Debunking the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ Stereotype

By Edward Sisson

Whenever a challenge to the truth of Darwinian evolution arises, the scientific establishment and its allies trot out the Scopes Monkey Trial. It is their position that if the scientific establishment has ratified a science textbook, such as the book from which Scopes taught evolution, the state should not engage in “censoring” the material in that book.

The Scopes Monkey Trial plays such a prominent role in the debate that I purchased a copy of the transcript; a copy of the textbook from which Scopes taught, A Civic Biology; and a copy of the companion lab guide to that textbook. Review of these source materials-very different from the biased picture presented in Inherit the Wind-was a real eye-opener.

In the Scopes trial, there was never any judgment or verdict that Darwinian evolution is true. The prosecution argued and the judge agreed that the Tennessee statute in question barred the teaching of the Darwinian theory even if it were true, so its truth was not an issue in the case. Nor, notably, was the truth of the theory of Darwinian evolution and the supposed evidence for it ever subjected to cross-examination. Scopes’ lawyers presented extensive written statements from seven scientists stating that Darwinian evolution is the correct explanation for the diversity of life on earth. The prosecution sought permission to cross-examine the five pro-Darwinian science experts whose statements had been read in open court, but Clarence Darrow and the other Scopes lawyers objected and the court refused to allow it.

Nor, ironically, given the popular understanding of the case as a disproof of Christian fundamentalism, was fundamentalism technically an issue in the case. The Tennessee statute did not mandate the teaching of fundamentalism. The statute merely barred the teaching of Darwinian evolution.

But Darrow and the defense team wished to make fundamentalism the issue, and they succeeded. Prosecution lawyer William Jennings Bryan agreed to be questioned by Darrow on his personal interpretation of the Bible (the famous examination shown in a false light in Inherit the Wind) only if Darrow agreed to be questioned on the evidence for evolution-and the judge agreed that Bryan could question Darrow after Darrow questioned Bryan. The bargain by Bryan, submitting to examination so that he could examine Darrow, was a last-ditch attempt to place some criticism of Darwinian evolution into the Scopes trial record to counteract the one-sided, unchallenged presentation of the pro-Darwin side.

But Darrow, after his famous examination of Bryan, surprised Bryan by announcing that he had no defense to present, and asking the judge to instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty.  In substance, Darrow was changing Scopes’ plea to guilty, but by using the technical approach of a request for a “directed verdict” against his own client, Darrow avoided a waiver of Scopes’ right to appeal. Scopes’ effective switch to a plea of guilty closed the evidence and made it impossible for Bryan to call Darrow to the stand to question him on evolution.

Darrow’s claim that he had no factual defense to present was patently false.  In fact, John Scopes never actually taught evolution; he was sick on the class day evolution was scheduled, so he never delivered the lecture. His failure to actually teach evolution was an excellent defense: in fact Scopes was innocent, and a lawyer who was actually representing Scopes’ interests – rather than the ACLU’s interest – would have featured that fact prominently. (But the prosecution deserves blame as well; surely the prosecutors, too, knew that Scopes never delivered the lecture.)

Moreover, Darrow could easily have abandoned his defense before his examination of Bryan; the fact that Darrow requested the guilty verdict only after he conducted his examination of Bryan indicates that his intention all along was to use Bryan to challenge Christian fundamentalism and then to escape any challenge to the theory of Darwinian evolution.

The result was that in the Scopes Monkey Trial, scientists presented their case for Darwinian evolution without any challenge in the trial to the merits of whether the data they offered really showed that the Darwinian theory was true. Nor was there any review of the scientists’ arguments in the appeal. Darrow won the appeal on a technicality – the trial court broke a technical rule in assessing the fine.

There is, however, this priceless comment in the appellate concurring opinion of Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Chambliss.  He noted that Scopes’ lawyers prominently featured this statement from Prof. Reinke of Vanderbilt University:

“The theory of evolution is altogether essential to the teaching of biology ….  To deny the teacher of biology the use of [evolution] would make his teaching as chaotic as an attempt to teach … physics without assuming the existence of the ether.”

Well.  There is no physics course taught in any high school today that “assum[es] the existence of the ether.”  The concept was abandoned decades ago.  In fact, the progress of physics accelerated with the abandonment of the “ether” concept. The progress of biology might also accelerate with the abandonment of Darwinian evolution.

