Skip to comments.20 Questions About the Scopes Trial (On its 81st Anniversary, some background on the Monkey Trial)
Posted on 07/10/2006 6:11:09 PM PDT by DaveLoneRanger
The Scopes monkey trial, which began 81 years ago today, is one of the most frequently revisited events in American history. As creationism keeps popping up in new guises, such as Creation Science and Intelligent Design, the Scopes trial gets dusted off for each new generation. The trial has been an evergreen subject for dramatizations and documentaries on stage, film, and television, most recently on the History Channel series 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. But how true to life have these accounts of the Scopes trial been? Here are some questions and answers to help our readers keep things straight.
Q. Wasnt the whole trial basically a publicity stunt?
A. Pretty much. After the Tennessee legislature passed its anti-evolution law in March 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union advertised for a test subject, and a Dayton teacher named John Scopes volunteered to be the defendant. Scopes was a physics teacher who had occasionally taught biology as a substitute; he could not specifically remember mentioning evolution to his students, but he thought he probably had at some point. A fellow opponent of the law from Dayton swore out the complaint against him.
Although the Dayton court was not sitting at the timeand if youve ever experienced a Tennessee summer without air conditioning, youll understand whya special session was called to try Scopes before any other place could (several Tennessee cities hoped to generate a test case and reap the attendant bonanza in tourism and publicity). Evolutionists knew they would lose the case and planned to challenge the law further on appeal, though its unlikely that they would have gotten anywhere.
Q. Was there any chance of Scopes being sent to jail or having to pay a fine out of his own pocket?
A. No. The law made no provision for imprisonment, and newspapers and evolution supporters had agreed to pay all Scopess fines and legal costs. In the end, the jury convicted him (an outcome both sides had requested) and fined him $100. In 1927 the Tennessee Supreme Court voided the fine, though not the conviction itself, on a technicality.
Q. What was the technicality, by the way? No one ever explains that.
A. Tennessee law required the fine to be assessed by the jury and not, as had happened in Dayton, by the judge.
Q. Did the law in question prohibit all teachers from saying anything that might conflict with a literal reading of the Bible?
A. No, it applied specifically to evolution. The exact wording was: It shall be unlawful . . . 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. The law applied to public colleges as well as public schools.
Q. Isnt that blatantly unconstitutional?
A. By todays standards, yes. But in the 1920s, courts interpreted the establishment of religion clause much more narrowly. Not until 1962 did the U.S. Supreme Court declare state-sponsored school prayer to be illegal, so its unlikely that the Supreme Court would have consented to hear a challenge to this law, particularly since the law did not require any religious observance but merely prohibited certain subjects from being taught.
Q. Was the law ever repealed?
A. Yes, in 1967, though it had long since been widely ignored.
Q. Was William Jennings Bryan a fundamentalist?
A. Not really. He was a creationist, meaning that he believed God had created the natural world more or less intact and that there was no such thing as evolution. He also believed that many of the miracles described in the Bible were literally true, but that parts of it had been written in simple language that people in ancient times could understand. So according to the modern understanding of fundamentalism (as distinguished from Fundamentalism, which is a specific denomination with well-defined beliefs), Bryan did not adhere to the doctrine, though he was in broad sympathy with it.
Q. Was it ill-advised for Bryan to agree to testify as an expert on creationism and the Bible?
A. Not really. The only problem was that hed had no time to prepare, so he sounded sluggish at times. Bryan was well versed in the literature of creationism and had spoken and written on the subject often, so he knew what he was talking about. Darrows decision to call Bryan as a witness was unexpected and may have backfired, as it made his relentless badgering on minute points seem mean-spirited.
Q. Was the trial an epic debate between reason and faith?
A. Hardly. The first six days were spent on procedural matters, speeches by the attorneys, and prepared testimony from assorted experts. These statements repeated what advocates of the two sides had been saying for years, and if the trial had included nothing more than them, it would have been quickly forgotten. The only reason anyone remembers the Scopes trial today is for Clarence Darrows examination of William Jennings Bryan on the seventh day. Yet for all the hoopla that accompanied that showdown at the time, and all the attention it has received ever since, when you read the transcript, it looks mighty limp.
