Every few years Darwin gets hauled into court. We look back at the case America can't seem to move beyond.
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could ‘a’ laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.
—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Were we made, or did we just happen? Huckleberry Finn and his traveling companion Jim drew upon the evidence they saw in the sky above them, and the world around them, arriving at a mutual conclusion on the nature of the universe. The fact that their creation story varies from both the Book of Genesis and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection didn’t bother them – there were no preachers or evolutionists on the raft to debate them.
Perhaps it is lovely to live on a raft, because on shore the debate over origins has raged since the first publication of Darwin’s ground-breaking work.
One of the most virulent eruptions in this ongoing quarrel occurred in Dayton, Tennessee in July of 1925. Scholars and school children alike know about the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial, in which two of the nation’s finest orators engaged in a “duel to the death” over the seemingly insurmountable chasm between science and religion. For the prosecution, popular politician William Jennings Bryan argued that to teach Darwin’s theory, the repugnant notion that humans were mere mammals, would be to destroy the religious faith of Tennessee’s youth and set them against their Christian parents. For the defense, controversial attorney Clarence Darrow warned that removing Darwin from public school classrooms would plunge America back into a medieval nightmare of dogma, bigotry, and ignorance. The lines were neatly drawn. All middle ground flung aside, Darrow and Bryan ended up hollering and shaking their fists at one another. “Atheist,” one sneered. “Ignorant,” retorted his challenger. Either we were made, or we just happened.
Even the play Inherit the Wind, with its own Cold War political agenda, leaves a gray area for personal exploration. So too might the Scopes trial have offered thoughtful ideas worthy of deeper investigation. Darrow tried, fruitlessly, to introduce witnesses who successfully integrated evolution and Christian religious belief. Bryan inveighed for the right of a tax-paying majority to decide what their children could be taught in the public schools funded by taxes. Bryan and his co-prosecutors even suggested that the workable solution for the state of Tennessee might not find favor in the big cities such as Darrow’s Chicago – and so be it. Had the Scopes trial moved into appellate court, as the defense hoped it would, these issues would have been debated thoroughly. As it stood, the trial proceeded with such drama and vitriol that a literal reading of selected segments is more dramatic than Inherit the Wind.
In the spring of 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill called the Butler Act that declared it unlawful for public schoolteachers “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” A legal advocacy group called the American Civil Liberties Union – then in its formative years -- advertised in Tennessee’s newspapers, offering free counsel to any public schoolteacher who would challenge the law in court. Civic leaders in Dayton saw an opportunity to revive the sagging fortunes of their town by making it attractive to tourists. The leaders approached a photogenic young bachelor named John T. Scopes who had no permanent attachment to their community. Would Scopes take the ACLU’s offer and become the poster child for evolution?
Scopes was a math and physics teacher who had spent only six weeks covering biology for an instructor out on sick leave. Scopes could not even recall whether he had actually covered evolution. It certainly was covered in the available textbook — A Civic Biology by George William Hunter, first printed in 1914. Hunter used a diagram to classify animals and plants into their respective orders and families. The author placed humankind with the mammals and called Darwin a “great scientist.”
Scopes agreed and told the Dayton boosters that teachers could not cover biology without teaching evolution. His subsequent arrest was purely symbolic, and he never spent a moment in jail. Within weeks he and a constitutional lawyer from Tennessee journeyed north to Manhattan to meet with the ACLU.
Hearing of the case, Bryan – who had already thrown all of his famous crusader’s zeal into the fight against evolution – offered his legal services to the prosecution, free of charge. Clarence Darrow, taking a little prodding from Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken, offered himself to the defense, also free of charge. The ACLU cringed. Darrow had recently saved the lives of two repulsive child murderers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, using the argument that the young men were genetically flawed. This negative baggage, and Darrow’s flamboyant personality, might possibly derail the ACLU’s constitutional challenge.
