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Scopes at 100

The “monkey trial” shaped an entire century

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Published: 25 August 2020 (GMT+10)
William-Jennings-Bryan
William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925)

Nearly 100 years ago, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” rocked the world. It still affects us today. The questions of academic freedom, the teaching of evolution in school, and a host of other associated issues hinge on what happened in a sleepy little southern American town during the broiling hot July of 1925.

In March of 1925, the state legislature of Tennessee had unanimously passed the Butler Act. It specifically forbade the teaching of human evolution in educational institutions. It was similar to the laws that had been passed in 19 other states and did not restrict teaching an old earth or the evolution of other life forms. Yet, the evolutionary community was not going to stand for it. Things were getting out of control. Secular socialists, industrialists, evolutionists, and religious unitarians had joined forces to create the American system of education. They could not sit by as one state bucked their plans. Most people in the state of Tennessee were dirt poor, following the Civil War (1861–1865) and the Reconstruction period (1865–1877) and its long-term effects. Worse, the state had a high proportion of self-proclaimed Christians. Something had to be done.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised for someone willing to challenge the law. It would require a teacher to simply open the textbook that was already approved by the Tennessee Department of Education, and already in use in Tennessee classrooms, and teach about human evolution. They found a man who agreed to claim that he had willingly broken the law and the stage was set.

Decades prior to the trial, in the late 1880s, George Campbell, the politically and scientifically astute British 8th Duke of Argyll had written an essay in which he excoriated the “reign of terror” precipitated by evolutionists against their opponents. The evolutionists in Britain did everything they could to pillory their detractors, to obfuscate the scientific facts, and to get their people into positions of power in academia, government, and religion. He titled his essay A Great Lesson.1 Forty years later, America was about to be subject to the same treatment. The Christians didn’t see it coming.

Clarence-Darrow
Clarence Seward Darrow (1857–1938)

Here’s the question: have we learned the lesson?

The players

John Scopes was a high school football coach in the small Tennessee town of Dayton. He had majored in law at the University of Kentucky. Apparently, he had been called in as a substitute teacher for the biology class. In May of 1925, it was claimed that he had taught man evolved from apes, which is exactly what the law in Tennessee prohibited. After the trial, he said he had skipped the evolution section in the textbook, but this did not matter, for his testimony was eclipsed by the clash of titans happening between the prosecuting and defense attorneys. In 1932, he ran for Congress (in Kentucky) as a socialist and lost. He spent the rest of his life as a geologist working in the oil and gas industry.2

Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney at the trial. He was also a self-described skeptic and agnostic. In an essay written a few years after the trial titled Why I am an Agnostic, he railed against the supposedly superstitious beliefs in the Bible, citing the Creation account, the Fall, the confusion of languages at Babel, Joshua’s long day, the virgin birth of Christ, prophesies, miracles, and the existence of a soul. Directly contradicting the Bible (Proverbs 9:10), he concluded his arguments by saying:

“The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom. The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith.”3
Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan (right) at the Scopes Trial in 1925.

Clearly, this was an opponent to be taken seriously. But there is even more to the man that should have concerned the prosecution.

In 1924, just prior to his appearance at the Scopes Trial, he was the defense attorney during “The Trial of the Century”. His clients, Leopold and Loeb, were two rich teenage boys from Chicago who had killed their neighbor, a younger boy, for the fun of it. After the jury was assembled and the trial was ready, the judge asked Darrow how his clients would like to plead. His response was simple. It went something like, “Your honor, my clients would like to plead guilty.” This was shocking; they were facing the death penalty!

But Darrow had a plan. Once that plea was submitted, the trial moved directly to the sentencing phase. There was no jury. There was no prosecuting attorney. There was just Darrow and the judge, and Darrow took several days—12 hours of straight talking—to make his closing argument! In fact, that defense became a text used in American law schools for the next 50 years. What was his defense? Only that his clients could not help themselves, because they were a product of their evolutionary heritage!

Leopold and Loeb got life in prison. Darrow was world famous. He was then picked by the ACLU to challenge the Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of human evolution.

William Jennings Bryan was one of America’s last great statesmen. He was a ‘populist’ and had run for president on the Democrat ticket three times. He was one of the most famous men in America. It would be difficult to classify him using modern political terms, but because of his desire for a radical redistribution of wealth, we would be forced to place him on the extreme left. He also believed in deep time and ‘geological’ evolution.

