The Scopes Trials: Causes and Effects

The Howell Van Gerbil Jr. Prize

Date: May 2018

Issuer: Brooks School

Given for the best essay on the development of political institutions, for her paper titled “The Scopes Trials: Causes and Effects”


The Scopes Trials: Causes and Effects

As hordes of spectators and reporters descended upon the “Trial of the Century” between fundamentalist hero Williams Jennings Bryan and famous attorney Clarence Darrow during eight sweltering days in July of 1925, the small town of Dayton, Tennessee glowed under its newfound publicity. Outside of the courtroom, vendors sold Bibles, toy monkeys, hot dogs, and lemonade to celebrate the controversial Scopes Trials, while a chimpanzee named Joe Mendi entertained the crowd in a plaid suit, brown fedora, and white spats. During the 1920s, modern forces such as Darwin’s evolutionary theory as well as Jazz and sexual permissiveness challenged traditional evangelist ideas. Print media was always looking for stories to stir public interest and their bias influenced public opinion. Prejudices such as racism, sexism, and class tensions also led to the rise of evolutionary ideas, especially natural selection. Although evolution was banned in school curriculums and evolutionary textbook sales declined dramatically after Scope’s conviction, the nationally followed Scope’s trials published scientific evidence for evolution that threw doubts upon creationism. In the long term, evolutionary thought and natural selection were used to explain the social subjugation of African Americans and immigrants, people with mental illnesses or disabilities, and the overall dominance of the white “superior” race. The Scope’s trials exemplified the sentiments of the early 20th century by demonstrating the fear and unease over the integration of more modern ideas into traditionally Christian communities in America and the rise of the media in influencing public opinions. Although the conviction of Scope led to almost half a century of decline in evolutionary ideas taught in American education systems, ultimately, the scope’s trials fuelled the national debate between creationism and evolutionism through publicising scientific evidence on evolution, which led to the perpetuation of racism and the eugenics movement.

The Scopes Trials was an inevitable clash of traditional and modern ideas; the events leading up to and during the trials demonstrated the clear division between Victorian and newer youthful ideals in America during the 1920s as well as fear of the wane in how much power religion held over society. The 1920s was a time of controversies over jazz, sexually-suggestive Hollywood movies, the Harlem Renaissance, scientific discoveries, and the changing roles of women in society. This influx of modern social movements instilled fear and unease into the hearts of the older generation as they challenged the long-standing religion dominated, traditional Victorian norms of the last century. Among these new ideas was one that the older American population felt to be the destroyer of all human faith, dignity, and morals: evolutionism as proposed by Charles Darwin. Evolution undermined the idea that humans are the divine, chosen species of God, the foundation to everything devout Christians believed in. Consequently, a wave of fundamentalism began, led by politician William Jennings Bryan, to banish Darwin’s idea that “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of lowly origin” from the American education system and advocate for a literal interpretation of creationism. The passing of the Butler law before the Scopes Trials in Tennessee clearly demonstrated this rise in fundamentalism and fear of the diffusion of evolutionism. It banned the Darwinian teaching of “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 a lower order of animals.” After John Scopes was accused of violating this law, the Scopes trials took place to not only determine if Scopes was to be penalized, but also to argue the constitutionality of the Butler law. In hindsight, The Butler Act was simply a symbolical act passed to ensure that religion keeps its grip in the rapidly changing society and settle the fears of many fundamentalist parents. It wasn’t even possible to obey as the state approved biology textbook in Tennessee- A Civic Biology– contained the idea of natural selection. Furthermore, many fundamentalists did not know what evolution was before advocating for its destruction in the education system. The author of the Butler Act, John Washington Butler stated in an interview, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” Detailed in this quote, we see a growing division between the older generation that believed in creationism and younger generation that leaned towards science. It further proves that that the fundamentalists were not against the particular scientific ideas that evolutionism taught, rather, they were scared of a changing ideals and their loss of influence on society. The setup of the Scopes trials and the emotions provoked by the debate was parallel to the division of fundamentalism and evolutionism and the sentiments of the whole nation during the 1920s. The defense team, led by famous attorney Clarence Darrow, ridiculed the religious beliefs of the prosecution team, while the prosecution, led by fundamentalist hero William Jennings Bryan, stood its ground and fought back with equal ferocity. The debate in the trial clearly demonstrated the views of the opposing sides and the contempt they held for each other. Ultimately, the trials humiliated Bryan as it showed the whole nations how ridiculous and illogical the views of the fundamentalists were. Similarly, this triumph of the evolutionists can be seen also on a national level, as despite the efforts of the fundamentalists, evolutionism perpetuated and disseminated among the younger generation rapidly. The Scopes trials was a collision of traditional and modern ideas that divided America into two distinct sides -fundamentalism and evolutionism- and depicted the sentiments of fear and uncertainty during the 1920s.

