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The Scopes Monkey Trial Analysis

In 1925 the State of Tennessee passed a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools funded by the State. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was quick to realize that this law was not only an attempt to control public school curriculum it was also a violation of the First Amendment.1 Together with like-minded people from Tennessee, the ACLU convinced John Tomas Scopes to teach evolution and then to stand trial afterward. The trial drew unprecedented publicity. Popular lawyers like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow became part of the prosecution and defense teams respectively. In the end John Thomas Scopes was found guilty of violating the Butler Act and it will take a few more decades before the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

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On March 13, 1925, 2 the Butler Act was ratified in the State of Tennessee. It was a reaction to the growing popularity of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. In a nutshell, this theory tried to explain the science behind human existence. Darwin, after spending a great deal of time studying animals in the wild, began to develop a theory stating that animals adapt to the environment. The idea that only the strong will survive was modified into something more scientific. Darwin proposed that living things not only struggle to survive or compete with each other to survive, but their bodies also responded to the need for survival in such a way that body parts develop to stay on top of the food chain.

In other words, Darwin theorized that fish develop into birds to stay competitive. It does not require a great scientific mind to realize that there are many loopholes in this theory. For one there is no explanation as to why a perfectly capable fish species, one that has thoroughly adapted itself to water would want to grow feathers and fly. What is more astonishing is the idea that fishes like a well-adapted tuna or salmon would try to brave a whole new world like jungles and desserts. It does not make sense. But Darwin discovered that birds have scale-like characteristics on their feet and so he theorized that they came from fish.

There can be another explanation as to why fish and birds have similar characteristics but it must also be pointed out that they are very much different. There is a major gap between these two species; there is a missing link in the so-called evolutionary process, a link that remains to be missing and this is the reason why evolution through natural selection is still a theory and not yet scientific fact. On the other hand, it must be clarified that Darwin’s ideas came at the right place at the right time. European countries as well as the United States experienced a radical transformation after the Renaissance and the Age of Industrialization; there was a clamor to place science on the same pedestal as religion. For many people, science is something that can be verified and hence more reliable than religion.

The adherents of Darwinism – especially those who desire a scientific explanation to human existence – did not waste time in theorizing that since monkeys are similar to humans then it follows that they are the ancestors of humans. They have human-like hands as opposed to claws and hoofs. Monkeys also display a relatively higher level of intelligence as compared to rodents, cockroaches and frogs for instance. This can be attributed to their ability to grasp things as well as the ability to move like humans thereby giving them not only freedom of movement but also the ability to manipulate their physical environment to a greater degree than other animals. All of these are said in relative terms because monkeys, no matter how hard they will train could never play baseball or become a ballerina.

There are obvious difficulties with the claim that humans descended from monkeys. First of all, monkeys are only similar to humans as long as there is a bias towards this belief. A more critical assessment of the link between humans and monkeys makes it very difficult to say that they are similar beyond the fact that monkeys can grasp objects. The ability of monkeys to socialize is not unique to this species and so is their ability to solve problems. Monkeys are led by instincts while humans can create something as complex as the U.S. Constitution. Monkey walk using their hands and feet and it can also be argued that their human-like hands is not a prelude to their evolution to a higher form but it is simply a tool to grasp branches since monkey prefer to dwell in heavily forested areas as opposed to plains.

While many would love to develop a scientific explanation for human existence, the majority of Americans still believe in the story of creation, the Biblical explanation for human existence. At the heart of this belief is belief in a Creator-God. American Christians are on the frontlines when it comes to defending this idea in the United States. For Christians, to embrace Darwin’s theory is tantamount to atheism and the rejection of the Judeo-Christian values as the socio-political foundation of the United States. Representative John Washington Butler of Macon County was a member of the Tennessee General Assembly and he was a firm believer that God created everything on earth and beyond; and together with like-minded men he introduced a bill that became popularly known as the Butler Act. Scopes et al wanted to continue teaching evolution and based on the preceding discussion journalists who cover the trial label it as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

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Aside from the increasing awareness of science, American Christians are divided into two spheres – the conservatives and the liberals. Liberal-minded Americans can be further broken down into two groups, those who believe in God and those who are agnostics or atheists. Atheism requires no explanation while agnosticism is much more complicated. An agnostic is uncertain whether there is a deity or not and surrenders to the general idea that human beings can never attain perfect knowledge when it comes to spiritual matters. There may be differences in their faith but liberals have one thing in common. They believe that there must be a separation between Church and State. In March of 1925, many of them believed that the Butler Act is a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is interesting to note that the Scopes Monkey Trial did not evolve spontaneously in the same manner that humans were purported to have evolved from a single-celled bacterium into a highly complicated organism. The Scopes Monkey Trial was made possible by intelligent design so to speak. The ACLU as well as businessmen belonging to the Dayton, Tennessee found it necessary as well as profitable to challenge the Butler Act. So on May 5, 1925, a group of Dayton businessmen convinced John Scopes to stand trial for teaching evolution.

