Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the celebrated Scopes “monkey trial,” which is remembered today as a clash of ideological titans � the progressive warrior Clarence Darrow versus the fundamentalist warhorse William Jennings Bryan. As we have all been told, Darrow won the battle, if not the verdict, by humiliating Bryan in the name of modern science. Or at least that’s the usual story. But while Tennessee’s antievolution law was indefensible, other aspects of the “trial of the century” were far more complex. On July 10, 1925, hundreds of spectators packed a courthouse in Dayton, Tenn., to hear the case against substitute biology teacher John Scopes, who was charged with the crime of teaching evolution to his high school class. The trial was carried on Chicago’s WGN radio (making it the first trial ever broadcast) and reported by H.L. Mencken, the acerbic columnist for The Baltimore Sun, who memorably dubbed it the “monkey trial.” Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee would later co-write a play, “Inherit the Wind,” the 1960 film version of which immortalized the caricatures of Darrow and Bryan as genius and buffoon. But as we will see, the reality was far different from the myth. Earlier in 1925, the Tennessee legislature enacted the “Butler Bill,” which made it a crime 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.” In signing the law, Gov. Austin Peay expressed his belief that the provision was merely symbolic and would never be “an active statute.” For a short while it seemed that he was correct. No school district sought to enforce the law, no teachers were fired, and Tennessee high schools continued to use a widely distributed biology textbook that included a five-page section on Darwinism and evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union, however, saw the Tennessee statute as a dangerous precedent and feared that other states and localities might follow suit (and might not be so benign regarding enforcement). Therefore, the ACLU sent a press release to Tennessee newspapers, seeking a volunteer to test the validity of the antievolution law. In Dayton a group of civic boosters saw the ACLU notice and seized on the idea that a high-publicity trial could help reverse their town’s sagging economy. They persuaded Scopes, who was also a football coach, to agree to a “friendly prosecution” as quickly as possible (it was rumored that other towns were contemplating their own test cases). Contrary to legend, the popular Scopes was never persecuted or ostracized for the crime of teaching evolution. In fact, he remained friendly with the local prosecutors and school board officials throughout the trial. Once Scopes was formally charged, news of the impending “monkey trial” spread across the country. Soon, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow offered their pro bono services, and the stage was set for a memorable confrontation. Clarence Darrow has been well served by popular history, his virtues fittingly chronicled and his flaws largely forgotten. Darrow was a masterful courtroom advocate and determined champion of the underdog. He was also a famously outspoken agnostic, which led him to volunteer for the Dayton case. Some ACLU leaders feared that Darrow’s controversial reputation would damage their cause, but Scopes was adamant about having Darrow on the defense team. In contrast, Bryan’s reputation has suffered greatly, and unfairly, over the years. Three times the Democratic nominee for president of the U.S., he served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, a position he nobly resigned to protest what he considered an overly bellicose foreign policy. To be sure, Bryan was a staunch fundamentalist Christian, deeply committed to the biblical account of creation. But he was hardly a Bible-thumping blowhard. In fact, Bryan’s biblical literalism told him that all humanity was created in God’s image, and this tended to make him an egalitarian on issues of race and gender. Given the times he lived in, the “Great Commoner” had remarkably little tolerance for crude racism or anti-Semitism, and he was an early supporter of women’s suffrage. Darrow was also a liberal on race matters, but many of his supporters were not. Mencken, who had urged Darrow to get involved in the Scopes case, frequently displayed a streak of supercilious bigotry, freely referring to African-Americans as “darkies” in his caustic reports from Dayton. More seriously, many of the leading scientists of the day applied a callous version of “social Darwinism” to human evolution, positing that some “races” were more advanced than others. Prominent anthropologists earnestly took measurements of cranial capacity, seeking to demonstrate that Anglo-Saxons were more highly evolved than other races and therefore more “fit” for survival. The very textbook that John Scopes used in his classes � George Hunter’s “A Civic Biology” � declared that humanity could be divided into five races, each occupying an ascending step on the evolutionary ladder. “The highest type of all,” it probably goes without saying, was “the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” “A Civic Biology,” the book Darrow championed in the name of science, also advanced a theory of eugenics, the “science” of racial improvement through selective breeding. It argued that the infirm and feeble-minded should be separated by sex, as a means of “preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” As to the fabled showdown between the giants, when Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand as an expert on the Bible, it was far from the one-sided rout dramatized in “Inherit the Wind.” Bryan mostly maintained his poise, explaining that his fundamentalism did not preclude an understanding that certain biblical passages, such as “ye are the salt of the earth,” were illustrative rather than literal. Other verses, such as “the sun stood still,” were rendered in nonscientific language that Bryan said “could be understood at that time.” Contrary to “Inherit the Wind,” it was Bryan, not Darrow, who pointed out that the days of creation were not “literal 24-hour days,” but instead could have extended for millions of years. The examination grew heated as both men became increasingly frustrated. Bryan accused Darrow of prejudice against the Bible, and Darrow responded by ridiculing Bryan’s “fool religion.” Eventually the judge had enough. He stopped the examination and struck all of the testimony from the record. (The hearing transcript can be found in Jeffrey Moran’s “The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents.”) In the end, it did not matter. Realizing that he could not win in Dayton, Darrow asked the jury to find his client guilty, expecting to appeal the verdict all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Tennessee Supreme Court, however, reversed on a technicality, and the case simply died. What lessons can we draw from the Scopes trial? It was wrong and foolish, of course, for the Tennessee Legislature to outlaw the teaching of evolution. Indeed, the effort to squelch science in the name of religion made an indelible impression on the national memory, blotting out the highlights of Bryan’s career. For much the same reason, it would be a tragic mistake to require that theories such as “creation science” or “intelligent design” be taught in biology classes. When superimposed on science, religion is discredited. But that should not prevent us from recognizing that both science and religion contribute to our understanding of the world. Science cannot claim always to be right, and � as in the case of eugenics � it can sometimes lead us down grievous paths when untempered by humility. In the 1920s, Bryan’s creationism proved more tolerant than did early anthropology. His devout rejection of the idea that humans evolved from beasts led him, as Edward Larson explained in “Summer for the Gods,” to mistrust well-educated efforts to “breed them like cattle.” Given the current estrangement between liberals and “people of faith,” an open-minded reappraisal of the Scopes trial might remind both sides that you do not have to be secular in order to be a humanist. Steven Lubet is a professor of law at Northwestern University. His latest book is “Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp.” This article was originally published in The American Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.