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75 years after the Scopes trial pitted science against religion, the debate goes on

John Scopes
John Scopes, a football coach and substitute biology teacher, agreed to be arrested and put on trial to challenge a new law against teaching evolution  

July 13, 2000
Web posted at: 12:34 p.m. EDT (1634 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Seventy-five years ago, a Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in violation of state law.

His trial, which began this week in 1925, became one of the most celebrated courtroom proceedings in U.S. legal history -- a "trial of the century" -- because of the high-profile players involved, the media attention it received and the issues it raised. It was also called the "monkey trial" because evolutionists maintain that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor.

Today, the trial is noteworthy for the legal, scientific, religious, philosophical and political questions it raised -- questions that will remain for a long time to come, experts say.

Historic trial revisited as evolution debate heats up
Is evolution theory or scientific fact? Is creationism valid science? Join the debate on the Evolution message board

Law professor Doug Linder on the legacy of the Scopes monkey trial
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Is evolution theory or scientific fact? Is creationism valid science? Is it fair for grade-school students to be taught only evolution and not creationism? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades after the Scopes trial that creationism should not be taught because it is a religious belief; the Constitution calls for separation of church and state.

"As a case it is not as much a legal landmark as much as a social landmark. It was a clash between traditionalism and its values and modernism and its values," said Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, who teaches a seminar on famous trials. "It remains an issue. Darwinism and evolution challenge the notion that we are special as a species."

The grand oratorical battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan made for great press back then and attracted the likes of legendary journalist H.L. Mencken of the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun.

Darrow was an avowed agnostic, legendary defense attorney and Scopes' counsel. Bryan was a pacifist, Christian and a one-time presidential candidate who represented Tennessee. They were known to be the best orators of their time.

But experts say the trial was more of a publicity stunt than a serious court proceeding.

A trial to test the law

In March 1925, Tennessee lawmakers passed a law against teaching in public school "any theory that denies the story of divine creation of man as taught in the Bible."

Tennessee was the first state to pass such a law, said Edward Larson, a University of Georgia law and history professor who wrote a book about the Scopes trial and the science versus religion debate called "Summer For The Gods," which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1998.

According to Larson, the local head of the now-defunct Cumberland Coal and Iron Co., George Rappalyea, did not like the new law.

After learning from the newspapers that the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union was seeking someone to challenge the law, Rappalyea approached the school board to help him find a teacher who would agree to be a legal guinea pig.

"As a case it is not as much a legal landmark as much as a social landmark. It was a clash between traditionalism and
its values and modernism and its values."

— Law Professor Douglas Linder
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Linder and Larson said Rappalyea figured that if the trial were held in Dayton, it would attract national attention and, more important, tourism dollars and new business.

Cumberland coal was the dominant employer in the community of less than 2,000 people and the company had extracted all the coal and iron from the surrounding hills, said Tom Davis, spokesman for Bryan College, a Christian institution in Dayton named after William Jennings Bryan. Those who lost their jobs probably returned to working in agriculture, which was the mainstay of Dayton back then, but times were tough, Davis said.

School Board President Frank Earl Robinson, who owned a drug store in town and was also a correspondent for some newspapers, and other board members approached Scopes to be the test case. Scopes was the football coach at Rhea Central High School who also taught math and general science, and sometimes substitute-taught biology, Larson said. He reluctantly agreed to discuss evolutionary theory in class, and was arrested when he did, experts say.

Darrow agreed to take the case for free; he was by then famous as an orator and for taking on socially unpopular causes like defending labor leaders. Bryan agreed to defend the state because he believed the Bible and because he thought Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory had led to destructive social movements.

The trial also was the first to address the teaching of evolution in U.S. public school classrooms. Though public elementary school education had begun in the 1890s or so, states were beginning to offer universal middle and high school education in the early 1900s, Larson said.

Six hundred people crowded into the Rhea County, Tennessee, courthouse when the trial began on July 10, 1925  

The prospect of two American luminaries clashing in a courtroom and the issues raised by the trial attracted a gaggle of journalists from all over, including Mencken, then the most famous journalist in the United States.

The crowds who gathered at the Dayton courtroom to listen to the heated rhetoric were not disappointed.

For instance, Mencken's July 21, 1925, dispatch quoted Darrow as saying that he wanted to "show up fundamentalism" and "prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States." He wrote that Bryan, his face purple, shook his fist in Darrow's face and yelled that he wanted to "protect the word of God from the greatest atheist and agnostic in the United States."

The legal issue was somewhat beside the point -- whether Scopes broke the anti-evolution law. The judge easily found that he did, and fined him $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the technicality that the jury, not the judge, should have imposed the fine, Larson said.

Scopes did not go to prison. Someone else paid the fine. In fact, Scopes gave up teaching after the trial and went off to study geology at the University of Chicago with scholarship money from a fund set up on his behalf by journalists and scientists. Scopes then embarked on a successful career with the oil industry.

Larson said state Supreme Court did not overturn the anti-evolution law -- the reason the ACLU brought the lawsuit in the first place. But Darrow did get a small measure of victory: the Supreme Court directed Tennessee prosecutors not indict anyone under the law.

Evolution continued to be taught in some Tennessee schools and elsewhere in the nation in the years after the Scopes trial, Larson said. But many schools to this day stay away from the topic because it is controversial -- proof that the "culture wars" brought to the fore by the Scopes trial are still going on, Larson said.

Supreme Court rulings and the debate today

The Scopes trial did not go beyond Tennessee but the evolution versus creation, science versus religion debate raged on.