Darwinian evolution’s escape from proper cross-examination is long-standing. Cambridge University Astrophysics Prof. Sir Fred Hoyle, in his book critical of Darwinism, The Mathematics of Evolution, wrote that the scientific challenges to Darwinian evolution have “never had a fair hearing” because “the developing system of popular education [from Darwin’s day to the present] provided an ideal opportunity for zealots who were sure of themselves to overcome those who were not, for awkward arguments not to be discussed, and for discrepant facts to be suppressed.”

Examination of Scopes’s text book, A Civic Biology, demonstrates another important lesson about whether the scientific establishment should receive the great deference it demands from our school boards concerning what should be taught in our schools. A Civic Biology and its companion lab book both contain sections on eugenics-introduced by the statement that “[t]he science of being well born is called eugenics.” The scientific establishment of the time fully supported this “science” of eugenics. This endorsement by the scientific establishment meant that eugenics was taught in our schools.

Here is what the scientific establishment of that time caused schoolchildren to learn. The Scopes textbook, Hunter’s A Civic Biology, divided humanity into five races and ranked them in terms of superiority, concluding with “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” A Civic Biology asserted that crime and immorality are inherited and run in families, and that “these families have become parasitic on society. . . . If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off. . . . [W]e do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” The lab book, at Problem 160, asks students to use inheritance charts “[t]o determine some means of bettering, physically and mentally, the human race,” and a “Note to teachers” says that “[t]he child is at the receptive age and is emotionally open to the serious lessons here involved.”

Of course, the scientific establishment of today would denounce all of this. Thus the very text book from which Scopes taught-the very book that the scientific establishment of today proclaims Scopes ought to have been able to use in 1925 without any interference by the state-includes material that today the scientific establishment rejects. Eugenics, like the “ether,” once thought so essential, has vanished from the curriculum – has “vanished into the ether,” one is tempted to say. Yet science continues ever healthier despite the loss of these theories. And science would remain healthy if Darwinian evolution, too, “vanished into the ether.”

Thus the important question is whether the rest of the world should wait for the science establishment to catch up before deciding to reject paradigms that have hung on in our textbooks for years, despite manifold and rapidly-accumulating flaws.

If we cast ourselves back to 1925 and ask ourselves whether it would have been proper for the State of Tennessee then to have adopted a law that permitted the teaching of eugenics as the scientific establishment demanded, but that required that challenges to the theory also be taught-would not everyone today applaud the foresight of the state in enacting such a law? Would we not all agree that if such a “science” of eugenics had to be taught in our schools because of the insistence of the scientific establishment, that it would be appropriate also to teach the flaws in that “science”?

The hypothetical example of a state law mandating that doubts about the “science” of eugenics be taught demonstrates that it is appropriate for the people who determine our school curricula not to be slavishly bound to adhere to whatever the scientific establishment espouses at any given time. Instead, the population at large-who are free from the institutional incentives and biases that can and do affect the judgment of members of the scientific establishment-are entirely within their rights to doubt a theory before the scientific establishment might similarly doubt that theory. This kind of approach is well-accepted in other fields where the government significantly affects the lives of the people: for example, while we listen respectfully to military officers who state the need for more weapons, we reserve to the people’s chosen representatives the final decision.

Where tens of millions of dollars of funding, and the education of tens of millions of children, are at stake, the recipients of the funds and the purveyors of the education deserve respect but should not hold the final say over their own funding and their own jobs. They are not as free from self-interested bias as they flatter themselves they are. Too often, to us the parents, the science establishment’s claim to be motivated only by the well-being of our children appears tainted by a self-interested desire that our children flatter their teachers’ egos by believing everything their teachers believe. Indeed, Darwinians, who claim that all of life is motivated by an irresistible drive for survival, which necessarily means a drive for power, are poorly positioned to claim a special exemption from the very force they say rules life. To the contrary, we are justified in considering that they may be particularly susceptible to the operation of the very theory they advocate so vehemently. In a democracy, the final decisions in these matters must rest with the people who provide the funding and who are the parents who give birth to, raise, and support the children who are in the government’s schools. School boards ought to give serious consideration to encouraging the development of suitable curriculum materials by which to present to students the data and analysis that show the weaknesses in the Darwinian theory – weaknesses that are sufficiently significant that this teaching may even cause students to doubt that the Darwinian explanation is true.



Published March 30, 2016