The Scopes Trial

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 3

By Jeff Laird

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Continued from Page One

Legally, Bryan was committed to the idea of a state's right to choose their educational curriculum; see his quote later on. At least in theory, and as a theory, Bryan was not opposed to discussions about evolution. In a newspaper editorial, Bryan had said:
The only part of evolution in which any considerable interest is felt is evolution applied to man. A hypothesis in regard to the rocks and plant life does not affect the philosophy upon which one's life is built. Evolution applied to fish, birds, and beasts would not materially affect man's view of his own responsibilities…
Bryan's primary, and most serious objection to Evolution was its use in justifying eugenics and social Darwinism. This was the root motivation for his very public, very passionate campaign against it. This was not without reason; the very textbook Scopes supposedly used to teach evolution, Civic Biology by George W. Hunter, told students there were five separate races of men, describing white Caucasians as the "highest type," the top of the evolutionary ladder. The textbook also stated that the disparity between monkeys and the more evolved apes was the same as the disparity between apes and the "lower" human races.

In particular, Bryan was appalled by statements such as the one made by none other than Clarence Darrow himself, seven years earlier in the Washington Post: "Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live."

To be fair, if unflattering, Darrow was a renowned flip-flopper who routinely changed his stance on issues, depending on who he was representing and how obstinate he felt at a given moment. Whether he actually believed the statement above or not, it was precisely the kind of attitude Bryan feared becoming mainstream.


The prosecution's goal and strategy were both simple: provide evidence Scopes had violated the Butler Act by teaching evolution in a public school. This, one has to remember, was the sole legal basis for the trial, and should have been the only subject under discussion. So the prosecution made no attempt to disprove or even discuss the scientific theory. As Bryan noted beforehand:
…I am perfectly willing to go into the question of evolution, [but] I am not sure that it is involved. The right of the people speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it.
Darrow, however, characterized the Butler Act in trial as, "foolish, mischievous, and wicked brazen and bold an attempt to destroy liberty as ever was seen in the Middle Ages." As a result, the trial essentially became a shouting match over religion and religious interpretation.


Despite the typical assumption that Darrow was a well-read skeptic exposing Bryan as a religious bumpkin, Bryan was far more versed in the actual science involved with Darwin's theory. Darrow was a voracious reader, and a brilliant man. Yet, he confessed he hadn't read any further than 50 pages into Darwin's Origin... because he found it overly difficult to understand. Bryan had read Darwin's books decades before the trial, and quoted them during his discussions. While he seems to have misunderstood some of what Darwin implied, he was much more astute in his awareness of evolutionary theory than insulting depictions, such as Inherit the Wind, would lead one to believe.

The jury was, in truth, forbidden to hear expert testimony about evolution. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, though, evolution was not on trial, Scopes was, for (purportedly) violating a law. Presiding judge John T. Raulston did ask for considerable volumes of scientific testimony to be submitted in written form, so it would be useable in a future appeal.


The trial moved from spectacle to legend when the prosecution called for Bryan to appear as a witness. Though he was neither a preacher, a priest, nor a theologian, he was ostensibly requested as an expert on the Bible. Inherit the Wind depicts this as a last-minute flutter by a defense attorney forbidden to discuss actual evidence. In reality, it was a well-planned trap. Darrow held mock examinations, and spent the nights before the summons preparing his questions. His questioning had little to do with the law, and everything to do with deriding religion, the Bible, and fundamentalism.

When called, Bryan repeatedly stated his understanding that he was going to be offered an equivalent opportunity to call Darrow to the stand in regards to Darwinism. With that promise in mind, he agreed to speak as an expert on the Bible. This was in no small part Bryan's attempt to counter Darrow's constant courtroom insults against all things Christian. And, as Bryan would state several times, to show that he was neither afraid nor ashamed to discuss what he believed, and why, under any circumstances.

Bryan was elderly, out of shape, and a week from his own natural death, being interrogated outdoors in brutal heat by an infamous, experienced trial lawyer. Yet, transcripts and other accounts clearly refute the idea that Darrow out-smarted, out-dueled, or otherwise destroyed Bryan, in dramatic or mundane fashion. Many legal experts who examine the transcripts, in fact, agree that Darrow came across as petty and shallow; Bryan confident, but increasingly defensive and angry. Some, like famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, think Bryan won the exchange outright.

Darrow's real intent was to erode Bryan's popular support, and to get in his digs at religion. He did this using a tactic the internet turned into an epidemic: blitzing an opponent with shallow questions, without leaving any room for actual discussion; that is, seeking a popularity-based win via arrogance and derision. Ironically, most of the damage to Bryan's popularity came not because Bryan was outed as a simplistic literalist, but because he was outed as a non-simplistic, non-literalist. His stance was more reserved, and more nuanced, than some of his less sophisticated supporters might have preferred.

Bryan freely testified to his view: the Bible was not meant to be read absolutely literally in all parts, but rather was to be understood in proper context. This is actually how most "fundamentalists," even of that day, would characterize their position, but such things don't play out well in courtroom exchanges or hostile newspaper accounts. During his testimony, Bryan avoided dogmatism on a 6,000-year-old figure for the age of the Earth, considering it only a human calculation, and thus potentially in error. He accepted that the "days" of creation might well have been long periods of time. This was not under pressure, or a backtrack, but his first and repeated answer to that question from Darrow.

Continue to Page Three

Image Credit: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial in 1925.

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Published 7-1-2014