Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial on Its 90th Anniversary

John T. Scopes Monkey Trial
New York Daily News/Getty Images Attorney Clarence Darrow consults with Judge Raulston about procedure in the Tennessee courts during the trial of John T. Scopes.

It was a turning point for the acceptance of evolution

Today the theory of evolution is taught in schools across the United States, but that wasn’t the case when teacher John Thomas Scopes went on trial for teaching it to his high school students in Tennessee. In March of 1925, the state had passed a law banning the teaching of evolution because it conflicted with the story of creation in Bible. Scopes’ case was brought to court on July 10—precisely 90 years ago Friday—in what came to be known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” one of the most famous trials in U.S. history.

Three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution, seeking to prove that Scopes had violated the law. As TIME reported that year, Bryan—who died shortly after the trial ended—had planned for his closing remarks of the trial to be his “greatest speech.” The speech wasn’t actually given during the trial due to legal maneuvering by the defense, but he delivered it to the public after the fact. It included passages like this:

It need hardly be added that this law did not have its origin in bigotry. The majority is not trying to establish a religion or to teach it—it is trying to protect itself from the effort of an insolent minority to force irreligion upon the children under the guise of teaching Science.

Scopes ended up losing the case and was charged a $100 fine, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality. But the real star of the trial was Clarence Darrow, Scopes’ skilled lawyer, who poked numerous holes in Bryan’s argument and fundamentalist theory in general. The case marked a turning point in the way evolution was taught in schools and more widely acknowledged in the U.S.

After it was all over, TIME compared the trial to the examination of Socrates in ancient Greece:

Scientists and teachers shook their heads. Mr. Bryan was dead and at least for the time they as a body declined to enter upon animadversion, but some of them privately compared the Scopes trial, not with the trial in Pilate’s court, but with a trial in the court of Athens, where a teacher, accused (like Mr. Scopes) of corrupting the youth by teaching things contrary to law and disrespectful to the gods, had (like Mr Scopes) refused to deny his action, but defended it only by saying that he had taught the truth, which was, in his eyes, the highest form of reverence; and was (like Mr. Scopes) convicted. The parallel, they said, fell down in only one important point: Mr. Scopes was given a fine of $100; Socrates was given a cup of hemlock.

Read TIME’s full 1925 post-mortem on the Scopes trial, free of charge, here in the TIME archives: Dixit

TIME creationism

Creationism in Schools—On the Taxpayer’s Dime

Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948.
Francis Miller—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948.

Vouchers are increasingly being used to teach kids to question not just evolution, but cosmology, biology, even math.

Science loves balance. Gasses rush in to fill vacuums; cells seek homeostasis; an action is never quite satisfied until there has been an equal and opposite reaction. So it’s perhaps fitting that just days after the science wires were buzzing over a new (and thrilling) confirmation of the Big Bang, there is a new (and dispiriting) report on Politico.com about the growth of taxpayer-funded anti-science education in American schools.

According to Politico, 14 states will spend a collective $1 billion in 2014 on vouchers for private and religious schools that teach kids to mistrust not only the science of evolution, but also cosmology, geology, biology and even math. Twelve other states—including bright blue New York—are considering following their lead.

Occasionally the programs don’t just “teach the controversy,” as their backers like to say, but something darker. Evolution, according to one set of texts, is a “wicked and vain philosophy.” Children are taught to “discuss the importance of a right view of evolution,” a view that does not—no surprise—include an enthusiastic embrace of Darwin.

The problem with teaching children like this—apart from the fact that it’s simply incorrect—is that it disqualifies them from full participation in the larger world. It’s awfully hard to be part of the global conversation about the Big Bang breakthrough when understanding the science requires you to accept that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, while your teachers are telling you it’s less than 10,000. It’s awfully hard to be mathematically literate when your geometry and algebra classes are being interrupted to discuss the role numbers play in the Bible.

All of this is being shouted about and litigated over, with the usual parties involved: the ACLU is suing to prevent New Hampshire’s and Colorado’s voucher programs from going forward; Republican political leaders—including Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Eric Cantor and La. Governor Bobby Jindal—are calling for even more-ambitious voucher programs. The Koch Brothers and their billions are pushing for additional public subsidies to pay for the expanded programs.

