Controversy I - The Scopes "Monkey" Trial

Guide to the readings this week:
William Jennings Bryan: Populist and Anti-Evolutionist
Clarence Darrow "for the Defence"
The Scopes Trial
Other Resources on the Scopes Trial and "Inherit the Wind" film
Study Questions for this Week

Readings for this week:
William Jenning Bryan's Testimony
Bryan's Final Summation

This week we will examine a second major episode in the evolution/creation controversy in the United States: the trial of John Thomas Scopes, a Tennessee school teacher, charged with having taught evolution in a public school. In February 1925, the state of Tennessee, under the sponsorship of John Butler, passed legislation which declared it unlawful for any teacher in a public school "to teach any 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." (Butler Act).

This was the first of such acts to be passed in southern legislatures and attracted some attention from concerned groups such as the American Civil Liberties Associations (ACLU), who supported the case of John Scopes, a science high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who decided to test the constitutionality of the act. He purchased a copy of a state approved textbook which contained references to evolution, and publicly announced that he had taught a lesson the subject on April 24th. As a result, he was indicted for violation of the Butler act. Note: It was because he publicly announced that he had taught evolution that Scopes was arrested; he intended for this to happen so as to test the law in court.

The ensuing trial is considered one of the most spectacular in American trial history-- at least though covered by radio and teletype before the TV era of direct transmission. The town of Dayton received unprecedented coverage as newspapers and radio dispatched journalists to what became popularly known as the "Monkey Trial". This misconception is a minor one, though fairly common. The common view is often to assume that evolutionists claim that humans are descended from the monkeys. This is wrong in theory, since humans, monkeys (and the other great apes) are co-descended from a common ancestor, not descended one (humans) from the others (monkeys). Nonetheless, the popular nomenclature for the trial has stuck over time.

William Jennings Bryan: Populist and Anti-Evolutionist

Both prosecution and defense marshalled prominent attorneys. On the prosecution side beside A. T. Stewart, the Attorney General of Tenenssee was William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), whose last public action was his participation in the Scopes Trial. Bryan was known nationally as "The Great Commoner", and had unsuccessfully run on populist tickets for the US presidency three times -- in 1896 (when he was the official Democratic nominee, losing to William MckInley 271-176 electoral votes), 1900 (again losing to McKinley), and 1908 (losing to William Howard Taft). The reforms he supported included the election of US senators by popular vote (not by electoral colleges), women suffrage, protection of labor, and prohibition of liquor.

In 1913, Bryan was appointed Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson cabinet, and Bryan became active in world politics, proposing, just before World War I, the principle that arbitration before an international commission be used to prevent war. Some 31 countries agreed to this principle, but the matter was made moot by the outbreak of war in 1914.

Bryan was therefore no stereotypical stick figure of an anti-evolutionist, but rather a prominent and progressive politician who opposed evolution for reasons far different than those maintained by anti-evolutionists today. Dismayed by the outbreak of war, and Wilson's growing willingness to participate in it, Bryan resigned as Secretary of State in 1915. He came to view the disaster of war as the outcome of the evolutionary dictum of "survival of the fittest", whereby nations would test each other's fitness by canon and bomb. This dislike for evolution was abbetted by Bryan's literalism with respect to the Bible (what is today termed "fundamentalism").

Just as Bryan saw the source of international misery as war, Bryan saw the cause of domestic misery as "demon rum", and was a prominent proponent of Prohibition. Once the United States adopted Prohibition in 1919 (it was repealed in 1933), Bryan shifted his focus to that other evil he identified as the source of human suffering: evolution.

Bryan's motivation for participating in the trial were therefore complex, and the background he brought was not a right wing fundamentalism, but a curious combination of populism and progressivism which made him an implacable opponent of both alcohol and evolution.

Clarence Darrow "for the Defence"

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) was also a midwesterner, like Bryan. In his long career as a criminal defense lawyer, he defended the anarchists charged with throwing a bomb and murdering bystanders in the Haymarket Riot of 1886 that led to the creation of May 1st as "International Workers Day" by the labor movement (now supplanted in the US by Labor Day in September). Darrow also defended Eugene V. Debs, socialist candidate for president on numerous occqasions duirng the Pullman rail strike of 1894, and William "Big Bill" Haywood, a mine union leader who was accused of assassinating the former governor of Idaho.

Not all of Darrow's cases were labor-related, but he certainly was associated in the popular mind with "left-wing" causes. Immediately before the Scopes trial, Darrow was the chief defense counsel for Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, two wealthy young men charged with the killing of a 14 year old, "just for the thrill of it". He succeeded in saving the accused from the death penalty by arguing that their behavior was motivated by mental defect. Just after the Scopes trial, Darrow was defence counsel for a black family which was charged with resisting against a white mob which tried to drive them from their residence in a white Detroit neighborhood.