The two clashing titans spent most of their time rehashing chestnuts like the origin of Cains wife, the sun standing still at the battle of Jericho, and the snake being condemned to crawl on his belly. Along the way they quibbled over whether Jonah was swallowed by a fish or a whale (and whether the beast in question had been created specifically for the purpose of swallowing Jonah or was an ordinary specimen of its type), quarreled about the difference between interpretations and comments, and spent several minutes with pencil and paper calculating exactly how long it had been since the Tower of Babel was built.
At times the two men came across like pettish schoolboys. After Darrow asked Bryan how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago and Bryan, unsurprisingly, was unable to answer, the following dialogue ensued:
DARROW: Have you ever tried to find out?
BRYAN: No, sir; you are the first man I ever heard of who was interested in it.
DARROW: Mr. Bryan, am I the first man you ever heard of who has been interested in the age of human societies and primitive man?
BRYAN: You are the first man I ever heard speak of the number of people at these different periods.
DARROW: Where have you lived all your life?
BRYAN: Not near you. [Laughter and applause]
DARROW: Nor near anybody of learning?
BRYAN: Oh, dont assume you know it all.
In his examination, Darrow alternated between quizzing Bryan on scientific trivia in an attempt to reveal his ignorance and asking Bryan if he believed in the literal truth of various Bible stories. Bryan shrugged off most of Darrows questions as unimportant, Darrow responded with sarcasm, and that was their historic confrontation.
Q. What were the basic arguments?
A. Darrows argument was that (a) creationism conflicts with modern science, so it must be incorrect, (b) the Bible contains illogicalities, contradictions, and impossibilities, so it cannot be taken literally, and (c) since evolution and the Bible can be reconciled, there is no conflict between science and religion. Bryans argument was that (a) God can override the laws of nature with miracles, (b) Gods revealed truth supersedes scientific evidence, (c) when man cannot explain or understand the Bible, it shows that mans wisdom is inferior to Gods, not that the Bible is untrue, and (d) the science of the day was not conclusive about evolutionfor example, different scientists gave estimates of the earths age ranging from 24 million to 300 million years.
Q. Did Darrow embarrass or humiliate Bryan, or maneuver him into contradicting himself?
A. There is no evidence that Bryan felt embarrassed or humiliated. When a fellow member of the prosecution team repeatedly asked the judge to stop the examination, Bryan insisted on continuing. Bryan did admit that the six days in which God created the world might have been geological eras of undetermined length, rather than 24-hour periods, but he had been saying that for years, and it did not conflict with his view that the Bible excluded the possibility of evolution.
Q. Did Darrow make Bryan lose his composure?
A. At the end, both Darrow and Bryan lost their composure and descended to name-calling. Their final exchange, which ended with both men on their feet and shaking their fists, went like this:
BRYAN: . . . I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee
DARROW: I object to that.
BRYAN: To slur at it, and, while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
DARROW: I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.
At which point the judge mercifully adjourned the proceedings.
Q. Did the audience turn on Bryan?
A. Absolutely not. He repeatedly elicited cheers or appreciative laughter from the audience, and their support was at least as strong at the end as it had been at the beginning.
Q. Then who won the debate?
A. Most creationists thought Bryan had won, except a few who differed with him on doctrinal matters. Most evolutionists thought Darrow had won. Since the bulk of the examination covered very familiar ground, its hard to imagine anyones mind being changed by it, despite all the fireworks. In 1925 the vast majority of scientists agreed with Darrow in rejecting creationism, and the same is true today. From the standpoint of who had the stronger scientific argument, then, Darrow was an easy winner.
When considered from the standpoint of who made a stronger impression at the time, the debate was pretty much a draw. In trying to prove that Bryans creationism rested on shaky assumptions and incomplete knowledge, Darrow scored some points, though the question ultimately came down to faith and belief. In trying to prove that Bryans creationism was self-contradictory, however, he failed. If you accept Bryans assumptions that God is omnipotent and the Bible is his revealed truth, then Bryans version of creationism is entirely defensiblenot the only possible interpretation, to be sure, but one that is consistent with itself.
Q. Was Bryan a scientific ignoramus?
A. His scientific knowledge was certainly not broad, and his reading about paleontology and similar topics was selective at best. But he was not a total know-nothing. He quoted writers and evidence that supported him and wrote off the rest as unimportant.
