The “Monkey Trial” – Then and Now

July 10th is the anniversary of the Scopes Trial – the famous “Monkey Trial” in 1925 that pitted lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow against each other over the issue of teaching evolution Tennessee.  A high school temporary teacher, John Scopes, was tried for violating the Tennessee’s Butler Act, a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. 

Famous enough in its own right, the trial became a play and then a move – Inherit The Wind –a fictionalized account of the trial done by Stanley Kramer in 1960.  Stars Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and Gene Kelly headlined an examination of the trial in the context of the first amendment and the McCarthy years in the mid-1950’s.  Ironically, as one expert noted, “…they set up the Creationists as strawmen for McCarthy and they didn’t think there were any Creationists left. But the strawmen outlived the McCarthyites.”  The debate over teaching evolution in the schools is still alive and well. 

The so-called Monkey Trial  got underway July 10, 1925 in Dayton Tennessee.  It was pretty much a setup from the start.  Scopes wasn’t a regular teacher and he had worked with a local businessman to create the violation he was charged with.  The Butler Act had made it a misdemeanor to teach any theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals.  Once arrested and charged, Scopes looked to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to help out in his defense.   When the ACLU took up the challenge for the defense, William Jennings Bryan – a former presidential candidate and a fundamentalist – volunteered to help the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, a noted attorney of the time agreed to join the ACLU’s defense team.  

The battle was on, but evidently it looked more like a zoo than a war.  As the press and an interested citizenry congregated to watch the trial, the crowds drew the inevitable collection of street entrepreneurs down to a chimpanzee exhibit and a man from Vermont posing as the “missing link.”  As a measure of the national interest, it was the first trial to be broadcast on radio.  

The defense was less interested in Scopes and more interested in calling the Butler Act into question.   That was a fact that evidently occurred to the judge as well and he destroyed the defense plans by ruling that scientific testimony on evolution was inadmissible.  He assured in that ruling the trial would proceed as the Scopes Trial, not the Butler Act Trial.   Clarence Darrow countered with a switch in strategy.  He called Bryan as his only witness and proceeded in his examination to discredit Bryan’s literal interpretation of the Bible.  Then, in his closing argument, Darrow called on the jury to return a verdict of guilty so that the case could be appealed.  The jury took just a few minutes to oblige Darrow and Scopes was convicted of a misdemeanor and fines $100.  

The verdict was later thrown out on a technicality on appeal and, in fact, for all the noise, nothing really happened.  Textbooks in Tennessee had all mention of evolution removed for some time after the trial and it was not until 1967 that the Butler Act was finally repealed.  

Oddly enough, the trial that many might think had settled the notion of banning the teaching of evolution did no such thing.  States all around the country have had their own battles with the teaching of evolution even into the twenty first century.  Here in Washington State, the legislature introduced a bill in 2002, that proposed all state-purchased textbooks contain a disclaimer: “A message from the Washington State Legislature: This textbook discusses evolution a controversial theory … no one was present when life first appeared on earth.  Therefore, any statement about life’s origin should be considered as theory, not fact.   Study hard and keep and open mind.  Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth.” 

Another bill introduced to the Education Committee of the Washington State Senate in 2002 declared “the legislature finds that the teaching of the theory of evolution in the common schools of the state of Washington is repugnant to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and thereby unconstitutional and unlawful. “ Neither bill moved on to passage.  

In fact, it appears the public itself has not made up its mind.  If you are interested, you can find some interesting recent statistics here.  

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