Although the Scopes trials was of interest to the residents of Dayton, the court case was dramatized and publicized by the media, allowing for a national debate between fundamentalism and evolutionism and forming a barrier between the north and the south. With the innovations of more efficient print and circulation technology and the radio, the 1920s saw a leap in the role the media played in disseminating information and influencing public opinion through often heavily biased articles. Reporters and radio hosts were always on the lookout for controversial debates to weigh in on. This fervent for the “next big thing” captures the sentiments of the 1920s perfectly, as the United States was prospering off of Europe’s debts after the war and the parties grew bigger and the regulations grew looser. The media found their field day in the Scopes trials in Dayton Tennessee. Crowds of reporters from a variety of publications including the then famous newspaper The Baltimore Sun swarmed into the little town for the week long trial, filling up the few hotels of Dayton and congregating outside the courthouse every morning. However, far from simply reporting on the events of the trial, many reporters were pro-evolutionism and gave their personal opinions of the issues discussed in the trial. Their pro-evolutionism bias was because of the major role technology and science played in the rise of the media and the fact that most of the major publications were based in the more developed North in places such as New York City that stemmed modern social movements such as the Harlem Renaissance. For example, famous reporter and critic H.L. Mencken wrote in a widely published article for The Baltimore Sun that “Such obscenities such as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed.” Highlighting the hierarchy of knowledge dispersion in the nation, this quote shows the disdain a modernist like Mencken felt for the traditional, less developed society of the south. He went on to further ridicule the little town of Dayton and its surrounding southern areas by calling it an “intellectual desert”, and portraying its residents as “backwashed hillbillies.” This negative view of the south played a major role in swaying public opinions on the Scopes trial’s verdict because H.L. Mencken was among the most popular and widely read reporters during the early twentieth century. He was deemed “the voice the jazz age” and stood for everything modern and sophisticated.  His critiques on the south and fundamentalists, as well as the writings of many other reporters of that time, reached a lot of Americans, helping to set the tone of the national debate on evolution and putting societal pressure on the public to choose the modern, scientific pathway. Hencken further emphasized the division between the north and the south by writing that “The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex– because it puts an unbearable burden on his meager capacity to take in ideas.” This shows that the media not only disapproved of the piousness of the southerners, but also explained their supposed lack of intelligence through perpetuating means of social Darwinism. The media used the Scopes Trials to stress the southerners’ “inferiority” to the more developed north through the articles they write and widely disseminate. The rise of the media during the early 20th century helped propel America into the age of public information, spurring national debates such as the one over the Scopes trials, swaying public opinions through biased articles, and widening the division between the north and the south.

Following the Scopes trials, evolutionary thought was strategically taken out of many biology textbooks, but the theory of evolution still existed in the public education system and was widely discussed in curriculums. Judged by the content of the average high school biology textbooks, the teaching of evolution in high school declined after Scope’s conviction. It was not until 1960, after the new biological sciences curriculum study texts came out, that the treatment of evolution in most high school texts substantially improved over that found before the Scope trials. This 25-year gap of evolutionism in biology textbooks clearly shows that Scope’s conviction and the defense team’s nominal loss in the trials were the direct causes of this momentary decline. A year after the trial ended, a new edition of Hunter’s Civic Biology– the book that Scopes was accused of teaching from- was republished. Some changes included the elimination of “The Doctrine of Evolution” chapter, the disappearance of the evolutionary tree,  and the word evolution no longer appeared in any part of the text.” These simple changes in the biology textbooks demonstrated that the verdict of the Scopes Trials impacted how school education boards and parents viewed evolutionism. The authors of these altered textbooks did not want the stigma of evolutionism to affect the sales and usage of their textbooks. However, although “evolution” became a taboo word, many textbooks continued to teach the concepts of evolutionism through cleverly exchanged phrases. For example, the most widely used textbook in the 1930s, Dynamic Biology by O. Baker and Lewis H. Mills, included a chapter titled “Changing life forms of living things”, which was essentially meant evolution. This shows that evolutionism continued to be an essential part of scientific education, even if it had to be taught in hidden ways as to not upset standing laws such as the Butler law or parents who may have been fundamentalists. Therefore, though evolutionary ideas seemed to disappear from the surface of the American Educational system after the conviction of Scopes, teachers and textbook writers still found ways to teach their students this progressive ideology, and it was this continuation and propagation that aided social movements such as racism or eugenics.