Q. Did the trial leave Bryan a broken man?
A. No. He died of a heart attack five days after it ended, but in view of his age (65), hefty girth, and general poor health, that hardly came as a surprise. The day before his death, he made an antievolution speech before 8,000 cheering supporters.
Q. Did the trial prevent a wave of creationism from sweeping the nation?
A. Theres no way of knowing for sure, but there is little evidence that other states had anything similar in mind when Tennessee passed its law in 1925. By the end of the decade, two more states (Mississippi and Arkansas) had enacted similar lawsso if anything the trial may have caused at least a ripple of creationism.
Q. How did contemporary observers see the trial?
A. As Ronald L. Numbers wrote in Darwinism Comes to America (1998), In his last dispatch from Dayton to the Baltimore Evening Sun, H. L. Mencken declared that Genesis had emerged completely triumphant from the battle. There are other States, he advised, that had better look to their arsenals before the Hun is at their gates. Numerous others on both sides of the debate made similar predictions about the spread of creationism, some fearfully and some triumphantly.
Q. Then why does everyone think that Bryan was a doddering old fool and Darrow wiped the floor with him?
A. That notion seems to have started with Frederick Lewis Allens Only Yesterday, a retrospective of the 1920s that was published in 1931. Allen is perhaps the best popular historian America has ever known, but in this case, whether through selective memory or wishful thinking, he turned the outcome of the trial on its head. Since Allens book was so widely read, its version became the accepted one.
Q. So what youre saying is that Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lees 1955 play based on the Scopes trial (which was made into a film in 1960), in which a defeated character based on Bryan breaks down and cries on the witness stand, is alternative history?
A. Exactly. The only difference is that if someone writes a play in which the South wins the Civil War, everyone knows its fiction. With Inherit the Wind, all too many people seem to think its fact.
Frederic D. Schwarz is a senior editor of American Heritage magazine.
Interesting post. Talk about a 'show trial'.
Just trying to spread this around.
Hahaha. Hope to move to Dayton soon.
How anyone could have stood that hot court room is beyond
Nice country round abouts, and property prices are low.
I'd say things haven't changed much.
Here's the $64,000 question: If the jurors had known that beginning in just 13 short years, ideologies based upon evolution were going to plunge the world into WW-II, turn Europe into a pigpen from end to end, and kill tens of millions of people, would the fine have been more than the hundred dollars it actually was?
Did the ACLU and other humanists, in this show trial, show their hand and make a direct assault against the Bible? No, they had to pretend their interest was in free speech and the freedom of ideas and all. The fact is, the ACLU and other minority humanists wanted to eventually use the Government Public School system as their own little indoctrination day camps. That is why they fight so hard to control the education of other peoples children in local schools far, far from their liberal headquarters.
Big government oligarchy. That is what those who agree with the ACLU are swallowing as a means to the end they desire. They love Big Brother to ignore two hundred years of Constitutional precedent and obvious intent because they are on the wrong side of history and they know it.
The last fifty years of judicial activism nearly all dogmatic humanists support is the tribute they pay to the ACLU and liberalism, because neither of them agree with the real Constitution, but instead they pretend the new, judge-trampled version is the correct one.
Didn't Hitler execute evolutionists?
Just wondering... does anyone know if Faye Ray's character in King Kong - Ann Darrow - is meant to be an inside Scopes Trial joke?
... Fun little side story... I've been picked for a jury before because the lawyer thought I'd bring him luck...
You see... Clarence is my third cousin, thrice removed.
The exchanges between Darrow and Bryan read like a classic FR crevo thread.
...(as distinguished from Fundamentalism, which is a specific denomination with well-defined beliefs),
Strange, I've never heard of an actual denomination called *Fundamentalism*. It'd be interesting to know where he got that one.
To me the big error is to link evolution theory to religion. Man is the only animal that needs religion. History cites many various "religious" actions/belief which came and went long before the "Christan Era". IMHO ther will always be "religion" to satisfy mans need for it.
Dayton is a nice town.
There is a particularly nice art museum on a hilltop, architecture is like an old Greek temple. The contents change over time, but they usually have a very good selction.
My brother has lived near Dayton for quite a while.
And a number of nice watering holes downtown, near 4th Street. Pinewoods, is one in particular I remember.
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