For the ACLU this is the chance to eradicate the said law from American soil and for the businessmen, it is a perfect plant to put Dayton on the map. These businessmen had no idea that the trial will not only make Dayton, Tennessee a popular landmark in the U.S. but it will also be made known even in many key cities around the world. More than a hundred journalists from the U.S. and two from London came pouring into Dayton to witness the outcome of the trial.3

The Lawyers

Just like any other high-profile case, it is not only about the crime and the defendants that increases the hype, it is also the caliber of the lawyers that will participate in the scrimmage. The ACLU assembled a formidable team. These lawyers are very familiar with the liberal mindset of the ACLU and they were determined to remove the influence of religion from the American public-school system. One of the members of the defense team was Randolph Neal, the dean of the University of Tennessee. The others were heavyweights in the field of jurisprudence such as Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hayes.

The prosecution team on the other hand was composed of luminaries in the field of jurisprudence. But without a doubt, the most important member of the team was William Jennings Bryan. He was a perfect fit for what will be known as one of the most celebrated cases in American history. W. J. Bryan was a three-time Democratic nominee for President and a famous criminal lawyer.4 But aside from his gleaming resume Bryan was a staunch supporter of creationism and he asserted that Darwin’s theory of evolution could not solve the mystery of life because evolution had to have a starting point and the starting point is a planet teeming with live organisms. Bryan would like to know the origin of life, where did it come from? Bryan argued that these organisms were made possible by a creator, on the day that God created the heavens and the earth.5

When it was made known that William Jennings Bryan was spearheading the prosecution team and also the public image of the trial, his long-time opponent Clarence Darrow volunteered his services to the defense team. Darrow was also a perfect fit for Scopes’s legal team because he was a very famous lawyer who won the highly controversial Leopold and Loeb case the previous year.6 But his skills were just the tip of the iceberg; he was a public adversary of Bryan. In short, Bryan was the reason why Darrow was not successful in his political career. Aside from that Bryan and Darrow had dueled in the past with regards to evolution.7 It is now easy to understand why the hype surrounding the case reached a frenzy that was crystallized when journalists labeled it the “monkey” trial.

The Trial and Verdict

The trial was known as the “Trial of the Century” and became “…a national display of both the best public oratory and the best of American carnival.”8 The trial attracted almost two hundred journalists including the famous H.L. Mencken.9 The trial was bigger than John T. Scopes for it had become, “…a referendum on the freedom of scientific inquiry and education.”10 But before the lawyers can continue they had to first identify the pertinent facts to the case. The Butler Act was an anti-evolution law according to the defendant and thus formed the legal basis for the trial.

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The Butler Act declared, “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in any part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible and to teach instead that man has descended from the lower order of animals.”11 This is easy to understand for those who favor creationism and at the same time exert influence in the school boards and the legislative body of the State. This simply means that since there are many religious people in the State, they would like their children to be educated with the knowledge and fear of God. Thus, there should be no place for any concept or theory that denies God’s existence.

There is no problem if a parent will desire to teach evolution in the home, they have the right to do so. There is also no problem if private schools would institutionalize the theory of evolution to become a part of their teaching curriculum. But the Butler Act specifically prohibits the teaching of evolution if it can be proven that the school in question was receiving money from the State. For those who disagree with this law, it is plain to see that religion has invaded the public school system, something that the U.S. Constitution had rendered illegal.

The major problem of the defense team is the fact that the law was already ratified and therefore when the judge assigned to the case reviewed the pertinent facts of the case, the judge simply looked at the law squarely without considering the forces that are at work outside of it. This means that the judge will simply analyze if the law violated the U.S. Constitution in plain terms and not as suggested by any group or party. An objective analysis of the law will reveal that the Butler Act is not favoring any religion it simply prohibits the teaching of a particular subject matter. The judge was correct in saying that the U.S. Constitution was not violated because the law was simply against the teaching of a particular theory.

Another problem that the defense team was not able to overcome is the fact that Darwin’s theory of evolution was sometimes seen as vague as religion. Thus, how can one argue that the anti-evolution law was favoring a particular religion when in fact no one can even clearly defend Darwinism as a scientific fact? This is the weakness of the defense and they were defeated based on a technicality, meaning they violated a particular State law, pure and simple. The presiding judge ordered Scopes to pay 100 dollars.