Backers of the non-science curriculum, of course, frame their goals in the noble-sounding idea of allowing families to “choose the best learning options for their children,” in the phrasing of the website for Florida-based Step Up For Students, which provides scholarships for low-income kids to attend private schools. But their thinking is more troubling than that. Bob Tuthill, the group’s head, told Politico that topics like the age of the Earth and the reasons for the Civil War are simply too controversial for the government to mandate how they should be taught. Once your anti-science ideology is bumping up against the whole Civil-War-was-about-states’-rights-not-slavery school of thought, you’ve got to rethink the company you’re keeping.

Even schools that take pains to give a nod to scientists do it in a qualified way that undoes their ostensible point—as when the website of a Philadelphia private school applauds “the men and women of science,” but cautions that “our understanding is not complete until we filter it” through Scripture. But science already has a filtration process in place, thank you very much. It’s called peer review and many of those peers are people of deep faith and spirituality themselves; they’ve simply learned to keep their religious beliefs and their scientific rigor far enough apart so that both are served well.

None of this non-science comes free. At the same time a Gallup poll reveals that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created in their present form, one international survey found American kids finishing 26th of 34 countries in math and 21st in science. Paul Peterson, the head Harvard University’s Program on Educational Policy and Governance is oddly sanguine about where this could lead, according to Politico, predicting that the free-market system will weed out the schools that teach science badly, because parents will quit sending their kids there.

The problem is, before that happens the American economy will already have weeded out the children who graduated from those schools—at least when it comes to competing for the highest skilled, best-paying jobs. And the global economy, which increasingly depends on innovation and high tech, will weed a little bit more of America out too.

TIME Controversies

What You Missed While Not Watching the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Creation Debate

Bill Nye
ASSOCIATED PRESS / ASSOCIATED PRESS TV's "Science Guy" Bill Nye speaks during a debate on evolution with Creation Museum head Ken Ham, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Petersburg, Ky.

Here it is. All 150 minutes of it.

-13 minutes. The online countdown clock races toward zero. Dramatic music with a heavy bass line begins to play. Hashtags sprout in Twitterspace: #HamOnNye. #CreationDebate. #NyevSham. One could easily add, #OMGWeAreDebatingCreationIn2014. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a long 150-minute return of the culture wars, because creationist Ken Ham is about to debate Bill Nye the Science Guy.

-5 minutes. The epic Braveheart-Lord-of-the-Rings-style soundtrack intensifies. Only thing missing is a sweeping camera pan over the horizon as Frodo travels on toward Mount Doom. Ham and his PR team are firing away tweet after tweet about the debate and its importance. Nye, meanwhile, has tweeted about it only once. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweets for prayers that the debate will reveal God’s truth.

0 minutes. A cartoon camel, a T-Rex, and a flying monkey flash across the screen. It’s a surprise ad for the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, Ham’s (unaccredited) $27-million museum that is the site for the debate. Kids under 12 are free in 2014!

30 seconds. The feed takes us live inside the museum’s Legacy Hall, where a lucky 900 people managed to score tickets to the event before they sold out in two minutes. Some 750,000 other people are watching the debate online. At least according to Ham’s evangelistic organization, Answers in Genesis.

1 minute. CNN’s Tom Foreman appears out of the darkness. He’s moderator, and the guy who wrote Obama a letter every day for four years. This isn’t exactly the same as moderating a presidential debate, but tonight’s symposium gets at something far more important: the origin of life. Foreman introduces the topic at hand: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

2 minutes. Nye, in his signature bowtie, and Ham, with his Aussie accent, hop on stage, shake hands, and ready themselves behind their respective Apple laptops (only Nye’s has stickers). Nye stands on the left. Ham is on the right. The cameras pan to an all-white audience.

4 minutes. Ham won the coin toss, so he’s up first with an opening statement: the word science has been hijacked, hijacked by secularists. America’s textbooks have been indoctrinated by Darwin, and we need to take back the terms. He starts listing scientists who believe biblical creationism, and he’s got a slide show to back it up. His voice races as he talks about Raymond Damadian, the inventor of the MRI machine, who is a biblical creationist. Nye just stares at him.

