The Monkey Trial

Evolution and religion went head-to-head in a landmark case of 1925.

In the stifling heat of a Bible Belt July a court is sitting in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 to try a young supply teacher called John Thomas Scopes, accused of teaching evolution in a local high school. Religion seems pitted here in a straight fight against science, the Bible v Darwin, and it has turned into one of the first modern media circuses. Over 200 journalists have come to cover the story, filing over 165,000 words a day, dispatched to their papers by telegraph. It is the first trial to be broadcast on national radio in the US and film footage of it is also regularly being flown out. The competition to catch the public eye is feverish and, if a fatuous photograph might do that, then OK. William Jennings Bryan, three times a presidential candidate, a fervent presbyterian and leading for the prosecution, has condemned evolution for teaching that humans are merely one of 35,000 types of mammal, descended 'not even from American monkeys but from old world ones'. America's most famous journalist, H.L. Mencken, has christened this the Monkey Trial, so the obvious next move is to set up a shot of Jock, the monkey, listening to it on the radio.

Once the background to the trial is examined, it emerges things were not quite what they seemed. Tennessee had indeed recently passed an act making it illegal to teach evolution in state schools, but the governor had signed it merely to get the rural vote and did not think it would be enforced. The primary motive of those pressing for the trial was to attract publicity to Dayton. The textbook, Civic Biology, from which Scopes was required to teach, covered evolution and endorsed it, too, though Scopes later said he was not even sure he had taught it to his class. However, he was prepared to go on trial encouraged by the American Civil Liberties Union and even urged his pupils to testify against him. The prosecution had the backing of the World Christian Fundamentals Association. Clarence Darrow, who led for the defence at the prompting of Mencken without charging a fee, had become famous across America the previous year when he got two Chicago teenagers, Leopold and Loeb, life rather than the electric chair, on a plea of insanity, after they had kidnapped and murdered a young neighbour.

When the judge ruled that Darrow's expert biblical witnesses were irrelevant, he sprang a surprise by calling Bryan himself as a witness and then attacking his literal interpretation of the Old Testament and ignorance of other religions. He was asked whether Eve was actually created from Adam's rib, where Cain's wife came from, had a whale actually swallowed Jonah. His answers to such questions showed plainly that he was not the full-blown fundamentalist his team took him to be. Scopes himself never testified because it was never an issue that he had taught evolution. He was found guilty, fined $100, then let off on a technicality, frustrating the Civil Liberties Union, which hoped to see the case ending up in the Supreme Court.

Fundamentalist anti-evolution rumbled on, though Bryan was not there to lead it: he died five days after the trial. It found a rival in the so-called Creation Science movement, which based itself on pseudo-science rather than religion. Then, in the 1950s, Soviet Russia's successful Sputnik satellites set off a scare that the US was falling behind in scientific studies. The National Defence Education Act was passed and new textbooks were published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which stressed the importance of evolution. Tennessee's act was eventually repealed in 1967, after the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the Constitution's prohibition of the establishment of religion. Mencken can have the last word: 'It is hard for the ape to believe that he is descended from man.'

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week