Revisiting the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' - radio feature

Scopes Trial, Dayton, 1925

In 1925, teacher John T. Scopes was tried in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution in a science classroom. Stephen Jay Gould pointed out a number of misconceptions relating to the trial, and radio feature this week revisited the small town that became known for one of the most famous trials in US history.

In 2008, the year that marked the 150th anniversary of Darwin and Wallace's ideas on evolution by natural selection first being presented, at least seven US states experienced legal challenges to evolution (most of which died) being taught in the science classroom, and in the past decade, many more states have seen teachers subjected to the whims of creationist lobbyists on school boards.

In 2002, a Georgia school district briefly had 'theory, not fact' sticker slapped on biology textbooks following pressure from creationists - the sticker was later pulled following legal challenges from parents. Kansas and Ohio both also faced similar challenges, but the most famous recent trial was that of Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. In the Dover Trial, 'intelligent design' (ID), the idea that 'certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection', was put to the test. Creationist school board members in Dover voted to order science teachers to read a statement to students prior to teaching evolution in 9th grade science (the US equivalent of GCSE-level), the statement read:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.
As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

The science teachers at Dover high refused to read the statement, feeling that to do so would intentionally mislead students, force them to misrepresent their subject, and undermine their professional integrity. School managers stepped in to read the statement to students in January 2005, and shortly after, eleven parents of students began a legal challenge to the inclusion of intelligent design in the science classroom.

In late 2005 the trial took place - ID was deemed not to be science, and to be unable to 'uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents' according to trial judge John E Jones (ironically a Bush-appointed christian).

As 2009 begins, Louisiana, the only state last year that passed anti-evolution legislation (in the form of the 'Louisiana Science Education Act'), Michigan and Texas, still were facing some challenges to evolution in schools.

The history of such challenges to evolution in US classrooms is less than a century old. A radio feature on BBC Radio Ulster - Monkeytown: Matt Wells visits Dayton, Tennessee (link will only be active until Jan 18th) this week visited Dayton, Tennessee, the town where in 1925, the Butler Act was put to the test. This act made it unlawful, in any state-school in Tennessee, "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."

ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was looking for a teacher to be a test case in a challenge to the act. Local businessmen also saw such a controversial trial as a way to get the small town on the map. John Scopes volunteered to be the test case, using the state-mandated textbook that included a chapter on evolution (despite its supposedly controversial nature). Scopes wasn't actually a biology teacher, but had taught physics and PE - in the trial case, he had been filling in as a substitute teacher. In the event, Scopes didn't actively teach evolution, merely directed student to a standard evolutionary account as part of exam-preparation, however this was apparently sufficient to bring a case against him.

Former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a lifetime presbyterian, became a special prosecutor in the case, and his opposition was a liberal, agnostic lawyer, Clarence Darrow, a supposed champion of underdogs. During the trial, Darrow cross-examined Bryan, the prosecutor's counsel, in an attempt to undermine the biblical account of creation. In the process of being questioned, Bryan alienated some supporters by asserting that the 6-day account of creation in the book of Genesis could be interpreted metaphorically as being of unknown length

ACLU fully expected Scopes to be convicted, he was after all, talking about evolution in the classroom, thus violating the Butler Act. Their aim was to appeal in the supreme court, challenging the constituionality of the Act, saying that it violated the separation of church and state by advancing the cause of religion. Inevitably, Scopes was found guilty of violating the Butler Act, and fined. The ruling against Scopes was overturned on a technicality relating to the fine imposed - the judge imposed a $100 fine himself, when in fact any fine over $50 should have been assessed by a jury.

Stephen Jay Gould reckoned that the overturning of the ruling against Scopes wasn't quite the victory for science it was professed to be. Governor Peay, who signed the Butler Act didn't really care much - he thought it'd be fairly inconsequential and that biology would continue to be taught as it was. However, as the ACLU basically wanted a test-case, and town-boosters though the whole shebang would be good for the town, so the fires were stoked. Gould sees a number of misconceptions about the whole case:

1 - that Scopes was persecuted -
Scopes had of course actually violated the Butler Act, and volunteered to be the test-case. As far as the general situation with regards evolution education went it sounds like ACLU temporarily made it worse, as legislators had no intention of enforcing the Butler Act, and even Bryan urged no penalty for non-compliance. There is of course the principalled objection that the Act is nonsense.

2 - that Darrow vanquished Bryan during the trial -
It was Bryan's own leaning to day-age creationism (that the 6 days of Genesis are metaphorical days, that could last an age), and so abandoning of traditional literal account that made him lose public face, not Darrow's questionning per-se.
Of course, Bryan died 5 days after trial ended and so actually had his name restored and a college built in his name!

3 - that anti-evolutionism dwindled -
Manifestly not so. Again, although the ACLU wanted a quick conviction so they could appeal in the supreme court, the overturning of the conviction on a technicality, meant the higher-court appeal never dealt with the constitutionality of the Act, and so the act remained unchallenged until the 1960s. In effect, evolution education was diluted in light of the Act's persistence. Coverage of evolution in US secondary-level textbooks became noticeably scant in the years following the Scopes Trial - 'No arm of the industry is as cowardly as the publishers of public school texts - markets of millions are not easily ignored' (Gould, in Hen's Teeth...). It was only the Cold War and the launch of Sputnik the saw science and techology education being given more priority in the US.

The textbook issue appeared relevant recently when Texas, the largest state in the US, was reviewing its school science standards. Some had feared that should the review concede to some demands from creationists, it could have a knock-on effect on content of certain textbook chapters, in the sense that 'weaknesses of evolution' would be taught, a partial green light to those who already want to actively undermine science in the classroom. Though it seems last week that the review has dropped the 'weaknesses' language and gone from a wishy washy definition of 'science' to a more accurate one in line with the US National Academy of Science.

Bryan remains a hero in the town of Dayton, with a bible college named after him. The radio feature visits the college and sees his reputation intact, and the 'Monkey Trial' still very much part of the town history, and for some, a bizarre source of pride.

Bowler, P. - Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons (on the variety of religious responses to evolution, including non-Darwinian (i.e. non-natural selection) modes of evolution)
Gould, S.J., - 'A Visit to Dayton' in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (best short summary)
Larson, E.J. - The Creation-Evolution Debate: historical perspectives (short accessible general history)
Larson, E.J. - Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, (trial history, and general coverage of US debate)
Scott & Branch - The Latest Face of Creationism in the Classroom (contemporary state of challenges to evolution in US schools)

Posted By

Jan 12 2009 03:00


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Jan 12 2009 18:12

Was there not a film made about the trial?

Jan 12 2009 18:19

There was indeed in the 60s, 'Inherit the Wind', later re-made in the 90s.
It's not a particularly good source for understanding it though.

Jan 12 2009 19:23

Yeah, I saw the original last year and thought "I wonder if Choccy's up in this shit with his project". Yes, I'm that sad.

Jan 12 2009 19:35

Yeah I'm pretty sure the film was discussed on here last year.

To be honest it's precisely the misconceptions from accounts like the movie that Gould was addressing wink

Nov 17 2012 02:25

My father and grandfather attended this trial. They lived very near the courthouse.