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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Scopes Trial

The defendant - John T Scopes

The defendant - John T Scopes

The Scopes Trial may be well known in the United States, where it is a source of pride and frustration for both sides of the evolution debate. Here in Old Europe™ the trial is relatively unheard of.

Really, Are People Still Arguing Over Evolution?

Evolution is still most often referred to as a theory. It is a sad fact, but evolution remains, in some parts, an unaccepted and (incredulously) a contentious issue. School authorities are constantly in conflict on its teaching or non-teaching.

The Inquisition is writing this in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country in the scorned depths of Old Europe™. The debate is not all that heated here as the Vatican has long ago accepted evolution. This is not exactly evidence of the church’s willingness to accept new ideas – the theory has been proven in so many ways that denying it would be reactionary, overly dogmatic and leave them liable to look uninformed.

These are not issues for lots of people. They have their revered books and fantasies that were written before the growth of our knowledge in the natural sciences. They obsequiously follow these books – literally and obediently ignore, fight against and deny anything these holy books do not discuss or accept. Some will legislate against ideas they find dangerous; ideas like life not being a static concept, ideas like adaptation.

Darwin lampooned - the traditional misunderstanding of Darwinism

Darwin lampooned - the traditional misunderstanding of Darwinism

Setting the Scene – Tennessee

The University of Missouri-Kansas City does a great job of framing the pre-Scopes Trial situation in Tennessee. People were nervous. The old certainties were gone. Nineteenth century values had been violently destroyed by the First World War. Although Tennessee was the only state to nominally end slavery in 1861 by popular vote, the folk memory lasted and the divisions remained. New worlds and new ideas of modernism, prohibition and the opulent Jazz Age were threatening. The media focus on the Trial in Dayton, Tennessee would emphasise the struggle between old and new ideas. Evoultion, although an old idea already by that stage, would be that polarising concept, the spark that would hit the kindling.

The Butler Act

In 1925 the people of Tennessee lost any ability they previously had to think for themselves (it should be pointed out that Tennessee had the eighth highest number of white-on-black lynchings by state, so individual, informed and independent thought was clearly not considered a priority). The state enacted the Butler Act. This law technically prohibited public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of man’s origin. In action at the coalface of education however, it prevented any teaching of evolution at all. It did this by specifically prohibiting the teaching of the idea that man’s origins lie in what it referred to as lower orders of animals.

John Washington Butler had pursued the law’s enactment at the suggestion of William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential hopeful. Jennings Bryan pushed for the legislation in fifteen states and was referred to by the press as a ‘fundamentalist pope”.

The Plan

George Rappalyea was a New Yorker who brought newfangled ideas to the tiny rural hamlet of Dayton. The American Civil Liberties Union had called on teachers to oppose the new anti-evolution legislation. On the back of this, Rappalyea urged the part-time science teacher John Scopes to take up the challenge to gain publicity for their small town. They would announce Scopes’ teaching plan, and its inclusion of evolution, forcing the state to intervene. They prepared by selecting high profile lawyers who wished to take on the case, again in the interests of publicity.

The Defence were formed by;

  • John Neal, a law school dean from Knoxville
  • Clarence Darrow, a septuagenarian agnostic legal-eagle
  • Arthur Garfield Hays, a free speech advocate
  • Dudley Field Malone, a divorce attorney

The Prosecution comprised;

  • William Jennings Bryan
  • A.T. Stewart, East Tennessee’s Attorney General
  • Ben B McKenzie, the previous AG
  • William Jennings Bryan Jr., Jennings Bryan’s son and a federal prosecutor

The judge’s credentials were plain; Judge Raulston was a conservative Christian.

The tiny town celebrated the day the trial opened. They were delighted that the whole country’s, if not the world’s, focus was on them. The town had a population of 1,800. The courthouse held 1,000 people on the opening day.

Overview of the trial. Judge Raulston and William Jennings Bryan are clearly visible

Overview of the trial. Judge Raulston and William Jennings Bryan are clearly visible

The Trial

The farcical trial which was painted in the news media as a battle for humanity between good and evil, opened with a masterstroke in subterfuge. 11 of the twelve farmers on the jury were regular churchgoers. After an initial prayer in a secular court, the trial was adjourned for the weekend. The congregation of the local Methodist church found itself being addressed the next morning by William Jennings Bryan. The judge was there too, having a good ole listen, and putting any qualms about his impartiality firmly to bed.

And so it was to continue in this manner.

The prosecution introduced the King James Bible’s Book of Genesis to the court. They then had witnesses confirm that John Scopes had, sin of sins, taught evolution. They rested after another witness announced he had heard Scopes stating he would break the law by doing so.

The defence had initially adopted the strategy of having the indictment quashed, hoping a higher court would rule the banning of teaching evolution to be unconstitutional. Unsurprisingly Judge Raulston wasn’t going to play ball and refused. In riposte to the introduction of Biblical texts they called a zoologist as an expert witness. Dr. Maynard Metcalf described evolutionary theory, as it was understood at the time. The legal teams launched subsequent broadsides at each other. Dudley Malone accused the prosecution of taking a standpoint founded in ignorance. It didn’t matter – the following day the ruling judge struck the zoologist’s testimony off the register. He then ruled the court was too full and moved the hearing outside the courthouse.

Clarence Darrow on the left, William Jennings Bryan on the right.

Clarence Darrow on the left, William Jennings Bryan on the right.

After seven days of back-and-forth farce the defence called the primary prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, as an expert witness on the Bible, in an audacious move which the New York Times declared to be “the most amazing court scene in Anglo-Saxon history.” The defence lampooned Jennings Bryan’s literal interpretations of the Bible based on stories that were, and are, logically impossible – Jonah and the whale, Joshua making the sun stand still and so on. Darrow examined him and badgered him so much that once again the judge had to rule that the inconvenient evidence be removed from the register. The press reported it as a victory for Darrow, nonetheless.

Endgame and Aftermath

The case was hopeless, Scopes was convicted as requested by his defence. Tennessee law specified that following this request the case could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Six days later William Jennings Bryan died after eating a sandwich. One year later the Supreme Court reversed the decision on a technicality.

Unfortunately it seems religious dogmatism is winning the longer game. Only 39% of american adults believe in evolution. Extrapolating these figures, we learn that 61% of americans are idiots.

The pick of the curmudgeonly, troglodyte bunch is Northern Ireland where their health minister is, in his own words, “ a young earth creationist and an opponent of the theory of evolution.”

NPR’s fantastic timeline of events around the controversy
The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s piece on the trial is clear and readable
Belief in evolution across Europe
Pathé News Coverage of the Trial
A site devoted to the evolution/anti-evolution debate discussing the Trial –
Wikipedia’s take on it all

This article was posted by on Friday, September 2nd, 2011 at 23:09.
It is archived in America, Culture, Legal, Myth, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , .

2 Responses to Scopes Trial

  1. Kevin Patrick says:

    Many years ago a science teacher called a group of us to his laboratory to teach us about evolution. I was 11 and it opened my mind to the evolutionary theory and I have never had any doubts as to its validity. The amusing part was this man was besides a PHD a Catholic priest and any boys who confessed to masturbation were summoned to his laboratory and they were give electic shocks, the boys held hands and those on the end were given doses of positive and negative shocks.

    • The crux of your comment, while not immediately related to the Scopes trial, is sufficiently crazy to be illegal. I don’t know if I am more concerned about his questioning his young charges sexual experiments or his impromptu and decidedly ad hoc electric shock treatment.

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