May 25 – John Scopes Indicted – for Teaching the Stuff in the Textbook He Was Given!

Posted on May 25, 2014

The entire field of biology is organized around the ideas that plants, animals, and other organisms on Earth share common ancestors, that today's organisms gradually evolved from earlier, simpler forms, and that creatures seem ideally fit for the environments in which they live because of natural selection.

Credit: Barebente
Those three big ideas (common descent, gradual change, and natural selection) are usually referred to with just one simple word: evolution.

Back in 1925, even though scientists only knew a fraction of the bajillions of bits of evidence scientists have amassed today to back up the theory of evolution through natural selection, this theory had already been accepted by biologists and was being taught in colleges and high schools.

However, some of the people in Tennessee were not happy with the findings of biologists. They didn't want to believe that humans and chimpanzees and slugs and redwoods all shared ancestry. Nature doesn't care whether we like the way things are or not—reality is what it is, no matter how we feel about it—but some of those unhappy people decided that, if they couldn't control what scientific experiments were showing or what scientific papers were saying, they could at least control what science teachers in Tennessee were teaching.

And so lawmakers in Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which made it against the law to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) knew that that law was based on religious motivations and was therefore unconstitutional. The organization offered to defend anyone actually accused of breaking the law.

Several people in the small town on Dayton, Tennessee, decided that the controversy of an arrest and trial about the Butler Act would give their town some much-needed publicity. The school superintendent pointed out that one law mandates that high school science teachers must instruct their students on the science in the adopted textbook, and that the adopted textbook teaches about evolution, and the Butler Act mandates that high school science teachers must NOT teach about evolution. So one law says that teachers must break another law.

The group asked a young teacher named John T. Scopes to plead guilty to teaching the theory of evolution. He had gone through a chart in the evolution chapter from the textbook with the class. 

Scopes agreed to stand trial. He urged several students to testify against him and helped them to understand the kinds of things they needed to say to get an indictment.

And on this date in 1925, Scopes was indicted for teaching from the chapter on evolution – from the textbook that had been adopted by the state!

Scopes was never put in jail, and he didn't even have to put up the money for bail (a newspaper owner did that). Really, the entire trial was sort of a set-up, motivated by a desire to bring publicity to the town and to shine a light on a bad law.

The townspeople who had made sure there would be a trial worked to get the kind of lawyers who would ensure that the trial got publicity. The school superintendent even wrote to British novelist H. G. Wells, asking him to join the defense team! (Naturally, being a novelist untrained in British law, let alone U.S. law, Wells said no thanks.) The prosecution's law team did attract a famous lawyer, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan had run for president several times and was a former U.S. Secretary of State as well as a devout Christian.

Whether because of the subject matter of the trial or because of the efforts of the people of Dayton, the trial did get a lot of publicity. Journalists from around the nation and even the world covered the trial, and it was the first U.S. trial to be broadcast on national radio. The newspaper owner who had paid Scopes's bail used colorful phrases to stir up even more controversy and therefore attract more attention. For example, he called the trial “Monkey Trial” because Bryan criticized evolution for teaching children that humans were descended from monkeys, and “[n]ot even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys.” 

It's interesting that the defense attorneys, especially Clarence Darrow, took a detour from the original strategy of pointing out that the Butler Act violated the teacher's individual rights and academic freedom, and that it was designed to benefit a particular religious group and was therefore unconstitutional. In a way, Darrow put a literal understanding of the Bible on trial. He encouraged people to realize that the Bible's story of creation doesn't necessarily conflict with evolution...that evolution could be the way that God created the various species.

What were the results of this famous trial?

  1. The judge directed the jury not to worry about whether or not the Butler Act was a good law, but only to decide whether or not Scopes had broken it.
  2. Since Scopes admitting to breaking the law, this made it easy for the jury to find him guilty!
  3. Scopes was ordered to pay a $100 fine (which would be more than $1,000 when adjusted for inflation), because the Butler Act specifically said that that was the minimum fine for breaking the law.
  4. In the 1927 appeal in Tennessee's Supreme Court, the court shocked many observers by finding the Butler Act to be constitutional but set aside the guilty verdict because of a legal technicality: under the state constitution, a Tennessee judge could not set a fine above $50, so the jury should have set the $100 fine!
  5. Decades later, in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court found in a separate but related case that an Arkansas law similar to the Butler Act was unconstitutional because its primary purpose is religious. But the Butler Act had finally been repealed in 1967, the year before the Supreme Court's decision.

You can learn more about the Scopes trial by watching an old film, Inherit the Wind (1960). 

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