The science of evolution
The science of evolution

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The science of evolution

5 The Scopes monkey trial

This section was written by Gary Slapper.

In 2007, Professor Michael Reiss, a Church of England priest and the head of science at London's Institute of Education, said that it is becoming more difficult to teach evolution in schools because of the spread of creationism. Similar debate has long been burning in the United States. Also in 2007, a creationist museum opened near Cincinnati, where children in animal skins play amid model dinosaurs, suggesting they once coexisted and that the geological timescale is nonsense. The museum's aim is to bring Genesis - the first book of the Bible - to life for all ages, and promote the belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Creationists believe humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time

When a classroom debate becomes a courtroom debate, the law has a solemn responsibility. Schools, after all, are engaged in the mass production of the minds of the future. Evolutionary science was at the heart of one of the most famous cases involving a school curriculum: the 'Scopes monkey trial', which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925 and featured one of the United States' most famous lawyers, Clarence Darrow.

The case arose from events stirred by the passing of a law in Tennessee making it illegal for any publicly funded institution to deny the Bible's theory of creation and to teach instead that humans descended from 'a lower order of animals'. The law was promoted by William Jennings Bryan, a lawyer, fundamentalist Christian and former presidential candidate who wanted to banish Darwinism from classrooms. The film Inherit the Wind is loosely based on the real case but makes several significant departures from the real events.

John Scopes, who had taught some science classes on a part-time basis, agreed to teach some biology classes in order to set up a test case. So, as part of those classes he taught the theory of evolution. William Jennings Bryan, having championed the legislation, volunteered to prosecute him. Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, liberal, and a famed defence lawyer, represented him.

The trial took place in a sort of carnival atmosphere in July 1925. There were banners in the streets, lemonade stalls, chimpanzees performing in a sideshow. A thousand people, 300 of them standing, packed into the Rhea County Courthouse. Soon after it began, the trial was moved outdoors and the crowd grew to 5000. It was the first trial attended by radio announcers: they gave live updating broadcasts to listeners. Presiding at the trial was Judge John T. Raulston, a conservative Christian. As often happened, the proceedings were opened with a prayer.

The prosecution's case was put simply, by showing that Scopes taught the forbidden science. The trial became lively when Darrow began the defence. His first witness was Dr Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist from Johns Hopkins University, who explained the Darwinian theory of evolution. Bryan, following Dr Metcalf's testimony, expressed his disgust at the notion that man evolved 'not even from American monkeys, but Old World monkeys'.

In an extraordinary scene, the defence called the prosecutor himself to give evidence on the witness stand as a bible expert. As a witness, Bryan was asked questions by Darrow about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Joshua making the Sun stand still (how so when the Earth moves round the Sun?), and the Earth being created in one week. Bryan said:

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He later gave way on some literalist interpretations and stumbled in some of his answers:

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If the great flood that destroyed all civilizations was in 2348 BC, how did Bryan explain civilizations that traced their history over 5000 years? One exchange went like this:

Have you ever investigated to find out how long man has been on the Earth?
I have never found it necessary.

Eventually, the judge, who had been in church in the front pew when prosecutor Bryan had delivered a sermon on the first Sunday during the trial, stopped Bryan's evidence and adjourned the hearing. He then ordered Bryan not to return to the stand, and ordered his earlier testimony to be stricken from the record.

Figure 4
AP/PA Photos ©
AP/PA Photos
Figure 4: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the trial

At the end of the trial, Darrow asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty so that the case could go to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The jury obliged, and Scopes was fined $100. The conviction, though, was overturned on appeal - not on the constitutional basis on which Darrow and his team had argued (freedom of expression for science) but because the judge had fixed the $100 fine. According to Tennessee law, since it was over $50, it should have been fixed by the jury. So the defendant was acquitted on this technical matter about the fine, not because it was judged as proper for science to be a better way of teaching biology than creationism. No other prosecutions were ever brought under the Tennessee law, and it was abolished in 1967.

The law court, both here and in the Kitzmiller v Dover (2005) case (see Section 1), was a good forum for the debate about whether religious creationism should be taught as part of science. Law courts are good forums for debates because they have sensible rules about people using witnesses, and the witnesses for each side being open to be cross-questioned by the other side. A legal setting provides a great structure in which to conduct a rational argument in fair conditions. Not everyone though is sympathetic to lawyers. Speaking about the Scopes trial, the American humorist Will Rogers said:

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