Science Friday, Scopes Trial 75th Anniversary, part 1

Ira Flatow with Ed Larson

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Today is the 75th anniversary of the day a Tennessee jury, after deliberating for nine minutes, handed John Scopes a guilty verdict. The crime: violating Tennessee’s law that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. That trial was by no means the end of the story, as we know, but the trial and a movie, “Inherit the Wind,” did help shape public opinion about teaching evolution in public schools.

First up this hour, we’re going to talk about the scientific climate in the days leading up to the trial, and the trial itself. And you’re going to be surprised at how different it actually was from the movie. And then we’ll spend the rest of the hour talking about the evolution vs. creation debate, and the intelligent design, a concept that has eclipsed scientific creationism in the creation evolution debate. So if you’d like to talk about it, we’d love to hear from you. Our number is 1 (800) 9898255; 1 (800) 989TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at to find links to our topic this hour.

I want to introduce my first guest. Edward J. Larson is the author of the Pulitzer Prizewinning “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion,” published by Harvard University Press. Dr. Larson is professor of history and law, University of Georgia in Athens. He joins by phone today.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Larson.

Dr. EDWARD J. LARSON (Professor, Georgia University; Author, “Summer for the Gods”): Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Do you think people have gotten the wrong impression about that trial from the movie?

Dr. LARSON: Well, they get a different impression. The movie I had the good fortune to be able to meet and work with both Jerome Lawrence and Bob Lee, the writers of the play, in preparing my book. And as they were always candid from the very beginning, they weren’t writing a play about the Scopes trial; they were writing a play about McCarthyism. It was written during the period of the black listing of authors and playwrights, indeed, actually, some blacklisted playwrights helped in writing it. And they were just projecting back much as was done with “The Crucible,” by Arthur Miller, projecting back to another event, and then making a play About try to expose, really, how awful McCarthyism was. And so it’s a wonderful play, but it tells you about the ’50s, not the ’20s.

FLATOW: So what was the trial really like, in terms of flavor and atmosphere and what was being done there vs. what we saw in the movie?

Dr. LARSON: Well, the movies tries to create the image in fact, they say right in the movie that the crowd has to be always looming there; this ominous crowd being manipulated by a, you know, demagogue. And that’s the sinister image it creates. Actually, Dayton wait was like a circus. It was a publicity stunt. It wasn’t a mob motivated event. Scopes was not a victim; he was a willing volunteer.

What had happened is that Tennessee had outlawed the teaching of human evolution. I mean, that was the real story. It wasn’t the indictment of John Scopes. The real story was that Tennessee had passed a law outlawing the teaching of evolution. Out in east Tennessee, in the rising hill country of east Tennessee, Dayton was a small town with no ties to the Democratic administration that ran Tennessee at that time. And so they thought, almost on a lark, to test the law because the ACLU had issued an announcement that they would give a high profile defense talking about people like Charles Evans Hughes coming into defend any school teacher in the state willing to challenge the constitutionality of the law. And Dayton thought that was a wonderful time to get some attention for their town.

Actually, the idea was concocted by an opponent of the law; a person who thought the law was just dang stupid. The lead prosecutor, Tom Stewart, thought it was a dumb law as well, but he thought it was the law and it was his duty to enforce. And so what you had was sort of a festival atmosphere where it wasn’t the town that was looming there; it was the press that was looming everywhere. Hundreds of reporters came in. It was the first broadcast trial; broadcast live over the radio. It was also…

FLATOW: So it was a hyped up media event.

Dr. LARSON: It was like the Simpson trial of the ’20s. The ’20s…


Dr. LARSON: …was a sensation loving decade, and this was billed as the trial of the century before it even began. And wonderful reporters, like H.L. Mencken and Joseph Wood Crutch, went down to cover it. It was all filmed, and films were flown out of Dayton and it was shown in movie houses around the country.

And John Scopes was never threatened with he was never jailed. He was never ostracized. He wasn’t even threatened to lose his job. The law called for a small monetary fine, which many people, including the prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, offered to pay on his behalf if he was convicted.

FLATOW: So it was basically a cooperative effort on everybody’s part just to test the law out.

Dr. LARSON: To test the law. Originally, the town had PR in mind, and sort of summer fun. Scopes truly opposed the law, but he wasn’t a biology teacher. He hadn’t ever violated the law. He…

FLATOW: He was not a biology teacher.

Dr. LARSON: No, he was a football coach.

FLATOW: He was…

Dr. LARSON: But you don’t need a real biology teacher to do a test case.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: And he did think the law was dang stupid, no question about that. He probably even thought it wasevil might be a little strong for his views.


Dr. LARSON: The ACLU brought down crack lawyers. And then it really even expanded beyond what was envisioned when William Jennings Bryan, the three time Democratic Party nominee for president, the legendary speaker, when he volunteered to assist the prosecution. And basically his intent in doing so was make sure they really defended the law and didn’t just sort of roll over dead for the ACLU.

