Tennessee Teacher Convicted of Teaching Evolution


On today's date in 1925, a jury of his peers convicted John T. Scopes for teaching evolutionary theory in his high school biology class. Clarence Darrow led the defense against William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic presidential nominee and devout Bible thumper, and lost. The Tennessee Supreme Court eventually overturned the verdict on a technicality, insisting in its decision that The Butler Act itself didn't violate the Constitution.

The trial was essentially a joke, hence its alternate name, the "Scopes Monkey Trial," but the means by which the state made its case sound unfunny and more than a little terrifying from the perspective of a 21st Century agnostic:

The entire prosecution case in the trial of John Scopes occupies less than two hours of a Wednesday afternoon session of court. The state calls only four witnesses. School Superintendent Walter White and Fred Robinson both testify that Scopes, in a conversation at Robinson's drug store-soda fountain-book dispensary, admitted having taught evolution. Howard Morgan, age 14, and Harry "Bud" Shelton, age 17, appear as two eyewitnesses to the crime.

[Prosectuor Thomas] Stewart asks Morgan if "Professor Scopes" ever taught him "anything about evolution." "Yes sir," the boy replies in a barely audible voice. "Just state in your own words, Howard, what he taught you and when it was," Stewart requests. "It was along about the second of April. He said that the earth was once a hot molten mass, too hot for plant or animal life to exist upon it. In the sea, the earth cooled off; there was a little germ of one cell organism formed, and this organism kept evolving until it got to be a pretty good-sized animal, and then it came on to be a land animal, and it kept on evolving, and from this was man." From the defense table, Arthur Garfield Hays offers his congratulations on Morgan's history of life on earth: "Go to the head of the class." Stewart asks Morgan if Scopes classified "man with reference to other animals." He had, Morgan says, called humans "mammals."

Tony Long at Wired brings up this interesting fact, which, if true, means the scene in the soda store was a fabrication:

Whether Scopes actually taught evolution to his biology class remains unclear. Although he told the court he had done it and would do it again, he later admitted to a newspaper reporter that while he used a textbook that included a chapter on evolution, he skipped the chapter.

Science Correspondent Ron Bailey blogged here on Scopes' legal legacy.