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The Scopes Trial Previous Next
Digital History ID 3390


The Scopes Trial is one of the best known in American history because it symbolizes the conflict between science and theology, faith and reason, individual liberty and majority rule. The object of intense publicity, the trial was seen as a clash between urban sophistication and rural fundamentalism. The trial was further popularized by the 1955 play, Inherit the Wind, which became a hit film in 1960. The play and subsequent movie cast the trial as a struggle for truth and freedom against repression and ignorance.

In the summer of 1925, a young schoolteacher named John Scopes stood trial in Dayton, Tennessee, for violating the state law against the teaching of evolution. Two of the country's most famous attorneys faced off in the trial. William Jennings Bryan, 65 years old and a three time Democratic presidential nominee, prosecuted; 67-year-old Clarence Darrow, who was a staunch agnostic and who had defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb the year before, represented the defense. Bryan declared that "the contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death."

The five-year-old American Civil Liberties Union had taken out newspaper advertisements offering to defend anyone who flouted the Tennessee law. George Rappelyea, a Dayton, Tenn., booster, realized that the town would get enormous attention if a local teacher was arrested for teaching evolution. He enlisted John Scopes, a science teacher and football coach, who arranged to teach from George Hunter's Civic Biology, a high school textbook promoting Charles Darwin's arguments in The Descent of Man.

The trial was marked by hoopla and a carnival-like atmosphere. Thousands of people swelled the town of a thousand. For 12 days in July, 1925, 100 reporters sent dispatches.

The trial judge had prohibited the defense from using scientists as witnesses. So, on the trial's seventh day, the defense team called Bryan to testify as an expert on the Bible. Darrow subjected Bryan to a withering cross-examination. He got Bryan to say that Creation was not completed in a week, but over a period of time that "might have continued for millions of years."

The play, Inherit the Wind, would caricature Bryan as a Bible-thumping buffoon, but in actuality, Bryan's position was complex. He opposed the mandated teaching of evolution in public schools because he thought the people should exercise local control over school curricula. He also opposed Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection because these ideas had been used to defend laissez-faire capitalism on the grounds that a perfectly free market promotes the "survival of the fittest." As early as 1904, Bryan had denounced social Darwinism as "the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak."

In addition, Bryan opposed Darwinism as justification for war and imperialism. In The Descent of Man, Darwin has argued that "at some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races." The textbook that Scopes taught from, Civic Biology, identified five "races of man": Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, and Mongolian, and "finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America." Bryan was also unhappy with Darwin's assumption that the entire evolutionary process was purposeless and not the product of a larger design.

Not a Biblical literalist, Bryan was aware of serious scientific difficulties with Darwinism, such as Darwin's theory that slight, random variations were enough to generate life from non-life to produce a vast array of biological species. But Bryan mistook the lack of consensus about the mechanisms that Darwin advanced to explain the evolutionary process for a lack of scientific support for the concept of evolution itself.

The day after this exchange, Darrow changed his client's plea to guilty. Scopes was convicted and fined $100. However, the conviction was thrown out on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court: that the judge, and not the jury, had determined the $100 fine. In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down Tennessee's anti-evolution law for violating the Constitution's prohibition against the establishment of religion.

Five days after the trial's conclusion, Bryan died of apoplexy. The journalist H.L. Mencken wrote of Bryan: "He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. He was passing out a poor mountebank." As for Scopes, he left teaching and became a chemical engineer in the oil industry. He died at age 70 in 1970.

The Scopes trial resulted in two enduring conclusions: that legislatures should not restrain the freedom of scientific inquiry, and that society should respect academic freedom.

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