FLATOW: You write in your book “Summer for the Gods” you have a quote about William Jennings Bryan, why he objected so much to the Darwinian theory. And it wasn’t so much the exact idea of evolution itself, but you quote him as saying, “Because I fear we shall lose the consciousness of God’s presence in our daily lives if they accept that.”

Dr. LARSON: That was certainly one of his prime motivations. He was not truly a biblical literalist as he testified on the stand. He said he thought the days of creation and the Genesis story symbolized long of periods of time, but he was certainly an Orthodox Christian on the conservative side. And he deeply believed that God created humans. He wasn’t too sure about the animals and everything else and he didn’t really care about them. His point was that humans were created, so he did believe that on a religious basis. He’d read some scientific opponents of the theory, like Louie Agassis from Harvard back he was then, you know, long dead, but he’d opposed Darwinism in the previous century, as had some others. So he had he didn’t accept it scientifically or religiously.

But really, what got him fighting, and what he said got him fighting, was social Darwinism; the fact that some militarists, some capitalists, some imperialists, were justifying their activities publicly on a survival of the fittest type thinking as applied to humans. That is human society; that the fittest should prevail. And there were a whole variety of what would we’d call conservative activities, but most prominent then was World War I and the robber barons, who were saying, ‘Well, science justifies what we’re doing.’ And William Jennings Bryan had long opposed the capitalists, the imperialists, the militarists. He had resigned as secretary of State in protest of World War I. And so that really got him going.

Now, granted, he had his religious presuppositions, but he plugged those into seeing the dangers of social Darwinism, and that got him fighting. He didn’t think that schools should teach as true the Darwinian theory of human evolution. Now, he didn’t really oppose other theories very much, but the Darwinian theory; that shouldn’t be taught as true in public schools because it would encourage acceptance in social Darwinism. At least, that’s what he figured, and that’s what he said publicly.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LARSON: And that’s how he rallied people to his side on this cause.

FLATOW: Because survival of the fittest encourages war, it encourages people to just, you know, not care about their neighbor. It just violates all the tenets of any way that we should be living, right?

Dr. LARSON: Well, that’s the way he interpreted it.


Dr. LARSON: And there are people who use it that way. And there are still politicians who use it that way. Now, of course, other politicians don’t, and many leading Darwinists, like Ed Wilson, totally repudiate those ideas. But there was enough that Bryan could bring plenty of anecdotal evidence to his speeches.

FLATOW: What got us to that point? Why did they decide at that time in history to test the case? What was the events leading up to that?

Dr. LARSON: Well, there were developments on a variety of fronts. And I suppose they all sort of coalesce together into the brew that was the Scopes trial. Certainly one was an increased appreciation of, and following for, human evolution. Scientists had accepted evolution for decades, but it was hitting the people’s attention a lot more because of discoveries of humanoid fossils, such as in Africa. And they seemed to be filling in the so called missing link in the fossil record between animals and humans.

Now, the opponents of evolution had long used those missing links to say, ‘Well, you can’t really believe this stuff.’ And when they began to find what looked like missing links, and when the press started making front page announcements of discoveries of the missing link, especially the missing link connecting primates to humans, that made the issue seem more pressing. But then there were a variety of mundane coincidental causes, such as the simple fact that, really, much before 1920 most kids didn’t go to high school. There really wasn’t effective compulsory attendance, especially in the South, but there weren’t many high schools before 1900.

And so what you have in the 1920s is a spread of compulsory education where children of a broad range of Americans are now being forced to go to high school. And if their parents had objected to evolution all along, it never really mattered what was happening in high school. Their kids only went to elementary school. And, of course, you don’t cover evolution there; you don’t get that far. So it was impacting more people. You have this rise in fossil evidence, or what appeared to be fossil evidence for human evolution, putting the issue right at home. And then you have a revival of conservative Christianity in America as a reaction to modernism.

And then in the middle of it, you get William Jennings Bryan, the great orator, the powerful speaker, and not known as a conservative, suddenly championing, along with a whole variety of liberal causes like women’s suffrage, starts championing antievolutionism. That made a lot of people rethink the issue. And somehow, it concocted into an explosion that was the antievolution crusade.

FLATOW: And I guess that when people were realizing that their kids were going to be taught something in high school now, they wanted to make sure that evolution didn’t get the sole voice there.

Dr. LARSON: Well, yeah. What they wanted, what Bryan called for was just not covering the topic of origins. He believed that it would violate establishment of religious freedom to teach biblical creationism in the public schools. It was not being taught. The people were not teaching biblical creationism. So he wanted to basically not teach the other side. Now that’s a fairly repressive viewpoint. It wants to keep everything out. I don’t know. I mean, you know, there may or may not be a lot of following for that today, but that was the viewpoint back then. ‘Let’s just leave this controversial issue out of the public schools.’