Having learned of Bryan’s involvement in the Dayton case, Scopes insisted upon including Darrow. In his memoir, Center of the Storm, written 40 years later, Scopes explained that he foresaw a need for an attorney who could meet and match Bryan’s larger-than-life personality. “It was going to be a down-in-the-mud fight,” he wrote, “and I felt the situation demanded an Indian fighter rather than someone who graduated from the proper military academy.”
With Bryan and Darrow both involved, the case escalated into a debate of major significance. The Scopes trial was the first event ever broadcast to a national audience via live radio feed.
It was Bryan who called the Scopes trial “a duel to the death,” declaring that Christianity and evolution could never be compatible. Darrow replied with equal vehemence. He joined Scopes’s defense team, he said in his autobiography, because “there was no limit to the mischief that might be accomplished unless the country was aroused to the evil at hand.”
Evil atheists, evil fundamentalists, both trying to win the hearts and minds of innocent high schoolers. This is the image of the Scopes trial that endures, and rightly so. The seven-day case included its share of dull litigation, but those who sought to keep a measure of civility in the proceedings failed dismally. Seven lawyers and Tennessee’s attorney general for Dayton’s district sat at the prosecution’s table. The defense brought four notable litigators. The sides bickered back and forth, the prosecution making much of the “big city” composition of Scopes’s team, the defense arguing that their towns of origin were irrelevant in a case with national implications. Both sides resented the local attorney general, who wanted to keep the proceedings within the narrow confines of Scopes’s misdemeanor offense. The only passive observer, John T. Scopes, sat baffled by the uproar he’d unleashed.
Inside the packed courtroom the stifling heat inveighed against formality. Darrow stripped to a white shirt and a pair of gaudy, out-of-style lavender suspenders. Bryan worked his palm-leaf fan relentlessly. The judge worried that the combined weight of the spectators could cause the floor to collapse. He warned the viewers not to overreact to the proceedings. But the partisan crowd ignored him, applauding at will.
Outside, a carnival atmosphere enveloped Dayton, even though the estimated crowd of 30,000 never materialized. A Hollywood animal trainer brought a chimp named Joe Mendi for photo opportunities. Large, gaudy banners in view of the courthouse read: “READ YOUR BIBLE,” and “HELL AND THE HIGH SCHOOL.” Preachers offered prayers, pro-evolutionists engaged in debates, and the local drugstore hawked Cokes under a sign that read: “WHERE IT ALL BEGAN.”
The legal wrangling centered on the constitutionality of the indictment and the admissibility of expert witnesses by the defense. Never mind that: The world waited to hear Darrow and Bryan in their duel. They obliged.
Darrow fired the first shot. In the trial’s third day, he hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and proceeded to call the Butler Act “foolish, mischievous, and wicked.” He was particularly concerned about the act’s legacy. “If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in private schools…. At the next session, you may ban books and newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one, you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always they are feeding and gloating for more…. After awhile, your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed, until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backwards to the glorious days of the 16th century when bigots fired fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.”
Two afternoons later, in a battle to exclude testimony by the witnesses Darrow had assembled from the fields of biology, zoology, philosophy, and theology, Bryan took his turn on the soapbox. The three-time Democratic nominee for president (in 1896, 1900, 1908) was a staunch populist. Nicknamed “The Great Commoner,” he had crusaded for organized labor, for currency standards that favored the middle and lower classes, for women’s suffrage, and for Prohibition. On the fifth day of the Scopes trial he applied his campaign slogan, “Shall the People Rule,” to the situation at hand.
“The parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by their money shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their homes, skeptical, infidels, or agnostics, or atheists,” Bryan said. “The people of this state passed this law. The people of this state knew what they were doing when they passed the law and they knew the dangers of the doctrine so that they did not want it taught to their children…. It isn’t proper to bring experts in here to try to defeat the purpose of the people of this state by trying to show that this thing that they denounce and outlaw is a beautiful thing that everybody ought to believe in.”
Bryan could not resist playing to the national audience. “My friends,” he intoned, “no court of law, and no jury, great or small, is going to destroy the issue between the believer and the unbeliever. The Bible is the word of God; the Bible is the only expression of man’s hope of salvation. The Bible, the record of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, born of the virgin Mary, crucified and risen again. The Bible is not going to be driven out of this court by experts who come hundreds of miles to testify that they can reconcile evolution, with its ancestor in the jungle, with man made by God in his image, and put here for purposes as part of the divine plan.”