Yes, the man picked to argue against teaching evolution in Tennessee schools was a proponent of ‘millions of years’ and the evolution of life from a common ancestor. What he did not accept was that humans evolved from apes. Why? Because if this were true, he understood there was no justification for any of his social programs. If we evolved from animals, it meant we were no better than animals, so why would one human care for another? Bryan started off in a bad position. He had a pseudo-biblical position that was essentially indefensible,4 especially when sparring with a man like Darrow. Considering that this trial was going to profoundly reshape America for the foreseeable future, the Bible-believing conservatives should have been seriously worried.

The press added a circus-like atmosphere to the event. The little town of Dayton was turned upside down and packed with throngs of people. Sensationalist trials are not a good recipe for justice. And reporting then was no less biased than it is today.

The textbook involved in the dispute was Hunter’s Civic Biology (see my detailed review here).5 To any modern person, this book is sickening. Forget the teaching of evolution; it directly taught that whites were superior to blacks. That should have been enough to justify rejecting it, but the leading evolutionary scientists of the day were abject racists, especially by today’s standards. It also used the ideas of Ernst Haeckel, an ardent Darwinist and apostle of deceit, that the human embryo goes through the stages of evolution as it grows. ‘Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ was the associated phrase, but it does not appear in the book. The now-discredited horse evolution series was featured, as well as the moribund vestigial organ argument, and a host of other fallacious ideas that have not withstood the test of time, like eugenics.

One thing we should all remember is that the facts have never been important for the evolutionary argument. This is a philosophical and religious debate much more so than a debate about facts. We are not arguing over what we can see but what is meant by what we see. The evolution-creation debate is about operational science vs historical science. Also, most of the arguments for evolution fit nicely into biblical creation, like natural selection, change over time, the fossil record in general, and similarity among the diverse life forms on earth. We must keep in mind the difference between operational and historical science, and we must remember that this is a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of human beings.

Nebraska Man was also an important issue at the time, even if it was not brought up in the trial. In 1922, a tooth was sent to the evolutionist Henry Fairfield Osborn, an influential paleontologist and President of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was also a leading member of the ACLU. It was he who claimed this tooth was from an ancient ape man. The claims were sensational, leading to a plethora of dioramas and diagrams of this newest ‘apeman’ that captured public imagination. After all, if ‘science’ said it, who could contradict it? Yet, it was a fraud.6 Nebraska Man was nothing but the tooth of a pig.

Creationists have discussed Nebraska Man often, but it is now so far in the past that the argument should be retired. I only bring it up here because it was such an influential issue at the time of the trial.7 It is not like all evolutionists are liars. But it was as if someone had cooked up a made-to-order ape-man claim to undermine Bryan’s position, almost as soon as he began speaking against evolution in the early 1920s. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Bryan was from Nebraska. The fraud was discovered soon after the trial and Nebraska Man was shoved off to the side in 1927. But the damage had already been done.

The Trial

The scientific arguments used in the trial were greatly flawed, but a lawyer and a politician were facing off. Why would we expect them to understand science? In fact, Darrow did not seem interested in the science, or in logic. He just wanted to win, and he put all his lawyerly tactics into play. Foolishly, and against any normal court procedures, Bryan agreed to take the stand and be cross-examined by Darrow. He had been promised that they would reverse positions and Bryan would get a shot at Darrow. But when Bryan took the stand, he was torn apart. Darrow knew that he believed in millions of years and evolution in general, so he asked him questions like, “Where did Cain get his wife?”

This is something I have not personally heard in years, but it was an incredibly common question up through the 1980s at least. Why? First, because this was the period where the famous 1960s movie and play Inherit the Wind was popular (it was later remade for television in 1988 and 1999). Second, it opens a giant can of worms. Most Christians believe that the Flood was local and that there were people ‘outside the garden’. Also, right after Cain was marked and banished by God, the Bible says that he had children with his wife and started building cities. How could this all be true if Adam and Eve were the first and only people on earth and Cain was their firstborn? Where do all the other people come from? Of course, this has a simple answer, but Bryan was no textual scholar. His answer was downright embarrassing. But the goal was to embarrass Bryan and, hence, to discredit Christianity.

Guess what happened when it was Darrow’s turn to be cross examined. He said something to the effect of, “Your honor, my client would like to plead guilty.” And just like that, the trial was over. Bryan was made to look like a fool. Christians were made to look like ignorant rubes. This was truly a pyrrhic victory8 for the Bible belt, and for Christianity across the Western world.

The aftermath

The Scopes trial was a theoretical ‘win’ for the creationists. John Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The teaching of evolution was minimized in American public schools for the next 35 years. It was always simmering in the background, and it was taught openly at universities, but the two sides had declared a truce of sorts as the evolutionists plotted how to flip the situation in their favor. The opportunity came in 1957, when the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. The free world was sent into a frenzy and the evolutionists capitalized on it by declaring that we were ‘falling behind’ and that ‘science’ must be taught with no restrictions.