It was not until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter. In Epperson v. Arkansas, the court ruled that evolution can be taught in public schools because it is a science, but not creationism, because it constitutes religion, Linder said. The wall between church and state can be found in the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The issue once again reached the nation's highest court in 1987 in a case from Louisiana. In Edwards v. Aguilar, the court ruled that the state-mandated teaching of evolution and creationism side-by-side is unconstitutional, again because teaching creationism meant the state was endorsing religion.

By no means did the decisions end the debate in U.S. society. The rift between the two camps is evident to this day in the public policy arena. Some examples:

The grand oratorical battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan made for great press back then and attracted the likes of legendary journalist H.L. Mencken of the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun.

• In 1999, the state education board of Kansas voted to remove evolution as a subject matter in standardized tests. Some experts believe that move effectively means teachers will not teach evolution because students will not be tested on it.

• Textbooks in Alabama carry a state-mandated disclaimer that says evolution is a theory believed by some scientists, not fact.

• Oklahoma's textbook committee wanted to include a similar disclaimer, but the state attorney general said the committee has the authority only to pick textbooks, not add disclaimers. To circumvent that problem, a state lawmaker introduced legislation that required textbooks to carry the statement that God created the universe, said Wayne Carley, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

• In Minnesota, a teacher who believes creationism is valid science has gone to court because he was reassigned to another class when he wanted to present a critique of evolution in class, Linder said.

Evolutionary theory in brief

Evolutionary theory says all life derived from previous life forms and differences between one plant and animal species to another results from genetic and physical modifications in successive generations.

The evolutionary view has long been in existence. The Greeks believed in a form of evolution. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European scientists and philosophers --particularly the French -- put forth formal theories.

Clarence Darrow
Clarence Darrow, shown here several years after the trial, defended John Scopes pro bono  

Then Charles Darwin of England wrote "Origin of Species" in 1859, a book that would revolutionize all of biology and spark widespread social changes.

Based on observations of species and fossils in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin came up with the theory of natural selection, which essentially said the fittest species would survive in the long run. Survivors pass on their characteristics to succeeding generations to ensure continued survival, Darwin postulated.

Today, the scientific community largely believes evolution is fact. What troubles some Christians, especially fundamentalists who regard the Bible as God's literal word, is that "godless" evolution runs counters to the doctrine of divine creation.

Creationism grew as an antithesis to the evolutionary movement. Its proponents say creationism is valid science that exposes the weaknesses and fallacies of evolutionary theory.

Social Darwinism and imperialist or racist politics

Many anti-evolutionists have also said evolution has led to "social Darwinism," a concept that said humans struggle to survive in society and only the fittest will survive -- just as the fittest survive in the biological world. Social Darwinism has been viewed as the impetus behind imperialist or racist politics such as Nazism. "Eugenics" was another controversial doctrine that evolved out of Darwin's theory; eugenics says people who are successful are genetically superior to the lower classes of society.

Bryan believed that wars had been caused by the social applications of Darwinism. He feared that Social Darwinian ideas might become widespread if taught to young people, a big reason why he agreed to defend the state in the Scopes trial.

A creationist's point of view

John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, California, says he and others at the institute are scientists who frame and study the question of human origins from a biblical perspective.

Morris said most creationists believe in "micro" evolution -- evolution with limitations. An example of microevolution is the variety of dog breeds -- proof that life forms can change genetically within certain parameters, he said.

Evolutionists regard "macro" evolution as gospel, he argued, meaning they believe complex life forms such as humans originated from the simplest of living things like fish.

"Dogs can change a lot, but they never become cats," he said. "Evolutionists point to this variation and say we can extend that philosophy from a fish to a man. ... In the sense that evolution teaches your ancestors were fish, I disagree with that. ... People were created as people. Evolutionists have sole control and the existence of those who don't agree is denied," he said.

The Scopes trial did not go beyond Tennessee but the evolution versus creation, science versus religion debate raged on. It was not until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the matter.

He said though he believes evolution is "bad science," it must be taught in schools because students must be exposed to what much of the scientific community believes is true. He also said he does not want the Bible to be taught in schools, unlike some other Christian groups.

What he does want is for evolution to be taught as a theory, not fact. And he wants students to be exposed to the alternative point of view.

"The faith of evolution should not be taught. The faith of the evolutionists is that microevolution leads to macroevolution. That ought not to be taught," he said. "Creationism is good science. I would never propose putting the Bible in public schools, but to exclude good science is bad education."

An evolutionist's point of view

Carley, of the biology teachers association, said creationism has no place in public schools because it is not science.

"In science you start with a hypothesis and test it. You can go out and collect fossils to figure out if evolution is true. If you start with the premise that creationism is true, that is not subject to scientific scrutiny," said Carley, who is also an elder in the Presbyterian Church. "Religion and science are important but two very different ways of looking at the world. ... The real message of the Bible is not the history lesson, but the moral imperative it gives us."

Noting that many creationists point to the gap in fossil record as proof that evolution is half-baked science, Carley argued that the gap shows that the record is incomplete -- not that it is false.

He also accused creationists of imposing their view on others.

"There are a dozen creation stories. ... So why do you pick this one Christian Bible version as the only one that must be taught?" he said. "If you are going to teach creationism fairly, you must teach all those other stories fairly, in which case you are teaching comparative religion and you are not teaching science at all."

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Famous Trials (UMKC School at Law)
ACLU: The Scopes Trial and Religious Liberty
Bryan College
The Skeptical Creationism Website
Christian Connection's Christianity and Science
AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion
Institute for Creation Research
National Center for Science Education
Creation Science
Creation vs. Evolution Sites

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