The Scopes Monkey Trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial is formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. The state accused Mr. Scopes, a public high school teacher, of teaching human evolution against state law. Although this case was purposefully staged to attract publicity for the town of Dayton, it had repercussions for the creation vs. evolution debate and the future of teaching Darwin’s theory in public schools.
Tennessee’s Butler Act, a law passed in March 1925, prohibited teachers in state-funded schools from teaching human evolution. In July 1925, John T. Scopes was accused of doing just that. The American Civil Liberties Union arranged for an agnostic lawyer, Clarence Darrow, to represent Scopes in the upcoming “Monkey Trial.” William Jennings Bryan, three-time Presidential candidate and Presbyterian, agreed to represent the state of Tennessee. The lines were drawn, the public’s attention was engaged, and a media circus began.
From the start, those involved had questionable motives, and the trial was held under dubious circumstances. For example, Mr. Scopes, who was only a substitute teacher in the science classroom, did not even know if he had taught evolution, but he incriminated himself so the case could have a defendant. The defense was careful not to allow Scopes to testify, possibly because they knew he’d never actually taught the subject. Darrow’s involvement was resisted by the ACLU, at first, in fear that he’d make the trial a personal circus and crusade against religion—which he did. His involvement in the defense team led other lawyers, like Charles Hughes and John Davis, to back out.
On the prosecution’s side, Bryan was primarily concerned with states’ rights. His main defense of the Butler Act was defending a state’s ability to choose its own curriculum. He was also deeply concerned with links between evolutionary theories and eugenics. In fact, Bryan pointedly said he was willing to debate evolution, but didn’t think it had anything to do with Scopes’ case. All the same, Bryan had read Darwin years before and quoted him during the case. Darrow, on the other hand, admitted he’d given up on Darwin’s writing, finding it too obscure.
The trial quickly devolved into a one-on-one debate between Bryan and Darrow over religion and religious ideals. In a move some suspect was his entire motivation for taking the case, Darrow called Bryan to the stand as a “witness” for the Bible. Thanks to fictionalized accounts, it’s commonly believed that Bryan struggled to defend Scripture and his fundamentalist faith and was embarrassed on the stand. In fact, Bryan comfortably responded to Darrow’s attacks. He even deflected some of the questions by noting that, strictly speaking, a person did not have to believe in a 6,000-year-old earth.
Darrow’s needling did eventually get to Bryan. He became increasingly irritable on the stand. Sadly, Bryan’s own knowledge was used against him. Darrow’s approach was hostile, shallow, and broad—peppering Bryan with more questions than could possibly be answered. As shown in actual transcripts, Bryan came across as careful, and nuanced—which, ironically, caused more criticism from his constituents, who might have preferred a simpler, hard-line stance.
Darrow’s trap was both malicious and multi-layered. After two hours of interrogation in a brutally hot courtroom, the judge called a halt to the farce. He then ordered the entire testimony stricken from the record. Darrow’s next trick was to waive the defense’s right to make a final statement—which, according to law, also prevented the prosecution from making one. This was a direct contradiction to Darrow’s earlier promise that he, in turn, would serve as a witness on behalf of Darwinism, to be examined by Bryan. In so doing, Darrow cleverly manipulated the situation to prevent any possibility of reasonable answers. Bryan, in effect, was silenced with zero opportunity to reply.
Anti-religious reporters like H. L. Mencken, who was not even present during Bryan’s testimony, spun the events to make religious views look worse. Bryan died a few days later—as a result of poor diet and diabetes, not any sort of angst.
Although Scopes was found guilty in only nine minutes by the jury, the verdict was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality. The justices declared in their ruling that “nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”
The trial’s impact on the creation versus evolution debate was significant, if delayed. The farce revealed a growing animosity toward religion and biblical views among non-believers who were willing to use the theory of evolution as a weapon against faith. Scopes’ guilt or innocence was never the real issue. Nor, despite the original intent, was it a legal test of the Butler Act. Rather, it was a publicity stunt meant to corrode biblical views and to mock religion.
After Scopes was found guilty, several states tried to pass laws similar to the Butler Act but failed. For a while, it seemed that a majority of the nation was holding on to anti-evolution laws. In actuality, the concept of evolution was still taught in schools, even if the exact terminology was not used. It would take several decades to see the full effects that the Scopes Monkey Trial had on the nation and on the creation-versus-evolution debate. Popular culture, not law, was the main driver of this change.
For almost thirty years, the Scopes Monkey Trial was forgotten by mainstream American culture. Then a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial appeared in the form of a play, Inherit the Wind. In that play and a 1960 movie, the prosecutor is depicted as a raging, narrow-minded, uninformed Christian Fundamentalist, and the defense as gentle, broad-minded, intelligent agnostics.
It’s a vast understatement to say that Inherit the Wind is not an honest representation of history. However, people will more eagerly watch dramatic stories than read actual history. The popularity of the play and movie widened the perceived gap between science and the Bible and has ensured that a whole generation of Americans have a faulty view of the facts surrounding the case. This is partly responsible for “The Scopes Monkey Trial” being a favorite example, used by skeptics and naysayers, of religious backwardness.