This week marks the 95th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial — the most famous battle of the early 20th century between science and religious fundamentalism. The story is well told in Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account, “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion,” which is even more timely now than when it was published in 1997.
On July 10, 1925, high school science teacher John T. Scopes went on trial in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. While “Modernist” (liberal) Protestants and most Catholics and Jews had accepted evolution as a manifestation of God’s design, conservative evangelicals known as “fundamentalists” insisted that God had created the earth in six days and denied that mankind is related to monkeys. At the urging of the fundamentalists, Tennessee passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution. The prosecution of Scopes was a test case contrived by the town fathers of Dayton to put their sleepy burg on the map.
They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Two of the most famous orators in America volunteered to try the case — William Jennings Bryan, a former secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate for the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow, “attorney for the damned,” for the defense. About two hundred reporters flocked to Dayton to cover the carnival-like proceedings, which were broadcast on radio and filmed for newsreels, and later inspired the play and film “Inherit the Wind.”
The culmination of the trial was Darrow’s July 20 cross-examination of Bryan — a populist on economic issues but a conservative on social ones — about whether he took the Bible literally.
“Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?” Darrow asked about a biblical passage that speaks of a miraculously lengthened day.
“I believe what the Bible says. I suppose you mean that the earth stood still?” Bryan replied.
Darrow first feigned innocence (“I don’t know”) and then sprang his trap: “Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?”
“No,” Bryan replied. “The God I believe in could have taken care of that.”
Darrow: “Don’t you know it would have been converted into a molten mass of matter?”
The jury found Scopes guilty, and the judge fined him $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court vacated the fine on a technicality but upheld the anti-evolution law, which remained on the books until 1967. But the popular verdict was that the anti-evolution side had been defeated by being made to look ridiculous. As Harper’s Magazine editor Frederick Lewis Allen wrote: “Theoretically, Fundamentalism had won, for the law stood. Yet really Fundamentalism had lost … and the slow drift from Fundamentalist certainty continued.”
It’s true that fundamentalism became less assertive after the Scopes trial, but it hardly went away. By the 1980s, it had migrated to the Republican Party (Bryan was a Democrat) and had become a political force to be reckoned with. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, actually thought that Bryan was a sellout for admitting, under Darrow’s cross-examination, that the world was not created in six 24-hour days. Falwell said that Bryan “lost the respect of Fundamentalists” for conceding that the Book of Genesis was referring to longer periods of time.
Today, the theory of evolution is accepted by most Americans — including most religious believers — but still resisted by a significant minority. According to a Pew poll in 2018, 18 percent of American adults deny the theory of evolution. Among white evangelical Protestants (a core part of the Trump base), 38 percent say that humans have always existed in their present form. Having 18 percent of the adult population in the anti-evolution camp might not seem like a lot, but it translates to roughly 37.6 million people — the population of Canada — who reject a core tenet of modern science.
I suspect there is a lot of overlap between anti-evolutionists, anti-maskers and climate deniers. That hostility to science, found far more on the right than the left, makes it much harder to deal with major crises such as global warming or the coronavirus. Ninety-five years after the Scopes trial, the foes of science are more potent politically than ever — and we are all paying the price.