Science Wins Over Religion in Scopes Monkey Trial?

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Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species Turns 150


A view of the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton Tennessee: Glynn Wilson

The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

DAYTON, Tenn. — Forty-three years after the death of British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated far and wide this year, a few men were sitting around in a Rexall drug store across from the now famous courthouse in this rural Southern town talking politics, science and religion.

In contrast to most of the official accounts of how the so-called “trial of the century” and the “Scopes monkey trial” got started, this was the genesis for an idea for a trial to test the legality of teaching evolution versus creationism in the public schools: A conversation over Coca-Colas at a soda fountain counter. (There’s no official indication whether whiskey was involved).


An old photo of the Rexall Drug Store where the Scopes Monkey Trial was conceived: Glynn Wilson

You won’t even find this account on the Wikipedia page about the trial, although the evidence is presented in the museum in the basement of the courthouse, and knowledgeable locals know the story.

The way the word got out happened as it often does, with a leak to a newspaper reporter, in this case the old Chattanooga Times. The old paper published by Adolph Ochs, who had purchased the New York Times in 1898 and started the world’s first “objective” newspaper, ran a brief about the idea of a trial.

That was picked up by the Associated Press and ran in newspapers across the country, bringing the idea to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. The group had offered to finance a test case against the Butler Act, a Tennessee law passed in 1925 making it illegal for any state-funded public school teacher to deny the literal Biblical account of human origins from Genesis and to teach Darwin’s evolution through natural selection in its place.

From there, local officials, who ran with the idea of a trial to promote the town and boost tourism in the area, pushed the idea. It worked in the end, in a way. The town has tourism to this day because of the trial. Although like they do at people all over the red South, people come to gawk at them as a joke way more than something to be taken seriously. No matter.

If you take the trip to Dayton and talk to some of the people, they will just try to save your immortal soul anyway if you give them half a chance. If you talk to some of the people in the know who work in the courthouse every day, you will find a few who know the real story, but far more who still believe more in the creation myth than the science that became world famous in part because of the “trial of the 20th century” in their town.


John Fine: Glynn Wilson

According to John Fine, a clerk who has worked in the historic courthouse much of his adult life, there are way more people from England and Australia who come to town interested in the history than the people who live their entire lives in Rhea County. He said the people of the area are aware of the history mainly due to news coverage of the annual re-enactment of the trial each June. But he acknowledged that they don’t seem to know or care that much about the international significance of the event — or to be much more knowledgeable about science as a result of the exposure.

“The vast majority of people here are very much still in support of creationism, and that would include me,” he said in an interview.

Nearby Bryan College, a so-called Christian liberal arts college, was founded in 1930 in the aftermath of the 1925 Scopes trial specifically to conduct research on the alleged “theory” of creationism and to teach it at the college level. It was named after the great populist politician William Jennings Bryan, who died in Dayton five days after an emotional performance prosecuting high school teacher John Scopes.

Famous attorney Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes, may have lost the trial in the eyes of the jury, but not in the eyes of the world. There is little doubt the trial had a lasting impact on American culture.

As an icon of the triumph of science over religion, the Scopes trial would enter into the American imagination primarily through the somewhat cynical reporting of H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial not so objectively for the Baltimore Sun.

It could be argued that while religious people still seize on the trial victory as a win for god over science, what has endured from the Scopes trial is basically the agenda of civil liberties advocates and one of the most basic tenants of American democracy. That is, state legislatures should stay out of the business of regulating religion. It is not their place under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to limit freedom of scientific inquiry, based on the method of forming hypotheses from the observation of empirical data to the formulation of scientific theories. Also, a legal, secular democratic society should respect the value of academic freedom and not allow the creation of laws that undermine the very idea of self-governance itself.

The vast majority of scientists now agree that Darwin’s work building the theory of evolution was one of the most critical in all of science. On this 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, it would be nice if more of the people in Dayton — and America at large — would become educated on this fact.

Isn’t it about time we stopped playing guessing games with the origin of the universe based on a religious screed written almost 1,500 years before science proved that the earth revolves around the sun?


A view from inside the famous courtroom where the Scopes Trial was held, including the original jury seats: Glynn Wilson

© 2009 – 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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