The Aftermath

For those who were sympathetic to Scopes and his team the guilty verdict made them conclude that Dayton is, “…the epicenter of backward culture and religious fanaticism.”12 There are even those who went further and remarked that “Despite the decisiveness of the victory, however, the fact that such efforts were even necessary cannot help but sadden those who care about the independence of science … the parallels between ideological reaction against Galileo and that faced by Darwin, coming centuries later, are depressingly similar.”13

While it was made clear that in 1925 Scopes lost the battle against those who would like to insert religion into the public-school system and the fact that this was rendered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967 the war still rages on. There is still no end in sight when it comes to the bickering between creationism and Darwinism. If one would like to resolve this problem one of the best ways to do it is to adopt the perspective of commentators who remarked that science and spirituality belong to different realms and they wrote:

What we call ‘science’ is a set of social practices, resources, and persons – a powerful field of human endeavor – which is articulated in a particular discourse of its own. Likewise, religion is a set of social actors and activities, a field with a unique vocabulary that historically has been operative in different regions of the country, depending on the scope of social legitimacy it is granted.14

There is therefore no need to argue and the only thing that must be done is to address these issues in the proper forum. Science uses different rules and has a different goal than religion. The main foundation of science is the scientific method and in a nutshell, it is a field of human endeavor that attempts to observe natural phenomena. The scientific method is also about experiments and observing things in a controlled environment. A body of knowledge is deemed “scientific” if the same results or findings can be replicated by other scientists. For instance, if a naturalist will conclude that zebras have black stripes, the same thing should be corroborated by other scientists. If a naturalist will say that zebras have purple stripes and no evidence can prove this claim or if other scientists can disprove this claim, the one who declared the purple stripes will be judged as fraud, and this is how the scientific community works.

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In the case of religion, believers use a different set of rules and they too use different methods to arrive at their conclusions. More often than not science and religion are not compatible because science demands that religion should submit to its terms. In the case of Darwinism versus creationism, a proper scientific experiment should require the participation of God. The scientists should be able to call upon God to perform the same acts of creation and then scientists would observe and try to find out if God used the more circuitous route of evolution through natural selection in creating humans or if he went the easier route and created humans and animals uniquely.

Since scientists could not force God to fit himself into a laboratory then they conclude that he is not a factor in the evolution process. The religious side on the other hand will comment on the loopholes and various “missing links” in the theory of evolution while at the same time defend the idea that God is sovereign and will not be forced to participate in the abovementioned scientific games. The discussion and the war of words will continue, it would be better therefore to accept that these two fields of discourse should exist on separate realms and should not be forced to intermingle.


It can be said that the main goal of the ACLU men as well as their business counterparts is to generate publicity for the trial. Publicity is good for business but for the ACLU publicity can help increase support for their cause as well as to catapult the case to the Supreme Court where they hope to make greater progress with regards to the main issue of the separation of Church and State. But it became controversial and widely popular beyond their dreams. Close to two hundred journalists, two coming in from as far as London, made the case not only a national sensation but it was even known in Europe.

The trial could not have been hyped in the way it did, without the help of celebrity lawyers like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Bryan was the perfect fit for the prosecution team because he was not only sympathetic to the cause of creationism but it can also be said that John Washington Butler may have been influenced by Bryan’s previous rhetoric and therefore encouraged him to propose the said controversial bill. The battle of legal heavyweights, as well as accomplished orators, made the Scopes case into the trial of the century.

From the points of view of the two opposing camps, they were in the fight for their lives. For Bryan and his team, they are fighting for God and the Christian heritage of the United States. If they will be defeated then the future generation will be fed lies about God and his creation. Darrow and his team on the other hand were fighting for a fundamental truth in U.S. governance and what could have been the main reason why the United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world during that period. They believe that this country will remain strong as long as there is a separation between Church and State and the Butler Act is a weapon aimed at destroying that divide.

Scope and his legal team were defeated because of two reasons. First of all, public opinion, especially in the State of Tennessee favored Bryan’s arguments. This is the same State that passed the Butler Act and so one should expect that Scope will be found guilty. Secondly, the defense team was unable to show that the anti-evolution law was all about religion – that it was designed to teach religion in public schools. An impartial review of the Butler Act will reveal that there is no such thing that can be found in the said law, all it says is that Darwin’s evolution should not be taught in the State of Tennessee and that is not a violation of the constitution.

Scope and his team were rewarded a few decades later when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that although the Butler Act was designed to prohibit the teaching of evolution, the mere fact that a scientific theory was not allowed to be discussed in classrooms was a violation of the U.S. Constitution especially the part that says every American has the right to express themselves. One way to resolve the issue is to allow both ideas to be discussed in the classrooms. The theory of evolution must be clearly understood as a scientific theory and it must be amenable to change if new evidence will be discovered that can refute its major claims. Creationism can benefit from the same consideration – to be taught like a theory that an Intelligent Being was behind the creation of heavens and the earth and all the things that it contains.


Webb, George. “The Scopes Trial,”. Web.

New World Encyclopedia. “Scopes Trial,”. Web.

Hariman, Robert. Popular Trials: Rhetoric, Mass Media, and the Law. (Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), p. 56., Ibid, p. 58., Ibid, p. 60.

Lippy, Charles. Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2006), p. 89.

McIntyre, Lee. Dark Ages: The Case for A Science of Human Behavior. (MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 85. Hariman, p. 576, Lippy, p. 89., McIntyre, p. 88., Hariman, p. 57.

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