9 minutes. Ham gets in his first Bible references. They are, predictably, about Jesus, not the creation story.

10 minutes. Now it’s Nye’s turn. He launches into an unrelated and awkward story about how someone taught his father to tie a bow tie by making him lie down on a bed.

13 minutes. Moving right along, Nye drops the first references to fossils and the Grand Canyon. The world is not 6000 years old as Ham believes, Nye says. And if America doesn’t get its act together to listen to scientific evidence, it won’t stay ahead. America’s future depends on evolution.

15 minutes. Now Nye and Ham each get 30 minutes (!) to present their full arguments. Everyone who has ever worked in presidential politics is drooling over the generosity of those allocations.

16 minutes. Ham starts saying the words “science” and “observe” so many times I lose count. He is clicking through slide after slide of atheists who are great scientists and scientists who believe the earth is 6,000 years old. The MRI scanner guy story appears on a video again. Then someone else says he and other scientists are afraid to speak out for creationism because they will face persecution. These are Ham’s freedom fighters. “I encourage children to follow people like that and make them their heroes,” Ham announces.

21 minutes. Next point. There’s a difference between what you observe in science today and the making a conclusion about science of the past. Lots of slides of vaccines and smoke detectors and other important inventions. We can agree about technology that put the rover on Mars, Ham says, but we can disagree about the origins of Mars. “We’ve only got the present,” he explains.

23 minutes. Cue graphic of Nye and Ham fighting in a tug of war over a globe of the earth with animals and skulls coming out of it. This image is supposed to represent the fact that both Ham and Nye have the same evidence. It instead looks like toddlers fighting over a balloon.

26 minutes. Ham gives a shout out to his museum’s display of Darwin’s finches. Finches come from a common finch, Ham argues, not another common animal. That’s why Noah only needed one species of dog on the ark. “Dogs will always be dogs, finches will always be finches,” he says. Cuz the Bible. And a recent University of California study. Lots of furrowed brows in the crowd.

30 minutes. Apple is still getting great product placement out of this debate.

34 minutes. Darwin taught that there were higher and lower races — not ok, says Ham. If he had started from the Bible, he’d have realized that Caucasians weren’t the top race. He skips any mention of the fact that the Bible was used to justify slavery for centuries.

36 minutes. Students are being indoctrinated by the confusion of terms. “You can’t observe the age of the earth. You can’t see that.” The camera finally finds the first African American face in the audience.

39 minutes. Time for Ham’s “Seven C’s” of life: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, Consummation. And no, consummation is not the sex kind. Consummation is heaven. (But speaking of sex, stick around for minute 64 — that’s when talk about fish sex starts. Just wait for it.)

46 minutes. Nye begins: “I learned something. Thank you.” He fails to define “something.”

47 minutes. Nye holds up a chunk of dirt. Limestone actually. Kentucky limestone. He found it today, and says it couldn’t have existed if “Mr. Ham’s flood” really happened only 4,000 years ago. “Mr. Ham” is taking notes off to the side.

53 minutes. Nye explains the Kangaroo conundrum. If there was a kangaroo on Noah’s ark, and Noah’s ark landed somewhere in the middle east, and kangaroos ended up in Australia, why haven’t we found kangaroo bones somewhere between Sinai and Australia? “Somebody would have been hopping along there and died and we’d find him.” Something like that.

58 minutes. “Go Seahawks. That was very gratifying for me.” #NyeNonsequitor

59 minutes. Back to explaining why rock formations in Oregon prove Nye’s side of the story.

60 minutes. We’ve made an hour. Crack your neck. Stretch your shoulders. We aren’t halfway done yet. You need all your strength to press on.

64 minutes. Nye says “traditional fish sex” and grabs everyone’s attention. Traditional fish sex is different from the sex that fish have with themselves, he is explaining (and not yet explaining why this is relevant to his point). Nye is now asking: “Why does anybody have sex?” Why don’t humans just make like a rosebush and produce a flower? Or divide like bacteria? How sexy. Nye calls that question a real “chinstroker.” The twitterverse is already talking about “fishionary” position. But never fear! Evolution has the answer: species that reproduce sexually have fewer parasites. How about that for motivation to get it on.