The Great Commoner would have been better served to argue in favor of including the experts. The American radio audience would have quickly grown tired of hours of turgid scientific and philosophical testimony. But that was not to be. Instead Bryan faced public humiliation, first by a lone orator named Dudley Field Malone and then by Darrow.
Malone is practically lost to history, sadly, because his speech for intellectual freedom served as a small oasis of rationality in the storm of overblown rhetoric. Even then the audience must have been disappointed when this wealthy Paris-based divorce lawyer, whose suffragette wife registered in the hotel under her maiden name, rose to rebut Bryan. No one knew Dudley Field Malone – except for William Jennings Bryan. Malone had worked for Bryan while Bryan served as secretary of state in the Wilson administration.
Malone removed his suit coat for the first time in the trial and proceeded to shred Bryan, not with Darrow’s dire predictions of medieval stake burnings, but rather with simple logic. Calling Bryan “my old chief and friend,” Malone praised Bryan’s adherence to the Bible. Malone reminded the judge that, nevertheless, only certain theologians, not all theologians, believed in the literal truth of Genesis as set forth in the Bible. Which theologians were right? Would all Christian theologians ever agree? “If we depended on the agreement of theologians, we would all be infidels,” he said.
Malone proceeded to make a compelling case for the co-existence of religious sentiment and scientific progress. He invited his listeners to keep their Bibles as a consolation, as a matter of “individual judgment” and conscience. Then, most effectively, he argued for the future of America’s children, those same students who Bryan predicted would go home and belittle the Old Time Religion.
“We have no fears for the young people of America,” Malone said. “They are a pretty smart generation … pretty wise.” He added: “We have just had a war with twenty million dead. Civilization is not so proud of the work of the adults. Civilization need not be so proud of what the grown-ups have done. For God’s sake let the children have their minds kept open – close no doors to their knowledge; shut no door from them. Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both…. Let them both live.”
Before Malone spoke, neither side had given the youth of America much credit for being able to form their own opinions, in conformance with their individual consciences. Suddenly, legislation based upon the fear of corruption of young minds seemed silly. Ignorant. Backward. But Malone never used those words. Instead he evoked the specter of World War I, insisted that a new generation could do better if armed with accumulated scientific knowledge. Why close any door? Let each individual choose. Malone continued: “We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence.”
Malone’s speech deflated Bryan and set the stage for the drubbing Bryan would take at Darrow’s hands on Monday, July 20, 1925. The heat was so intense that day that the judge re-convened court on the lawn outside. Deprived by court order of his expert witnesses, Darrow called Bryan to the stand as a defense witness and “expert on the Bible.”
Bryan leaped at the challenge. “The Great Commoner” asked the judge if he would be able to examine Darrow the same way the following day and was told he could.
It had been decades since Bryan practiced law. The weather continued to trouble him. He could not divine Darrow’s wily strategy, and he overruled the other prosecutors in their bid to stop him. He was too eager to defend his Good Book, too eager to argue that people should be more interested “in the Rock of Ages than the ages of rocks.”
What followed on that hot afternoon proved humiliating for the cause of Christian fundamentalism. One sample from the trial transcript:
Darrow: You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?
Bryan: Yes sir.
Darrow: When was that flood?
Bryan: I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed….
Darrow: About 4004 BC?
Bryan: That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.
Darrow: That estimate is printed in the Bible?
Bryan: Everybody knows, at least, I think most of the people know, that was the estimate given.
Darrow: But what do you think that the Bible itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?
Bryan: I never made a calculation.
Darrow: A calculation from what?
Bryan: I could not say.
Darrow: From the generations of man?
Bryan: I would not want to say that.
Darrow: What do you think?
Bryan: I do not think about the things I don’t think about.
Darrow: Do you think about things you do think about?
Bryan: Well, sometimes.
