The Scopes Monkey Trial

Posted by | August 5, 2008

It was 1925 and the world was coming unhinged.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx had gotten people to thinking. Albert Einstein had turned science on its ear. Sigmund Freud had brought up topics previously considered taboo. White kids were starting to pay attention to black kids’ music, that thing called Jazz. The temperance folks’ noble gesture had turned into the best thing that ever happened to organized crime. The War to End All Wars hadn’t. The Lost Generation was hanging out on the Left Bank of the Seine.

And, Little Chucky Darwin had dropped a bomb on the world that was, at the same time, profound and beautiful. After thousands of years of recorded history, it had finally dawned on him that things adapt to their surroundings.

Well, duh.

The problem behind all of these new-fangled ideas was that it meant a shift in power. If you were on the up-side of that power curve, life was good. But, if you were on the losing end, the only thing left to do was fight.

And, that’s what put Dayton, Tennessee on the map.

Dayton is just northwest of Cleveland, my hometown, across the Tennessee River. And, in 1925, as a publicity stunt and boon for tourism, the locals engineered for John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, to teach evolution in his classroom, in direct violation of the Tennessee law prohibiting it. It drew a tsunami of press coverage and national attention, as two of the top lawyers of the day argued the role of science and religion in schools and, by extension, public life. Clarence Darrow argued for science; William Jennings Bryan argued for religion.

Scopes Trial lawyersWilliam Jennings Bryan (seated, left, with fan) and Clarence Darrow (standing, center, with arms folded) at an outdoor courtroom during Scopes trial in Dayton, TN.

Rhetorically, Darrow kicked Bryan to the curb. But, Darrow also knew he was playing a game rigged against him. So, Darrow stooped to conquer. He asked the jury to find his client guilty, so the thing could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. And, sure enough, a year later, the court overturned the lower court’s ruling and dismissed the case.

Science won the day.

In the trial’s wake, we now have the stage play Inherit the Wind and Dayton has a conservative college, Bryan College, named after the loser– William Jennings Bryan.

But, as you’ve probably noticed, the debate permeating the Scopes Monkey Trial has not gone away. The Religious Right, which is neither, has repackaged creationism as Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design contends the world is too complex to understand and, thus, a conscious being (translation: the Angry Sky Dad of the Old Testament), must be behind it.

Well, the universe may be too complex for fundamentalists to understand, but the rest of us are making pretty good headway with science.

See, religion and science are not in opposition to each other. Religion addresses a who question and science addresses a how question. The who question may be answered by the Divine Sugar Daddy of the New Testament or Ahura Mazda or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Brahman or the Tao, to name a few. But, science addresses the nuts-and-bolts issues of how the creative force (whoever/whatever it is) did the job.

The short version of the impact of the Scopes Monkey Trial is that it all boiled down to power. Unquestioningly, the Bible holds some of the greatest wisdom ever shared with mankind. But, when fallible mortals twist that wisdom into a tool for social control, people suffer. When the few use religion to scare the masses, to threaten people with eternal damnation if they don’t tow the line, bad things happen. When leaders reward people for not thinking and questioning long-held assumptions simply because they’re long-held assumptions, our future generations are doomed.

But, for one brief shining moment, common sense prevailed. The ability to use those lovely bio-computers between our ears was recognized. And, on a hot summer day, just across the river, we got the chance to get to know ourselves a little better.



Scopes+Monkey+Trial Clarence+Darrow William+Jennings+Bryan Dayton+TN appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history John+Scopes

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