Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The John Scopes trial: when monkeys go on trial

May 18, 2011 by Sarah Winski


History has a strange way of repeating itself.

Scopes Trial with copy of “A Civic Biology” at the National Constitution Center

It was 86 years ago last week (May 5, 1925) when a high school biology teacher named John Scopes got arrested for teaching evolution in his classroom. The Butler Act, passed earlier that year, made it against the law for Tennessee educators to teach theories on human origin that conflicted with the Bible.

Scopes was not an unwilling participant. He was enlisted to be a defendant by a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, who wanted to bring a bit of publicity to their small town. Their ploy worked. The dramatic trial that followed became a national media sensation, attracting two of the country’s leading orators – William Jennings Bryan, to argue for the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow, to argue for the defense. Vendors even hawked toy monkeys outside the courtroom.

After an eleven-day trial, John Scopes was convicted and fined $100. The conviction was appealed to the State Supreme Court where it was overturned and dismissed on a technicality, leaving the legality of the Butler Act undecided. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (Epperson v. Arkansas).

Contemporary copy of “A Civic Biology” – the book John Scopes used in his class

So where does this leave us eight decades later? Last month, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted for a bill that would change how certain topics are taught in the state’s science classes. The measure, which passed 70-23, calls out biological evolution along with human cloning, global warming and the chemical origins of life as topics that “can cause controversy.” It further states that education officials and administrators:

“…shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

While the measure also states that it should “not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine,” critics see the move as a backdoor way of teaching religious-based creationism in the classroom.

Teachers Corner

Hey, here is a list of questions:

  • What is the difference between a hard and soft science theory?
  • In what ways does the Dover case address some of the concerns this author has regarding a possible hidden agenda for the teaching of creationism in science classes?
Proponents argue that the bill is meant to protect teachers who are discriminated against for presenting any evidence that challenges evolution to their students.

The measure is currently held up in the Senate Education Committee and likely won’t see any further development soon. While the jury is still out on whether this could lead to another “monkey trial” in Tennessee, it is clear that debates over what and how we teach children in public schools will continue to repeat themselves.


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