However, although textbooks containing evolutionism declined, the Scopes trials publicized evidence on evolution and ridiculed fundamentalism, which in turn led to a perpetuation of racism. By spurring conversations of scientific evolutionism, the Scopes trials ultimately popularized the social application of evolution. Many evolutionists who advocated for evolutionism used scientific evidence to justify a social hierarchy based on race. For example, in his widely distributed biology textbook A Civic Biology, Hunter indicated that of the “five races or varieties of me” found today, some are clearly more developed than others. He claimed that there are four lower types of humans, including the “Ethiopian or Negra type”, “the Malay or brown race”, “the American Indian”, and “the Mongolian or yellow race”. Finally, he concluded that “the highest of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” Since A Civic Biology was a state-issued textbook, these ideas were taught to almost every high school student who took biology, and thus exposed a whole generation to the ideas of white supremacy at a young age. Scientific evolutionism was turned into social Darwinism to explain the white man’s domination of society and to condone the horrible treatment of other “inferior” races in American society, perpetuating racism, especially in the form of nativism. Those who wanted to prevent the surge of immigration into America based their agendas on the grounds that blacks, Jews, and other nonwhites, were of “inferior racial stock” and if interbred with the Caucasian race, would cause a racial deterioration. These racist ideas in turn led to actions such as the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which targeted blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants through both violent and legislative methods. Furthermore, after the trials in 1925, numerous black ministers proclaimed themselves to be fundamentalists. They declared that the black race’s only future lay in a conservative, literal interpretation of the bible. The perpetuation of racism through social Darwinism was a major factor of the longevity of the “Jim Crow” laws. By publicizing evidence on evolution and ridiculing fundamentalism, the ideologies discussed in the scopes trials continued and exacerbated racism in the United States during the 1920s.

This rise in evolutionary thought also heavily strengthened the eugenics movement, providing “scientific” evidence to this early 1900s social movement. The eugenics movement was based on the application of the central Darwinian idea of natural selection in society, or as Hunter called it in  A Civic Biology, “the science of improving the human race through better heredity.” The rise in evolutionists after the Scopes trials brought supporters to the eugenics movement. These evolutionists preached that the eugenics movement was the solution to countless social problems that were caused by the mentally ill and retarded, epileptics, and criminals. For example, Hunter stated that “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage…” Proponents saw this social isolation method as an expedited version of natural selection and survival of the fittest in nature. Because Darwin’s theory was analyzed in a way that led to the belief that the traits of weak-mindedness, criminality, and sexual deviance was genetically passed down through generations, the eugenics movement became the key to prevent the perpetuation of supposed low and degenerate bloodlines and deterioration of the healthy, white bloodline. The rise in eugenics supporters in the 1920s led to the passive euthanization of patients in mental asylums and the passage of laws in many states legalizing and even encouraging coerced sterilization programs. In 1927, the Supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes publicly endorsed aspects of eugenics, leading to a myriad of programs established in states such as the forced sterilization of 9782 individuals in Californa during the state’s first 25 years of eugenics legislature. The support from the supreme court demonstrates the widespread permeation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, an idea emphasized and disseminated by the Scope’s trials and the national debate that followed. Ultimately, through the establishment of professional relationships between the American eugenics scientists and Germany’s fascist eugenicists, the American eugenics ideas and methods were adopted by Hitler and the Nazi party, which tried to use the same “scientific evidence” to gain support for medicalizing anti-semitism. This dispersion of American eugenic ideas clearly shows its impacts on a worldwide scale as well as emphasizes the evolution of Darwin’s theory itself from scientific evidence found in nature to a social application of forced natural selection. The rise of evolutionism during the years following the Scopes trials led to this evolvement of ideology and strengthened the previously limited eugenics movement.

The Scopes trials was a clear example of the fear and unease over the integration of more modern ideas into traditionally Christian communities in America and the rise of the media in disseminating public information during the early 20th century. Although the trial’s ultimate result led to almost half a century of decline in evolutionary ideas nominally present in American science education, ultimately, the scope’s trials spurred the national debate between creationism and evolution through publicising evidence on evolution and ridiculing fundamentalism, which led to the perpetuation of racism and the eugenics movement. The rise in fundamentalism in opposition to evolutionism leading up to the Scopes trials and the dynamic of the actual trial prove that the older generation feared the emergence of new social and cultural ideas and norms. The bias in the media and its popularity, especially the writings of H.L. Mencken, successfully spread information about the trial and swayed public opinions on the verdict. The decline in the sales of textbooks containing evolutionism was offset by the continued teaching of these ideas- though under different terminology- in high schools, The social response by both whites and nonwhites to the growth of Social Darwinism demonstrates the continuation of racism. The establishment of state and national programs for sterilization and the adoption of these ideologies by Nazi Germany show the pervasiveness of the eugenics movements and its impact on a global scale. Overall, the Scopes trials propelled scientific study, but had many negative social implications that would haunt America for decades to come.




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