1925 Monkey Trial Still With Us

July 23, 2000 -- Seventy-five years after the Scopes “Monkey Trial” dominated headlines nationwide, the debate over teaching evolution and creationism in public schools remains as robust as ever, say participants on both sides of the debate.

Looking back on 25 years of teaching biology to public high schools students in Kansas, Brad Williamson can’t recall even one year when a student failed to passionately argue against the theory of evolution — a theory the scientific community now accepts as fact, he said.

“There’s always a handful who like to argue the point,” Williamson says.

The point, to those students, is that evolution conflicts with what they believe is the true story of creation, the one outlined in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

The arguments “haven’t changed at all,” Williamson says. “There have been legal changes, but not psychological change. Just because you have a law that says you can’t teach creationism doesn’t mean you don’t believe it.”

Trial of the Century

For 15 days in July 1925, Americans and much of the rest of world hung on every report from the 100 newspapermen covering the Scopes trial, which some scholars call the trial of the century.

Throngs of people came to see the “greatest defense lawyer in the land,” Clarence Darrow, match legal wits with populist orator and three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

At the center of the storm was John T. Scopes, 24, a likable football coachand science teacher just a year out of the University of Kentuckywho violated a new Tennessee that made it illegal to teach evolution.

Scopes had volunteered to violate the anti-evolution statute as part of an attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to test the new law in court.

Explaining Life’s Origins

Evolution, as laid out by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book The Origin of Species, states that Earth is millions of years old. The book brought terms such as “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” into the vernacular. Today, most evolutionary biologists believe life came from nonliving matter and developed over millions of years.

Creationism teaches that Earth and most life forms came into existence by God’s will no more than 10,000 years ago, according to the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Many creationists today don’t take such a literal approach, but still refuse to accept that life could have come from nonliving matter rather than the will of God or an “intelligent designer.”

Darrow ended up losing the Scopes case. But two years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling on a technicality. The high court never addressed the larger issue of the banning of teaching evolution in the classroom.

It would be more than 40 years before the Tennessee Legislature would repeal its anti-evolution law and the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate state laws barring the teaching of evolution.

Testing the Legal Boundaries

Since the Scopes trial, courts and state legislatures have been testing the constitutional validity of teaching evolution in the classroom and whether it is appropriate to include creationism in a biology class.

During the 1970s and 1980s, more than 20 state legislatures introduced “equal time” bills requiring that creationism be taught with evolution. But only two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed such laws. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these laws were invalid because creationism was a religious concept and not a scientific one.

But just last year, the Kansas Board of Education told its schools to de-emphasizeDarwinism, and a Gallup Poll found that only 49 percent of Americans agree that mankind developed over millions of years through the process of natural selection.

Williamson, a teacher at Olathe East High School in Kansas, says his local school board has decided not to alter the science curriculum to meet the new state standards for fear the issue may divide the close-knit community.

“The state board is asking that something that isn’t science be brought into the classroom as science,” he says. “I think that’s the biggest threat of all. It’s important to treat each kid’s beliefs with a great deal of respect … but creationism does not belong in a science class or a science textbook.”

In June, the Supreme Court refused to let a Louisiana public school district require textbooks to carry a disclaimer mentioning the biblical version of creation and other teachings on life’s origin.

The decision did not set a precedent. The court simply decided to let lower-court rulings stand. The lower courts had struck down the disclaimer, saying creationism was a religious and not a scientific theory.

An Intelligent Designer

Philip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, is a proponent of the so-called intelligent design theory. He rejects evolution because, he says, we lack sufficient hard evidence to prove life came from nonliving material. He does not take the Bible literally and accepts that Earth is millions of years old. However, he adds, life is still the result of an “intelligent designer, what many people call God.”

“Evolution is still a theory,” Johnson says. “It’s not a fact and it should be taught as a the controversial theory it is. Science is about questioning things and we should question evolution.”

Although the Scopes trial had little legal impact during its time, over the decades it has become a tale of American legend, says Edward Larson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion.

“It’s probably the best-known trial in American history because it symbolizes so many things — the conflict between science and religion … and the specific debate of creation vs. evolution that continues with us to this day.”

But it is the myth of the trial that people recall, a myth Johnson says was created largely by the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, about a fictional trial based on the Scopes case.

“The trial itself had almost no impact at all. It was only overturned on a technicality because the judge in Dayton had fined Scopes $50 too much.” Johnson says.

“I think evolution is as much a religion as creationism,” he says. “I think we should add an ism to the end of evolution because I think they both require a certain amount of faith.”