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PETER FROST is amazed that, 90 years after the famous Tennessee trial, the evolution versus creationism argument still rages on 

ON MAY 5 1925, 90 years ago this week, a group of thinkers in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, are discussing a newspaper announcement.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is looking for someone to challenge the new Butler Act passed by the state to outlaw the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. This law bans the teaching of any theory that denies the literal truth of the biblical creation of man.

One of the men, 24-year-old science teacher and football coach John Thomas Scopes, says he will be willing to be indicted to bring the case to trial. Scopes has only taught biology as a substitute teacher and later says he isn’t sure he covered evolution in his classes.

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On May 25 John Scopes was brought to trial for teaching evolution. The case, forever known as the Monkey Trial, made world headlines and is still talked about today.

Scopes agreed to purposely incriminate himself so that the case could have a defendant. He knew such a trial would draw intense national publicity to the argument. The world’s press flocked to Dayton. To make room for the many journalists and observers the trial was convened in the open air. This proved a blessing in the stifling Tennessee heat.

Defending Scopes was Clarence Darrow, already a famous lawyer. He would go on to become the best-known and most revered defence lawyer in US jurisprudence.

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Darrow had made his reputation as a labour union lawyer and had defended many militant heroes of US working-class strikes and struggles — many of them framed on trumped-up charges. These included many members of the US Communist Party charged with treason. Leading the prosecution of Scopes was William Jennings Bryan, Bible scholar, rabid creationist and three-time Democratic candidate for US president.

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Bryan’s argument was simple. He declared the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all other human knowledge. Judge John T Raulston made no pretence at neutrality. He started each day with a hymn and a prayer. The judge ruled that the many scientists who wished to speak in Scopes’s defence could only give their evidence in writing.

British novelist H G Wells (below) was asked if he would join the defence team. Wells replied that he had no legal training in Britain, let alone in the US, and declined the offer. The ACLU opposed the Butler Act on the grounds that it violated the teacher’s individual rights and academic freedom, and was therefore unconstitutional.

by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

Darrow and the judge frequently clashed and there were several threats of action for contempt with Darrow forced to apologise. Darrow (below) attacked the literal interpretation of the Bible as well as Bryan’s limited knowledge of other religions and science. He scoffed at Bryan’s horror that human beings were descended “not even from American monkeys, but from old-world monkeys.”

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Darrow took the unorthodox step of calling Bryan, the chief prosecutor, to the stand as a defence witness. Darrow asked him questions such as: “If Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where did Cain get his wife?”The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow lasted approximately two hours before Judge Raulston’s announced that he considered the whole examination irrelevant to the case. He ruled that it should be struck from the record. Darrow closed the case for the defence without a final summing up. Under Tennessee law, when the defence waived its right to make a closing speech, the prosecution was also barred from summing up its case.

Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine. He addressed the court for the first time. “Your honour, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can.“Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.”

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The appeal court set aside the conviction because of a tiny legal technicality: the jury should have decided the fine, not the judge, since under the state constitution Tennessee judges could not set fines above $50, and the Butler Act specified a minimum fine of $100. Appeal judge Green added: “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”

The Butler Act stayed on the statute books until 1967.In reality this bizarre case and the arguments that caused it are still being debated. Strangely despite logic and scientific proof, the ideas of creationism are still gaining ground on both sides of the Atlantic.

When the Con-Dem coalition established free schools in 2011, three such schools — each teaching creationism — were approved by the then education secretary Michael Gove (below).

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Today free schools in Britain are no longer allowed to teach creationism as if it were fact. Now such teaching is confined to religious education classes and not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.

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Yet surveys show that, amazingly, one in three US citizens doesn’t believe in evolution. They think humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.White evangelical Protestants, particularly in the Southern Bible belt — states like Tennessee — are most likely to not believe in evolution and ridicule Darwin’s ideas.

Both Tennessee and Louisiana allow the teaching of creationism in school science classes. Currently, less than half of Republican voters, just 43 per cent, believe in human evolution. Only 67 per cent of Democrats think Darwin’s theory credible.

Worse, US opinion is shifting and the numbers doubting evolution and supporting creationism are growing every year. Nearly a dozen states are considering legislation to either outlaw the teaching of Darwinian evolution or to give equal space and time to creationism in school science classes.

In Tennessee the law defines controversial issues including biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning and seeks to ensure schools also teach what the Bible has to say on the subjects.

Tennessee law wrongly suggests the scientific community is divided over these issues. It is not, but the law has now made it significantly harder to ensure that science is taught responsibly.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 7 May 2015

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