The legend of the Scopes trial.

The history behind current events.
Sept. 8 2005 7:25 AM

The Legend of the Scopes Trial

Science didn't really win.

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The trial of the century

This has been the summer of "intelligent design." In August, President Bush endorsed this revamped version of creationism, and this week a Pew Forum poll found that fewer than half of Americans accept Darwin's theory of evolution. This widespread rejection of seemingly established truths has shocked many observers. After all, didn't the Scopes trial resolve this 80 years ago?

The anniversary of the "Monkey Trial" provides an occasion to remember that it didn't really settle what we assume it settled. Popular memory of the trial, reinforced by the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, made it seem that evolution was triumphant and fundamentalism vanquished, but in fact the result was much more ambiguous. Anti-Darwinism didn't die in Dayton, Tenn., in July 1925—it just retreated temporarily from the national scene, to which it has now returned.

Like the 1960s, the 1920s witnessed a series of culture wars. After decades in which liberalism and science had gained popular acceptance, a backlash arrived in the '20s. A revived Ku Klux Klan swelled to 5 million members. Feminism, having secured women's suffrage, stalled. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, prohibited the sale of alcohol. Congress restricted the immigration of peoples deemed undesirable.

Evolution marked another front in these fights. Although Darwin's theories had met fierce resistance when first proposed in 1859, in time they secured general approval. Even many Christian leaders, once hostile to evolution, endorsed the theory—one of several trends that split many Protestant denominations into modern (or liberal) and fundamentalist camps. "By the time of World War I," wrote the historian William Leuchtenberg, "an attack on Darwin seemed as unlikely as an attack on Copernicus."

But attack the fundamentalists did. Advocating a literal reading of the book of Genesis, they attained political power in many states, particularly in the rural South and Great Plains. In Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, they passed laws forbidding the teaching of evolution.

In Tennessee, the recently formed American Civil Liberties Union recruited teachers to challenge the so-called Butler Act, which banned teaching "any theory that denies the story of divine creation of man as taught in the Bible." John T. Scopes, a slight, sandy-haired 24-year-old biology instructor at Central High School in Dayton, volunteered. Scopes, reported to the police by a friend for his transgression and promptly arrested, with the help of the ACLU retained a trio of eminent lawyers, including Clarence Darrow (whose recent defense of the brutal child-killers Leopold and Loeb hardly endeared him to pious Tennesseans). Aiding the prosecution was the thrice-failed Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a leader in the anti-evolution movement, who promised a "duel to the death."

And so in July 1925 the Monkey Trial became a national obsession and a media circus. Partisans and reporters invaded Dayton. Horse-drawn carriages, mule-led wagons, and Model T Fords choked the small town's narrow streets. Owners of chimpanzees and monkeys hurried downtown for photo opportunities, while flappers sparked a short-lived fashion trend by donning simian stoles. Radio, rapidly spreading into American homes, brought the trial to people's firesides, and newsreels showed it to moviegoers.

In the courtroom, Scopes never stood a chance: He had broken the law. Instead, the ACLU hoped to send the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the law's constitutionality. The real fight in Dayton was for public opinion.

The trial's turning point came when, in an unorthodox move, Scopes' lawyers got Bryan to take the stand. Darrow declared that he intended to "prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States." Darrow quizzed Bryan on his beliefs, humiliating the onetime hero. Bryan confessed that he believed in the literal truth of such biblical tales as Joshua making the sun stop in the sky, while also conceding, contradictorily, that scriptural passages could be interpreted as metaphorical. The crowd roared with laughter at his confused answers. (In a sad coda, Bryan fulfilled his promise of a duel to the death, succumbing to a fatal heart attack five days after the verdict.)

Bryan's faltering performance—along with the withering reportage of critics like H.L. Mencken, who mocked Dayton's "yokels" and "hookworm carriers"—caused the trial to be seen, simplistically, as a battle between enlightened science and backward religion. In this telling, Scopes technically lost but science and cosmopolitanism actually won. For although the case never reached the U.S. Supreme Court—the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on a technicality—federal jurisprudence embraced the idea that evolution was fact, worthy of teaching in public schools, and creationism was religion, unfit for the science classroom.

Science certainly appeared victorious. After the trial, a slew of states rejected anti-evolution laws while only a couple dared pass them. Collective memory enshrined the episode, particularly Darrow's rout of Bryan, as a victory for free speech over censorship, of reason over faith, of the modern over the primitive. The 1955 play and 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, with their black-and-white depictions of the good guys and bad guys, further inscribed this interpretation of the trial.

In fact, fundamentalist disbelief in Darwin did not vanish, as Edward J. Larson has made clear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods. Many conservative Christians assumed they had prevailed at Dayton. While liberalism ascended in the public sphere, fundamentalism withdrew into local pockets and private subcultures where it thrived. Christian presses churned out anti-evolution books and pamphlets. Ministers warned their flocks of Darwin's folly. In Dayton, fundamentalists established Bryan College "based upon unequivocal acceptance of the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures."

Indeed, large numbers of Americans continued to doubt Darwin and subscribe to literal readings of the Bible, some quite passionately. Anti-evolution sentiment was sufficiently strong in enough regions of the country to lead many biology-textbook writers to paint Darwin's teachings as less definitive than they are. Even George W. Hunter modified his Civic Biology—the book from which Scopes had feloniously taught—to make it palatable to scriptural literalists.

Yet for decades historians, national reporters, and educators failed to notice these subcultures or credit their numbers. Reviewing the film Inherit the Wind, the New Republic wrote, "The Monkey Trial is now a historical curiosity, and it can be made truly meaningful only by treating it as the farce that it was." "Today," echoed the historian Richard Hofstadter in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), "the evolution controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era to intellectuals of the East."

As Hofstadter was writing those words, however, fundamentalists began to end their voluntary exile from the national culture. Disturbed by relaxed sexual standards and social codes, and angered by Supreme Court rulings limiting the government's entanglement with religion—including Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), or "Scopes II," which finally ruled anti-evolution laws unconstitutional—they enlisted en masse in the burgeoning conservative movement.

By the 1970s, conservative Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye had built powerful political armies that helped elect Ronald Reagan president and put evolution and creationism back on the political agenda. Reagan supported the teaching of creationism in public schools (as did Bush in his 2000 campaign). Like the recent Pew poll, a 1982 Gallup survey found the public "about evenly divided" between Darwinists and creationists. In 1983 Steven Jay Gould wrote that "sadly, any hope that the issues of the Scopes trial had been banished to the realm of nostalgic Americana have been swept aside by our current creationist resurgence."

Today, a debate is occurring about whether intelligent design represents a significant variation on the version of "creation science" that fundamentalists and other evangelical Christians began embracing in the 1960s (explained in the New Republic by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne). To my mind, Coyne, Bob Wright in Slate, and others have persuasively shown that intelligent design contains no significant changes from "creation science" except its success at gaining a hearing in the mainstream media.

Either way, however, believers in science are now wondering how the rejection of Darwinian evolution, once presumed to be discredited, keeps returning to claim a place in high-school biology classrooms and in popular thinking. The answer is that we're in thrall to the powerful legend of the Scopes trial. For anti-Darwinist beliefs aren't returning; they've just never gone away.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.