68 minutes. Nye is now talking about the Hubble telescope. But it’s impossible to stop thinking about why he brought up fish sex.

77 minutes. Our fearless moderator chimes in with six words everyone’s been thinking “That’s a lot to take in.” Yup. So, on to the rebuttals. And counter rebuttals. And the Q. And the A.

78 minutes. Ham defends the age of the earth using Hebrew definitions of the word “day” in the Bible. Then there’s something about 45,000 year-old wood being found in millions-of-years old basalt rock that proves his point. “There’s no dating method you can use that you can absolutely age date a rock,” he concludes. Plus there’s only one witness that was actually there, who can actually say the truth about what happened in the past: the Word of God.

83 minutes. Ham starts his rebuttal. My livestream freezes, and then flashes neon yellow streaks, thanks to the more than 500,000 people who are tuning in as well. It pops back on in time for me to hear Nye ask Ham if all animals were vegetarian before they got on Noah’s ark.

94 minutes. The theory of evolution now appears to be hinging upon Noah’s construction skills. Ham insists that even his New England shipbuilding ancestors could not have built a ship like that. Ham: “Why would you say Noah was unskilled? I didn’t meet Noah. Neither did you.” Drop the mic, Ham. Drop the mic.

97 minutes. Nye keeps insisting that America will fail at innovation unless people believe in evolution. America’s future is at stake! Maybe that’s why no one in the audience is laughing.

98 minutes. Now its time to move faster, says Foreman. He’s shuffling the Q&A cards. Fingers crossed that he’s right.

99 minutes. Question one for Ham: How does creationism account for celestial bodies? Ham answer: Easy. God. Perfect moment to launch into what sounds very much like an altar call. Ham is resurrecting his image as the defender of the faith to the big secular world.

102 minutes. Next question for Nye: How did the atoms that created the big bang get there? “This is the great mystery.” Nye, cornered by the creationists. Check.

105 minutes. Ham chimes in: There actually is a book that says where matter comes from: it’s called the Bible. Mic drop #2 for Ham. Nye doesn’t flinch.

109 minutes. Another question for Nye: How did consciousness come from matter? “Don’t know! This is a great mystery!” Mic drop #3 for Ham, even though Nye goes on and on about how much he loves mysteries.

112 minutes: Ham chimes in again: There’s a book that says where consciousness comes from too. Bet you can’t guess what that is…

120 minutes. The light. It’s at the end of the tunnel. Just 30 minutes to go before you will finally understand the origins of life. And get to go to sleep. And stop thinking about traditional fish sex.

121 minutes. Ham points out, yet again, that there are scientific papers, “very technical papers,” on his website that explain real science. Which is creationism. Because he’s freeing the hijacked “science.”

123 minutes: Surprise question: In one word, what’s your favorite color? Because that solves the mysteries of life.

124 minutes. Nye: “Green,” and then he launches into an explanation of the irony that plants reflect green light. This gives Foreman his one shining moment to moderate: “Did I not say one word answer?” Ham’s turn: “Can I have three words since he had 300? Observational science: blue.” It’s his best line of the night.

133 minutes: Question for Ham: Do you believe the entire Bible should be taken literally? He dodges the trap. He takes the whole Bible “naturally,” not “literally.” There’s a difference. Basically, a difference that means, as he says, there were a lot of problems when men used Scripture to justify marrying multiple women.

146 minutes. FINAL QUESTION! What is the one thing more than anything else upon which you base your belief? Why don’t you guess what each man said. If you said, “The Bible” for Ham and “Science” for Nye, you are right! Nye sneaks in, for at least the fifth time, that the United States will be left standing by other countries if it doesn’t listen to science and teach real science in schools.

150 minutes. Ham and Nye agree on one thing: punctuality. 9:30pm and we are out. Foreman warns people there’s a level-two snow emergency outside. Your #TBT(uesday) to the ‘90s creation culture wars is complete. You survived. Now go get some sleep.

Excerpts From the Debate:

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