The US had the capability to put a satellite into orbit already, but President Eisenhower told Wernher von Braun (who later became a Bible believer) to put a pause on launching his orbit-capable rocket until after the Soviets made the first launch. He wanted the opposition to open space up so the US would not be accused of spying on the Soviets. Once they had done it, however, orbital satellites were fair game. The US launched their first satellite in 1958.9 Yet the world knew little of these political machinations at the time, and the evolutionary community used this to their advantage.

Around this same time, thirty years after the trial, the popular play was written. Enough time had elapsed that the writers could get away with straying far from reality. They changed the names of the primary players to give it a veneer of fiction, but it is quite easy to see that they were playing fast and loose with history while at the same time denigrating people of faith. The movie version mentioned above, starring the then-famous actor Spencer Tracy, was made in 1960. But both the play and the movie were a travesty of truth. It was a polemical hit piece designed to mock Christianity. The play was performed innumerable times, even in the nominally Christian high school where I was teaching in the 1990s. They made Bryan, one of the greatest orators in American history, look like an abject fool. In the play, Darrow is cast as a hero, not as a conniving trial lawyer with such a sour personality that he was not invited to work on the appeal after the case was lost. Bryan, in an apoplectic fit, dies on the courtroom floor. It did not help that he did die, three days after the trial, of complications from diabetes.

The Scopes trial was the last significant court case that was ‘won’ by our side. Since then, multiple cases have been processed, some even reaching high courts that can make precedent-setting decisions (e.g. the ‘Dover’ decision). Yet, in almost every case, students, teachers, schools, and states have seen their rights restricted.10 Secularists have celebrated this and have done their best to ignore the counter arguments. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the lawyers and politicians involved have consistently failed to identify the root cause of the issue. The problem is that evolutionary thinking has completely permeated the legal system. The issue is not about prayer in schools or the teaching of evolution without criticism being allowed. These are symptoms of a system that has rejected Christian philosophy and thinking wholesale.

The lesson for us today

The question has been raised: have we learned our lesson? We are in a spiritual battle against powerful adversaries and the enemies of the Gospel are not going to stop. But we have the Creator of the universe on our side. Since this is a heavenly battle, the classroom is not where the debate will be won. But we are here on earth, so the goal is to work within our own sphere of influence, to be used by God to witness to the name and works of Jesus in whatever way we are called. Bryan, even though he was the commensurate gentleman, fumbled his answers at critical moments. He was not properly prepared. Yet, we can learn from this example. Let us follow the mandate given to us in 1 Peter 3:15 to be both respectful and prepared: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

References and notes

  1. Duke of Argyll, A Great Lesson, The Nineteenth Century 22:308, September 1887; https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/comm/Argyll/greatles.html. Return to text.
  2. See his bio for additional details: wikipedia.org/wiki/John_T._Scopes. Return to text.
  3. Darrow, C., Why I am an Agnostic, Little Blue Book #1500 (E. Haldeman-Julius, ed.), Haldeman-Julius Publications, Girard, Kansas, 1929. This is sometimes hard to find, but in June 2020 it was located at web.archive.org/web/20160221235533/http://darrow.law.umn.edu/documents/why_I_am_an_agnostic.pdf. Return to text.
  4. As many have discovered the hard way. See Carter, R., An open letter to Rhett McLaughlin, and anyone else on the road to unbelief, Creation.com, 12 March 2020. Return to text.
  5. Hunter, G.W., A Civic Biology: presented in problems, American Book Co., New York, 1914. This is available on GoogleBooks. Return to text.
  6. Was Nebraska Man a true fraud, or just a case of an overzealous scientist looking to find evidence for his pet theory? It might not be possible to know, but the evidence is pointing toward people who were promoting something that was false while at the same time they should have known better. Hence, it was fraudulent. At best, they were self-deceived. Return to text.
  7. Very often, the ‘representations’ of a transitional form are put out in the media, front-page, while later discoveries that refute the transition get very little press. It’s those first sensationalized stories that affect the general public’s understanding of evolution. Return to text.
  8. The Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus (318–272 BC) was famed for winning magnificent battles against the Romans, but at the cost of his own army. In the end, his amazing victories were worthless, for the Romans still overwhelmed his kingdom. Hence the term pyrrhic victory. Return to text.
  9. nasa.gov/mission_pages/explorer/explorer-overview.html Return to text.
  10. Other countries may not have had the same academic freedoms historically, but the trends in the US were certainly being watched. Currently, the right or ability to teach or learn about creation is restricted in just about every Western country. Return to text.

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