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Darwin and the law

Updated Friday 6th March 2009

The Open University's Gary Slapper revisits the Scopes trial of 1925. But it's the lack of subsequent action which really shows how Darwin changed the law.


Copyright The Open University



Law has been greatly affected by the evolution against creationism debate. Sometimes the effect has been direct, in the sense that those disputes have ended up in law courts, and sometimes it’s been more in the background. The law court cases have been very exciting things, I think, for people to watch.


The first major one was in America in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee and it resulted from a law that was passed by the Tennessee legislature requiring the teaching of creationism in high schools, and someone who’d been doing some part-time teaching, a young fellow called John Scopes, agreed to teach biology in the high school and, as part of that, to teach evolution so that he would be in direct contradiction with the law that required only the teaching in public schools of creationism, broke the law and wanted to trigger a test case.

And this was a very major case in America, and it was covered throughout the communications media at that time. It was the first law case that had resulted in live coverage by radio, and they had radio reporters in the court and a rather festive atmosphere developed around this in this summer case. They had lots of carnival apparatus round there and people selling ice creams and lemonades, and monkey stalls and all sorts of things. And it was a big confrontation between forces in favour of creationism and those of a more rational approach to the matters.

In some ways, some of the features would look very odd, I think, to future generations in that, although this was a tribunal set to decide issues about whether evolution could properly be taught as a science in schools, and the tribunal was supposed to be a neutral panel, it opened as court cases did at the time, and in some places still do, with prayers and that the judge who was arbitrating between the two sides attended church on the Sunday before the trial was set to begin and sat in the front row as the lawyer for one side, the procreation side, gave the sermon.

And for future generations it would seem to be a very lopsided, biased form of events as those people, the lawyer, William Jennings Bryan, and the judge, Judge Raulston, came out of church together with their beliefs set on one side and went in to both lawyer and judge the case which involved religion during the following week. So it would look odd from that point of view, perhaps, to current generations.

The trial was interesting from other points of view as well. The lawyer representing John Scopes, Clarence Darrow, was a famous American lawyer who, among other things, chose in that trial to interview the lawyer who was acting as the prosecutor against John Scopes, to interview the lawyer himself as an expert witness on the Bible. And he cross-questioned him, if you like, about the scientific nature of the Bible and its believability and its suitability as being something to teach schoolchildren. It says in the Bible that Joshua made the sun stand still, how can that be so when in fact, it’s the earth that goes round the sun? - No convincing answer from the other side.

It says that, after a great flood in 2348BC, everything was wiped out. Well, how is it then that some civilisations, several in fact, all across the world, trace their history back continuously over five thousand years? And there were no convincing answers to any of those. In the end the judge intervened and said that William Jennings Bryan should no longer act as a witness, he should keep being the prosecutor in the case.

And, in the event, the prosecution won that case, the young teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating the law by teaching evolution in a high school, and he was fined $100. In the end, that conviction was overturned but only on a technicality to do with whether it should be the judge or the jury that set the $100 fine.

One of the most major repercussions was, it’s rather like the Hound of the Baskervilles where the dogs don’t bark, where something doesn’t happen that’s significant rather than that something does happen. There were no further prosecutions under that law after 1925, and it was eventually abolished about forty years later.

Darwin's influence

Darwin's influence was felt widely. Open University experts share how he helped shaped their disciplines.


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