The Scopes Trial

The Scopes Trial lasted from July 10 and lasted until July 21 of 1925. The jury of local men consisted of ten farmers, a land owner and shipping clerk. Of the 12, six were Baptists, four Methodists, one a member of the Disciples of Church, and one was not a member of any church. On the first day of the trial, the defence attempted to have the charge dismissed on the grounds that the Butler Act violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, in that it was too vague to allow a potential violator to be able to judge whether he was in conformity to the act or not. This was rejected by the presiding judge, J. T. Raulston of the 18th Judicial Criminal Court.

The defence then attempted to ridicule the law, comparing the anti-evolution provision it contained to the Galileo case, where Galileo (in 1633) had been condemned for teaching "any theory which Denies the Bible story that the earth is the center of the universe and to teach instead that the earth and planets move about the sun." Despite the nice analogy (recall the Butler Act formulation, forbidding anyone to "to teach any 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."), the Judge was not moved by arguments from the history of science, and the trial proceded.

The trial was marked by the fact that Scopes had previously admitted that he had taught evolution (although it was never proved that he explicitly denied the "story of divine creation of man as taught in the Bible", as also required by the Butler law to prove guilt). As a result, the judge in the end ruled that the case was a technical one: whether or not Scopes had taught evolution would suffice to determine his guilt or innocence. The judge then refused to hear the scientific witnesses for the defence, declaring that the question was not whether evolution was true, but whether Scopes, in violation of the Butler Act, had taught that it was true -- which Scopes, of course, had already admitted. In the end, only one scientific witness was heard, without the jury present, though the testimony of the others was read into the court record in order to record their presence at the trial.

Although the problem of the validity of evolution was irrelevant to the trial, the attitudes and motivations of those in contention -- and especially Bryan and Darrow -- are of interest to us. Two documents are especially relevant, and are reproduced in linked texts. The first is the highly unusual examination of the chief prosecution lawyer by the chief defense lawyer. On the 7th day of the trial, with the proceedings being held on the lawn in front of the courthouse because of heat inside and the need for more room for spectators, Clarence Darrow called to the stand, as a defence witness(!!) the prosecuting attorney, William Jennings Bryan.

The examination of Bryan by Jennings is a classic of court room drama and antagonism between two individuals of different views and ideologies. Darrow begins by questioning Darrow as to his view of the literal truth of the Bible, and then continues to examine a wide range of Bible stories: Jonah swallowed by a whale, Joshua and the sun standing still, Noah and the Flood, The Tower of Babel, Eve as the first woman, Cain's wife, The Days of Creation, Eve and the temptation of the apple. (Titles in the text have been added for ease of reading.) In passing they also debate such general questions as The antiquity of man, The age of the earth, religions other than Christianity, and non-Christian peoples of the world. This verbatim testimony is a fascinating example of an encounter between a literalist and a critic.

The second reading from the trial is the concluding remarks by Bryan which he never in fact delivered at the trial. Because the judge ruled that the trial was based on a technical question: whether or not Scopes had in fact taught evolution, and not the more basic question as to whether or not the Butler Act was constitutional, the case went to the jury without final summations by defence or prosecution. Five days after the trial ended -- with Scopes, not unexepectedly, found guilty -- Bryan died of a heart attack, while still at Dayton, Tennessee. Two days later, on July 28th, Bryan's wife released the text of what would have been his concluding remarks.

In this "last testament", Bryan makes five indictments against evolution (none of which, significantly, have anything to do with science. In his own words, these are:

As can be readily noted, objections (1)-(2) have to do with religious concerns, and (3)-(5) with social reform. Bryan considers each point at length in his summary.

As for Scopes, immediately after being found guilty and fined the minimum provided by the statute --$100-- he stated: "Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideals of academic freedom -- that is, to teach the truth, as guaranteed in our Constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust".

The fine, however, had been decided by the judge rather than the jury, as required by Tennessee law at that time. At appeals, the verdict was reversed because of this technical error. Scopes was never retried, as by the time of the appeal he had abandoned teaching. The appeal court, however, did rule the Butler Act constitutional (It was repealed in 1967). The unconstitutionality of anti-evolution legislation, under the guise of "equal treatment" for evolution and "creation science" would not be resolved until the 1980s, the subject of next week's discussion.

Other Resources on the Scopes Trial and "Inherit the Wind" film

A final note: the Scopes Trial is the subject of a web-site. This site, prepared by Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri--Kansas City School of Law contains a mine of interesting information and photos. The Trial was also the subject of a film, Inherit the Wind starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Gene Kelly, directed by Stanley Kramer, and realesed by United Artists. There is a web-site devoted to this film . You may find other sites of interest by doing web-searches using Excite, Yahoo, or other search engines.Good biographies can be found at Wikipedia for both Bryan and Darrow .

Study Questions


(1) What was the charge brought against Scopes?

(2) What were the political and ideological motiviations underlying Bryan's objection to evolution?

(3) How successful was Bryanin his defence of Biblical literalism?

(4) What role has the Scopes Trial played in popular culture?