Monkey Trials, Past and Present

Monkey Trials, Past and Present

Contrary to nearly universal expectation, the suit against the State of California’s Board of Education by Kelly Segraves, a fundamentalist foe of evolution, did not turn into a repeat performance of the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. Nevertheless, systematic comparison of the two proceedings is useful. Their differences highlight the ways in which fundamentalism has evolved, so to speak, since the 1920s.

Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was a model of what a trial ought not to be. The chief prosecutor wanted simply to show that John Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, had violated the Butler Act, which banned from public schools “any theory” contrary to the “story of Creation as taught in the Bible.” But the volunteer assistant prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, preferred to put evolution itself on trial. Defense counsel, led by the agnostic Clarence Darrow, eagerly obliged. Barred from bringing expert witnesses to demonstrate that evolution was sound science and not necessarily incompatible with Christianity, Scopes’s lawyers called Bryan to testify as an authority on Scripture. Under Darrow’s examination, he wavered between endorsements of biblical literalism and concessions that the six “days” of creation might have lasted millions of years. Scopes, almost lost in the scuffle, was convicted and fined $100.

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Duggan | University of California Press Gardels