Little did I suspect when my work began in 1962 that nineteen years later the results of my research would become a public issue. This all started in the spring of 1981 when the Arkansas state legislature passed Act 590, a bill requiring "balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution in public schools." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of the Act, and a trial date was set for December 7, 1981, at the Federal District Court in Little Rock.
The enactment of Act 590 served as a reminder of the anti-evolution law, the Butler Act, passed in Tennessee in 1925. That law was also challenged by the ACLU, and this led to the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. It is necessary to focus briefly on this earlier trial because its popular legacy as an overwhelming victory for evolution was a key factor in shaping the outcome of the Arkansas trial.
The principals in the 1925 trial were (1) John Scopes, a high school football coach and substitute science teacher, (2) William Jennings Bryan, the great fundamentalist orator and three times presidential candidate, who prosecuted the case against Scopes, and (3) Clarence Darrow, the eminent trial lawyer, who defended Scopes. Scopes' voluntary assent to be arrested for teaching evolution became nationwide news. The reaction to this extraordinary publicity showed that many Americans felt the foundations of their religious beliefs were at stake in this battle. To some the trial was seen as a means of either confirming or denying their understanding of the Scriptures.
The Lessons of Scopes
Generally, popular accounts of the trial picture William Jennings Bryan as a man who feared the truth because of his presumed refusal to permit expert testimony for evolution to be given at the trial. Clarence Darrow, on the other hand, is credited with having outmaneuvered such bigotry when he arranged for his expert witnesses to give their scientific evidences for evolution to the news reporters covering the trial. By this master stroke, Darrow managed to have the theory of evolution disseminated to the remotest bounds of the civilized world. Just as significantly, this was accomplished without any arguments against evolution being mentioned. Thus evolution appeared to be based on incontrovertible evidence.
As a result, evolution is thought to have won the day (even though Scopes lost on a technicality). The perceived outcome of the trial among scientists was both pervasive and self-perpetuating. From henceforth any scientist who openly professed any belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis became suspect among his peers. This disdain for creation was passed on to each new generation of university students by both scientists themselves and educators, many of whom knew no better than to echo their scientific colleagues. Since the Scopes trial, three generations of college-educated Americans have been indoctrinated with the view that evolution represents scientific truth. This widespread indoctrination provided the ACLU with a tremendous psychological advantage as they prepared for the Arkansas trial.
The presiding judge at the Arkansas trial did not live in a vacuum. Even though the Arkansas trial was supposed to be decided solely on the basis of evidence presented in Court, the ACLU well knew the historical impact of the Scopes trial could work to their favor. In addition, the news releases pertaining to the Arkansas trial could be a decisive factor. In general those news reports came from the pens of media representatives who reflected the American cultural scene. It is safe to assume they all had been educated in the mold of contemporary science and its overwhelming preference for evolution. And most likely their image of creation science had been molded by the popular accounts of the Scopes trial. Inevitably their perceptions, and hence their news reports, of the Arkansas trial would reflect the prior conditioning from those accounts.
Unfortunately, it seems much that has been written and filmed in certain of those accounts cannot be substantiated either by historical records or by the transcript of the trial. To illustrate, a critique by Dr. David Menton has shown that the account which has received the greatest publicity, [p. 89] namely, the Scopes trial motion picture Inherit the Wind, bears little resemblance to the actual events and details of the trial itself. An important part of this critique (Menton 1985) focuses on the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Scopes for presumably breaking the law. According to the historical records, Scopes maintained he never taught evolution during the two weeks he substituted as a science teacher. Thus, in reality, he never broke the law. His arrest was based on a trumped-up charge. It was contrived, with Scopes' assent, by a local mine operator so that the ACLU could challenge the Butler Act.
Did the lawyers who acted in Scopes' defense know of these circumstances? The critique mentioned above provides a clear answer to this question when it refers to L. Sprague de Camp's book, The Great Monkey Trial. In this book a remarkable conversation is recorded between Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson of the International News Service:
Thus, incredible as it seems, those who acted in Scopes' defense apparently not only knew of, but abetted the situation by encouraging some of Scopes' students to commit perjury and testify that Scopes had taught evolution. (Interestingly, deCamp's book (p. 432) singles out Darrow as the lawyer who did the coaching.) In his memoirs Scopes once again disclaimed teaching [p. 90] evolution, which at his trial included a reference to the earth once being "a hot molten mass" (Scopes and Presley 1967, 132-134). At the same time he also attempted to deflect the clear implication of perjury by claiming his students were possibly confused about where they had heard about evolution (Scopes and Presley 1967, 134). These circumstances reveal an aspect of the Scopes trial that is not generally known.
One of the most questionable parts of Inherit the Wind relates to its portrayal of William Jennings Bryan as a man who feared the truth because he objected to the introduction of expert testimony for evolution. Quoted below are two paragraphs of Menton's critique which presents a different perspective on this matter:
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