The Scopes Trial Is Still With Us

8 minute read
Grunwald’s new novel is The Evolution of Annabel Craig.

In December of 1924, a Tennessee state representative—a tobacco and corn farmer named John Washington Butler—sat down before the fireplace in his Macon County home and wrote a 197-word bill that changed history. The bill, which was signed into law by the state’s governor ninety-nine years ago this spring, was known as the Butler Act. The act made it illegal for the state’s publicly funded schools and universities to teach “any version of man’s origins that differed from that of the Bible and to teach, instead, that man had descended from a lower order of animals.” Other states had written anti-evolution laws, but it was the Butler Act that drew the attention of the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union, which offered to support the defense of any teacher willing to test the law in court.

Thus began the raucous and infamous spectacle that became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It took place in Dayton, Tennessee, in the seething summer of 1925. Twenty-four-year-old John T. Scopes was a math and science teacher and football coach and wasn’t even sure he’d covered evolution when he taught some review classes for the regular biology teacher that spring. But, asked to stand trial by town boosters looking to attract attention and commerce, Scopes agreed to say he’d taught the subject. One reason was that he believed the Butler Act was a bad law; another was that he had decided to stay in Dayton a few days after the school term was over because he was hoping to take a young woman he’d just met to a box social.

The resulting trial was made famous almost immediately as a contest between—take your pick—Darwin and the Bible; science and religion; modernism and traditionalism; the educated and the uneducated; the godless and the faithful. Each side—see if this sounds familiar in 2024 America—was animated by righteous and exuberant contempt for the other.

It’s hard now to overstate the fame of the two men who faced off in the courtroom as personifications of the opposing sides. But the battle between the iconoclastic attorney Clarence Darrow and the populist hero William Jennings Bryan was the stuff of legend even before it officially began. “They’ll Roast Mr. Darrow as a Side Order” ran one headline. Bryan himself hyped the contest as “a duel to the death.” After it was over, it achieved further mythic status because of a 1960 film—originally a play—called Inherit the Wind.

That work of drama vastly exaggerated the heroes and villains of the trial and the town. But in real life, the animosity was still a dish served hot. Signs on Main Street taunted “Where will YOU spend eternity?” and “Prepare to meet thy maker.” A poem in the Asheville Times warned that evolutionists would “soon be wishing they might be/Beneath the silent sod.” Nice. From the other side, W. O. McGeehan wrote facetiously in the New York Herald about the “crime wave” of free-thinking that was keeping the Dayton police on its toes: “Anti-Thought Squad Formed by Constabulary.” Most famously acerbic was the Baltimore Sun’s H. L. Mencken, who called the residents of Dayton “morons” “hillbillies,” “yokels,” and “bumpkins” and described Bryan (who died five days after the trial) as “a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted…ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.” And that was in his obituary.

You’d think after ninety-nine years we might have moved on. But in the near century since Scopes was found guilty, the debate about evolution hasn’t evolved much at all. Other states passed similar laws, and the Butler Act wasn’t repealed until 1967. While the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down attempts to put Christian teachings into publicly funded schools (most recently in Texas, where a bill to mandate hanging of Ten Commandments posters in every classroom was defeated), the reality is that the separation of church and state has been at best a porous one. Despite the “ism” in “Creationism” and the “science” in “Bible Science,” Genesis is still Genesis, and Fundamentalists still reject any non-supernatural explanation of man’s origin. In some states, warning labels have been affixed to textbooks (“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”) As of this year, according to World Population Review, 17 of our 50 states teach creationism alongside evolution in science classes, effectively equating the dimensions of faith and fact. A recent USA Today poll found that a plurality of Americans believe God created man without the aid of evolution. In short: the chance of either side “winning” the debate over human’s creation is virtually nil.

But if you like to watch people try, if you enjoy seeing men interrupt one another, shake their heads in disbelief, and sputter (all while being trailed by children whom they occasional try to persuade), then treat yourself to watching Ken Ham giving Bill Nye a tour of the “Ark Encounter,” the creationist theme park in Kentucky (incidentally once legally represented by our current Speaker of the House). As they stroll past a diorama of a dinosaur on Noah’s ark, the apparent animosity between these two people makes Dayton, circa 1925, seem almost quaint. Ken Ham is an intelligent man; he must know that evolutionists don’t claim, as it’s often said, that man “came from monkeys”—only that we share a common ancestor. Yet watch him get an auditorium of children to laugh by asking, “does your grandmother look like that?” while showing them a photograph of an ape in lipstick and rouge. And when Ham asks Nye, “Are you telling this little girl that she is just an animal?” listen to Nye say, “The word ‘just’ I disagree with.” And watch his head appear to pop off his neck like a cork.

It’s not just the debate or even the vitriol about religion and science that have survived the century. It’s also, and perhaps most importantly, the tendency toward so-called confirmation bias that the debate inspires, the resistance to ideas and information that contradict what we want to believe.

At the end of Scopes trial, in one of the more dramatic scenes in courtroom history, Darrow maneuvered Bryan himself onto the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. With feigned incredulity, Darrow asked whether Bryan hadn’t ever tried to learn about older and other civilizations. Bryan answered, “No, sir, I have been so well satisfied with the Christian religion that I have spent no time trying to find argument against it.”

“Were you afraid you might find some?” Darrow responded.

In studying the trial for my new novel (set in 1925 Dayton), I saw that confirmation bias is a tendency hardly limited to the faithful. In his examination of Bryan, Darrow drilled down into the seeming absurdity of one Bible story after another. Did Jonah really live inside a whale? Didn’t Bryan know what would have happened to the earth if Joshua had really made the sun stand still? Journalists—especially Northern journalists—delighted in every apparent gotcha. Their reports—and the later fictionalized account in Inherit the Wind—made Bryan’s answers and Bryan himself seem laughable. But to many of the spectators, and to anyone willing to try to understand a different viewpoint, Bryan’s answer had a beautiful logic: “One miracle is just as easy for me to believe as another.”

Perhaps more telling than the snarky ways those exchanges were detailed—or even the many insults Mencken used to describe Bryan—was one sentence he wrote about the residents of Dayton: “They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.”

Who knows how long the trial might have gone on if Judge John Raulston had allowed the defense’s scientific witnesses to testify. But the many experts who had been brought to Dayton to offer evidence—about geology, zoology, anthropology, and more—were allowed only to read affidavits into the record but then sent packing. They wouldn’t have persuaded religious people not to be religious, nor had they intended to do so. But they might have helped some “increase their knowledge”—to recognize that science is one thing and religion another, and that respect for each is warranted.

Ironically, after it was all over, the man who said this best was the one who had set the Scopes Trial in motion. We’re not heeding his message today—about evolution, education, or anything else—but it might be liberating if we could. Asked what he thought of the judge refusing to let the scientific testimony be heard, John Washington Butler told the New York Times: “I’d like to have heard the evidence. It would have been right smart of an education to hear those fellows who have studied the subject. No, I wouldn’t be afraid to let the evidence come in. The prosecution could have put in evidence, too, and then everybody would have known the truth. There’s no call for being afraid of the truth. I believe my Bible is right on every page, but if anybody can show me it isn’t exactly the way I believe, I’m willing to listen.”

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