Ten years ago on May 10, the World of Warcraft shared its greatest gift with the rest of the world and its most devoted players and non-players alike guffawed as one in an instant acceptance of one of the Internet’s most memorable moments in viral video. However, not everything is so quickly universally received and loved as Leeroy was. 90 years ago, on May 5, 1925, a substitute science teacher named John Scopes was charged for violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, a law that prohibited teaching the theory of evolution. What followed was one of the most memorable court trials in American history and showcased the debate between science and religion over answering the question of our origin as humans – a debate that for a very godly reason still rages today in some places.
What is quite interesting and not commonly discussed is how exactly Scopes came to be the man in the mix of the trial. In reaction to the Butler Act being passed in Tennessee, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sought a teacher who was willing to be tried for teaching evolution in order to attempt to have the law repealed. The man credited with selecting the man and the town this trial took place in was George Rappleyea, an engineer who ran a coal company in Dayton, Tennessee. In addition to being a proponent of the theory of evolution, he felt that it was hypocritical for the state to forbid teaching evolution but require teachers to use science textbooks that clearly supported the theory. Rappleyea apparently called up the school superintendent whose name was – I shit you not – Walter White, and an attorney in favor of the law, Sue Kerr Hicks, who, according to legend, inspired Shel Silverstein to write the song “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. (In truth, Sue was named after his mother who died from giving birth to him, and he thought it was funny that he was best remembered not for his hundreds of other cases but for the song based on his name.) Rappleyea met with these two to encourage bringing the trial to Dayton, and he did it with some cocky flair too. Rappleyea pitched having the trial in their town and challenged them to prove their stance by saying, “As it is, the law is not enforced. If you win, it will be enforced. If I win, the law will be repealed. We’re game, aren’t we?”
So George Rappleyea got the wheels moving on the trial to challenge Tennessee’s anti-evolution law and just needed someone to be the center of it. He and his two partners in arguing if evolution was a crime picked John Scopes as the justice guinea pig as he had discussed the evolution chapter in G.W. Hunter’s Civic Biology textbook. Scopes agreed to stand trial and even encouraged his students to testify against him. So began the trial that would serve as the great clash of judiciary titans of the times fighting for their beliefs and what they felt should be taught to Tennessee’s youth.
In the prosecution’s corner stood William Jennings Bryan, a former Secretary of State for the US under Woodrow Wilson, a representative from Nebraska, and all-around respected orator and champion for those faithful to God. While I definitely don’t share his opinion of Charles Darwin, I respect Bryan for his love for peace and the people of the United States who he devoted his life to serve, earning him the nickname “The Great Commoner”.
On the opposite side of the ring was Clarence Darrow, a famed lawyer and leader of the ACLU who amongst his many other trials had made a name for himself nationally thanks to his defense of Leopold and Loeb, two University of Chicago students who killed a 14 year old to try to commit the “perfect crime” (probably not the best case to defend for), and also for defending the self-defense plea of Detroit doctor Ossian Sweet, a black man who was attacked by a gang trying to scare him out of the white neighborhood he had recently moved into.
These men weren’t the only ones lending their legal services to one side or the other (Bryan wasn’t even the lead for the prosecution), but they were the real draw for most around the nation who listened to the trial as it took place via radio broadcast.
The stage was set when The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, often referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, got underway. Scopes was arrested, yet never saw any jail time, thanks in part to Paul Patterson, the owner of the progressive newspaper The Baltimore Sun, who paid his bail. The trial he voluntarily offered himself up as the defendant for took an interesting turn when Darrow opted change the focus from the unfairness of the Butler Act to a challenge of Creationism. He really made waves when he called Bryan as a witness to show how silly some of the stories in the Bible are. After a couple of hours of Sunday School review, the judge, John Raulston, determined that Darrow’s line of questioning was irrelevant and struck it from the record.
Darrow and the defense all but knew they weren’t going to win from the start and said about as much in the trial after Judge Raulston would not allow any evidence offered by the defense. Darrow urged the jury to enter in a “guilty” verdict merely so they could wrap up and take an appeal to the next level of the court system. And that’s just what happened. Scopes was fined the nominal sum of $100, but he never actually paid it as the verdict was later thrown out.
The Scopes Trial served as a pioneering case in the sentiment of religion versus science that was already spread throughout the country, and even though its verdict had no direct legal effect, it served as a symbolic starting point for numerous discourses that delved into the issue of how much of the Church should be allowed into the court and other American institutions like the education system.
The Scopes Trial was further popularized by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s play Inherit the Wind which was based off of the trial, but much in the same way that “A Boy Named Sue” is drawn upon Sue Hicks’ name, meaning that it was primarily just the spark that started the fire. The later film version of the same name (which was the first of a few versions), starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly, and directed by Stanley Kramer, took more influence from the actual happenings of the trial, but is still pumped up a bit for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, as a fellow defender of Darwin’s theory and a film fan, I highly recommend Inherit the Wind, especially to any other biology students and fans of courtroom dramas. Also Spencer Tracy kicks ass. Pixar doesn’t build a movie around a character based on just anybody.
The Rhea County Courthouse where the trial took place is now a National Landmark, and evolution is, for the most part, accepted and taught in schools in every state. I don’t know if there is a God, but I do know there is a well-researched and recorded fossil record and even recent and current observations of the process of evolution by means of natural selection occurring in nature. My first experience with the term may have come when my Caterpie became a Metapod, but I have seen and studied enough to know where I stand on the issue that shouldn’t be one, and I hope that you can observe the same data and reach that point on your own too.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed that tidbit of history. Remember to always question what you’ve been taught and what you’re learning, and that science is built upon what has been and continues to be questioned. Science is always being checked up on and often, ahem, evolving as what’s wrong is preened away in favor of what most appears to be right or at least not wrong yet. I offer you the opportunity to question me at firstname.lastname@example.org and encourage you to do it. While you’re at it, tell me what I should write about in the future.
Don’t hold down the B button on science,