157-158). Religious preference towards Christianity was evident, yet not all students believe in creationism as the origin of life.

The Bible is not scientific therefore it should not be used in a biology classroom. According to Judith S. Baughman, the holy book has an unreliable history because the “Bible was a collection of writings completed over time [with] evidence of a variety of writers” (Baughman 376) and has portions that contradict each other. Because of all the translations the language has been distorted.

The purpose of the Bible is to persuade. Robert Grant and Joseph Katz in their book, The Great Trials of the Twenties the Watershed Decade in America’s Courtrooms claim, “The Bible was primarily and essentially a book of religion and morals...” (Grant & Katz 157). A book like this is not suited to be used in a biology class, but rather psychology because it the class offers awareness of experiences and understanding of truth compared to scientific evidence and fact.

The climax of the Scopes trial was when Clarence Darrow rapid fired questions at William Jennings Bryan about his fundamentalist views. With Bryan on the stand he answered Darrow’s questions with “naive faith and view that the words in the bible might not mean exactly what they seem to mean to contemporary readers” (Baughman 380).

“Darrow: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

Bryan: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there.

Darrow: Now you say, the big fish swallowed Jonah, and he remained there how long—three days—and then he spewed him upon the land...Do you believe that He made them—that He made such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?

Bryan: Yes, sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.

Darrow: Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?

Bryan: I believe what the Bible says.

Darrow: You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation.

Bryan: Yes, sir.

Darrow: Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?

Bryan: I do not think it necessarily does.

Darrow: Do you think it does or does not?

Bryan: I know a great many think so.

Darrow: What do you think?

Bryan: I do not think it does.

Darrow: You think those were not literal days?

Bryan: I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.

Darrow: What do you think about it?

Bryan: That is my opinion--I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does” (Allen [Scopes Trial Transcript]).

Darrow tested Bryan's knowledge of the Bible which proved to be flawed as Bryan revealed he “did not believe that every passage in the Bible could be taken literally” (Webb). Creationism vs Darwinism is why the Scopes trial is famous, but evolution being taught in schools was not challenged again until 1968 in Epperson vs. Arkansas.

Opponents would argue that evolution is taught in school because of Supreme Court case Epperson vs. Arkansas. Arkansas legislature passed a law that banned teaching evolution in state funded schools. Tenth grade biology teacher, Susan Epperson, had to choose whether to go against the school biology curriculum or not. The First Amendment in the US Constitution grants the right to free speech, so she believed that the Arkansas law prevented her from doing so.

Those who side with Epperson vs. Arkansas argue that the trial set the precedent of constitutional freedom being protected in state funded schools. Daryl Worthington, a writer on the New Historian explains, “The Epperson vs. Arkansas case was significant as it placed limitations on the power of state governments to get involved in the debate over what was taught in America’s schools” (Worthington). The State can set regulations on public school curriculums, but a criminal penalty for teaching a scientific theory is not allowed because it violates the First Amendment.

Although some may believe Epperson vs. Arkansas is referenced in future cases, the Scopes Monkey trial is better known. The trial was the first to be publicized on radio and attracted many tourists to the sleepy town of Dayton, Tennessee. The results from the Arkansas trial only affected that state whereas the Scopes trial caused many fundamentalist icons to withdraw from the public eye. It was the first time in which people started talking about the controversial idea and have an opinion about it. Susan Epperson was inspired by State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and had a chance to meet with Scopes a while after her trial.

Because of the Scopes Monkey trial the theory of evolution is taught in American public schools. The fight between fundamentalism and Darwinism changed education, reinforced constitutional rights in schools, and established that the Bible should not be used in a classroom setting. The Scopes trial didn’t end the evolution controversy; in fact, it was just the beginning of the heated debate that still exists today.


Works Cited

Allen, Leslie H., ed., excerpt from “Bryan and Darrow at Dayton,” Digital Public Library

Baughman, Judith S. "Topics in the News." American Decades: 1920-1929. New York: Gale

Research, 1996. 376-80. Print.

Caudill, Edward, Edward J. Larson, and Jesse Fox. Mayshark. "Afterword: Seventy-five Years of Scopes." The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2000. 64+. Print.

Grant, Robert B., and Joseph Katz. "The Scopes Trial." The Great Trials of the Twenties: The

Watershed Decade in America's Courtrooms. Rockville Centre, NY: Sarpedon, 1998.

150-60. Print.

Liu, Joseph. "The Social and Legal Dimensions of the Evolution Debate in the U.S." Pew

Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 04 Feb. 2009.

Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

Moore, Randy. "The Lingering Impact of the Scopes Trial on High School Biology Textbooks." The Lingering Impact of the Scopes Trial on High School Biology Textbooks. BioScience, Sept. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2016. Academic journal.

Nolan, Andrew. "Making Modern Men: The Scopes Trial, Masculinity And Progress In The

1920S United States." Gender & History 19 (2007): 122-42. History Reference Center

[EBSCO]. Web. 20 Sept. 2016. Academic Journal

Pierce, J. Kingston. "Scopes Trial | HistoryNet." HistoryNet. HistoryNet, 08 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

Sann, Paul. "The Word, The Book and Mr. Bryan." The 20s, the Lawless Decade: A Pictorial

History of a Great American Transition from the World War I Armistice and Prohibition

to Repeal and the New Deal. New York: Da Capo, 1984. 120+. Print.

Streissguth, Thomas. "A Trial of Science 1925." The Roaring Twenties: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 2001. 166-69. Print.

Webb, George E. "The Scopes Trial." Welcome to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee, 25 Dec. 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

Worthington, Daryl. "Anniversary of the Epperson Vs. Arkansas Verdict." New Historian.

Dalton House, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

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