Over the course of a hot afternoon, Bryan turned “I do not know” into almost a litany. Asked where Cain got his wife, Bryan responded: “I leave the agnostics to look for her.” Finally, as Darrow grilled him excessively on the beginning of Genesis, Bryan made his fatal error. Asked if he thought the earth was created in six days, Bryan replied: “Not six days of 24 hours.”
With one phrase Bryan repudiated his fundamentalist following and cast doubts on the validity of the Butler Act. He went on to defend the idea that the earth may have undergone “periods” that could have been of indeterminate length – perhaps as much as 600 million years apiece. Yet, as Darrow charitably pointed out, Bryan’s own Bible included the calculations of an Irish theologian named Bishop James Ussher, who used the Old Testament to calculate the precise date upon which God created the earth: October 23, 4004 BC. Ussher specifically acceded no more than 24 hours to any of the six days of creation.
Shortly thereafter, Darrow drew his last blood by asking Bryan how the serpent in the Garden of Eden had walked before it tempted Eve. Bryan exploded, accusing Darrow of using a Tennessee courtroom to grandstand for his atheism.
Darrow replied, with equal vitriol: “I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!”
The situation threatened to come to blows. The judge adjourned.
The following morning, Darrow asked the Scopes jury to render a guilty verdict, which they did. Darrow, the seasoned lawyer, knew that he had this trump card in his hand. It squashed Bryan’s opportunity to cross-examine anyone or to deliver his carefully-crafted summation speech. Guilty as charged, case closed.
Today, especially given the glossy productions of Inherit the Wind, the Scopes trial is seen as a victory for scientific study and individual freedom of the mind. But in 1925, public sentiment leaned toward Bryan, and not just among his followers in the Bible Belt. Darrow overreached. His dire predictions of Protestant against Protestant, his scorn for “fool ideas” and “mischievous” legislation sounded pompous and cynical. If anything, Darrow solidified the resolve of fundamentalist voters and legislators, while leaving a sour taste in the mouths of America’s middle-of-the road Christians.
Darrow’s tactics seemed all the more cruel when Bryan died just six days after the trial ended. Thwarted in the Scopes courtroom, Bryan became a martyr to his fundamentalist cause. Ironically, he died in Dayton, having returned to give that unused summation speech at an evening church service. The New York Times printed the speech verbatim.
Scopes’s appeal ended when the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality. No other teacher stepped forward to challenge the Butler Act. In short order, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi passed anti-evolution legislation. These laws stayed on the books for decades, right through the Cold War and the space race. Tennessee ultimately repealed the Butler Act in 1967. An Arkansas school teacher challenged her state’s law, and it was deemed unconstitutional by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1968.
Were we made, or did we just happen? Over the last 40 years this question has been revived with subtler tactics. Entities such as Seattle’s Discovery Institute recruit credible scientists who continue to demonize Darwin while searching, in vain, for acceptable, peer-reviewed evidence that something, somewhere, could not have been formed through the process of natural selection. Seeking legitimacy, the Discovery Institute and other fundamentalist-funded think tanks spin their messages in an effort to avoid the Darrow/Bryan dichotomy. Their buzz words — “teach the controversy,” “intelligent design,” “sudden emergence” — suggest that American students aren’t getting the full picture, that they’re being duped by subversive and bigoted scientists. Federal courts have not been sympathetic to this agenda, but the public is listening. A March 2006 Gallup poll found that the nation is evenly split on the issue of human origins. Fifty percent of modern Americans believe in evolution, 50 percent don’t.
At Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, undergraduates can minor in “origins studies.” More than 80 years after his death, Bryan’s name is still allied with a faction in the American populace, growing in numbers and political clout, who seek to advance his agenda. If the Book of Genesis said that the moon laid the stars like a frog lays its eggs, these modern standard-bearers for the Old Time Religion would search for scientific proof that “of course it could be done.” • 6 August 2007
Anne Janette Johnson is the author of Defining Moments: The Scopes Monkey Trial, Omnigraphics Press, 2006. She writes daily on issues pertaining to the separation of church and state at her web site godsrbored.blogspot.com.