And that made it a good target for people like the ACLU, people concerned with academic freedom and free speech. That made it, really, an electric target for them to aim at; that here was somebody, here was a movement, trying to repress a knowledge to basically wipe out an area of knowledge, that is subject of origins, from the public schools, and, therefore, they could draw a whole new world of followers to their side. It was a tremendous case for the American Civil Liberties Union. It really put them on the map as rather than a radical organization, as a mainstream organization. It got followers in the scientific community…

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. LARSON: …and among the middle of the American cultural elite to back them…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LARSON: …really for the first time.

FLATOW: All right. I’m talking with Edward Larson, author of “Summer for the Gods.” We’re going to come back after this short break and talk lots more about the creation evolution debate, so don’t go away. We’ll be right back.

I’m Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)


We’re talking this hour about the Scopes trial, it’s the 75th anniversary of that decision, and the history of teaching evolution in this country with my guest Ed Larson, author of “Summer for the Gods,” published by Harvard University Press.

Ed, is it really true they took just nine minutes to did they even leave the room when they debated this?

Dr. LARSON: Well, the only reason it took nine minutes was they had to weave their way out of the crowd the 500 people400, 500 people crowded into the courtroom. It wouldn’t have taken them even that long. They never made it to the jury room. They finally just stopped in the hallway. Actually, it could be so quick because Clarence Darrow, the lead attorney for Scopes, asked them to convict Scopes; the reason was, was because they had tried during the trial to get the trial court to declare the law unconstitutional. When they failed at that, they wanted a conviction for Scopes. The last thing they wanted was jury nullification because they wanted to test the law.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LARSON: And the only way they could appeal the law on up to get it tested in the Tennessee Supreme Court and then maybe the United States Supreme Court was to get a conviction. So he asked them to convict Scopes. They never challenged whether or not Scopes had ever taught evolution. He actually hadn’t. That’s why he could never take the stand, because he hadn’t taught it. But they sort of conceded that. They tried to concede it. And they had a couple of schoolchildren who went on the stand, and the only reason they could testify honestly that Scopes had taught them evolution was that they took the kids out in a car during the preparation for the trial, and had Scopes tell them about evolution in the car, so they could say, ‘Yeah, he taught us about evolution.’

FLATOW: This whole thing was just a show trial. I mean…

Dr. LARSON: Yes, it was a show…

FLATOW: Your defense lawyer asks the jury to convict your client.

Dr. LARSON: And the prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, had offered to pay the fine.

FLATOW: You make up some way that the teacher in a car could make believe he’s teaching, so he could be then convicted of something you want him to be convicted of.

Dr. LARSON: They wanted to test the law. What the ACLU wanted to try, wanted to put on trial, was not John Scopes. They wanted to put the law on trial. And that’s what they did.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. So the law’s on trial. Did it have any practical effect, if they weren’t teaching it, if the football coach wasn’t even teaching it in school?

Dr. LARSON: Well, it might have had practical effect. What actually happened in the history of the law was then it’s appealed up to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which is a political elected body. And William Jennings Bryan had died during this time in the intervening period. And so they made a deft political move. They upheld the statute, but they overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality in sentencing, which wasn’t even raised by either the defense, of course, because they didn’t want it overturned on a technicality, so it was an issue that had not even been raised. They overturned it on their own motion on a technicality. And then went ahead on in their decision to direct the prosecutor not to reindict Scopes. And then they went on to direct all the prosecutors of the state, to quote, “save the peace and dignity of the state by never bringing an indictment under the statute ever again,” and none ever was.

FLATOW: So it sort of fell out the whole debate sort of fell out of vogue after a while.

Dr. LARSON: Yeah, it certainly fell out of law.


Dr. LARSON: It wasn’t a legal issue. The antievolution laws did not get back to the courts until the 1960sWhat would that be?30 years later. And…

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. LARSON: Probably adding that wrong. It’s probably 40 years later. And it didn’t get back in until the interpretation of the Constitution had changed, and then it was struck then those laws were struck down as unconstitutional under sort of a new reinterpretation of the application of the law. But it wasn’t challenged as if it was enforced. It was brought there was the ACLU brought a declaratory judgment action against a similar law in Arkansas, so they antievolution laws are now unconstitutional, but it wasn’t directly because of Scopes.

FLATOW: And was it the movie that brought it back, “Inherit the Wind,” in the…

Dr. LARSON: Actually, what brought it back was Scopes’ autobiography. In 1965, I believe it was, Scopes wrote his autobiography. That would be five years after the movie, 10 years after the play. And the autobiography raised the whole issue again. And one of the newspapers in Tennessee, in Memphis, sort of picked up the issue, as sort of in honor of Scopes, let’s get this statute repealed, and that got the whole thing churning again. And Tennessee repealed its statute, and Arkansas took its statute to court, and that was the end of them. Otherwise, people had pretty well forgotten about the law even existed.

FLATOW: Yeah. Will you stay with us? Because I want to bring on a couple more guests.

Dr. LARSON: I’d be happy to.