March 13 – The Times, They Are A’ Changing

Today’s Factismal: The Butler Act, passed on March 13, 1925, made teaching evolution against the law in Tennessee, setting the stage for the “Scopes Monkey Trial”.

Ever since Darwin published his astonishing and then-controversial book on evolution, there have been many who opposed the idea on philosophical grounds. Though Darwin’s thesis was well-supported by the evidence and provided new and valuable insights into how life has changed over time, it was widely derided in the popular press due to the implications it raised about humans. In the 1920s, one of the strongest opponents of the idea was John Butler.

A political cartoon satirizing the Tennessee law (Image courtesy Eagle's History)

A political cartoon satirizing the Tennessee law (Image courtesy Eagle’s History)

Butler was both a pastor and a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Because he felt that evolution was sacrilegious, he wanted to prevent any teacher in Tennessee from teaching it to their students. And he had plenty of friends in the legislature who agreed with him; the bill passed by a large majority in both houses and was sent to the governor to sign. Though the governor did not like the bill, he signed it anyway in a (futile) attempt to garner support. On March 13, 1925, teaching evolution became an illegal activity.

But science doesn’t care about whether something is lawful or not; it only cares if it is a good explanation of what happens. And, without a doubt, evolution is the best explanation of how species change over time and how new species develop. Because of this, there were many people who found the new law onerous and thought that it was an odious restriction of the free speech that is essential to science, pedagogy, and a strong republic. And those people deliberately set out to break the law.

John Scopes, who broke a bad law (Image courtesy Eagle's History)

John Scopes, who broke a bad law (Image courtesy Eagle’s History)

The American Civil Liberties Union advertised for someone who was willing to teach evolution in Tennessee; their hope was that the law would be stricken down, allowing teachers to once more give their students the best explanation for how life changes over time. They found that person in a substitute teacher by the name of John Scopes (there is considerable evidence that both the prosecutor and the defense attorney colluded to have a trial on the topic in their town, hoping that it would increase the number of tourists). Scopes assigned the students to read a chapter describing evolution from the state-required textbook, and was promptly served with a warrant on May 5. On July 13, his case went to court in what came to be known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”.

The defense and prosecution sit together before the trial (Image courtesy Eagle's History)

The defense and prosecution sit together before the trial (Image courtesy Eagle’s History)

By then, the publicity and intense support on both sides of the issue had spun out of control. Instead of fighting to have the case dismissed and the law thrown out for suppressing free speech, Scopes’ attorneys had decided to attack the religious basis of the law. For eight days, heated arguments and caustic wit flew across the courtroom. When the judge refused to allow any of the defenses experts on evolution testify, Darrow asked if the judge intended to allow them to present any case at all. (He would apologize the next day, rather than face contempt of court proceedings.) The highlight of the trial was the surprise call by Darrow for the prosecuting attorney Bryan to take the stand. For two hours, Darrow dragged Bryan through every possible contradiction in the story of Genesis, intent on showing that the law and Bryan’s defense on it was supported neither by logic nor by good jurisprudence but instead by religious fever. Darrow then closed the defense’s case without a final summation, preventing Bryan the opportunity to get in the last word.

A political cartoon on the Scopes Monkey Trial (Image courtesy Carolina Center for Genomics History)

A political cartoon on the Scopes Monkey Trial (Image courtesy Carolina Center for Genome Science)

The jury’s verdict was even speedier than the events leading up to the trial. It took them just nine minutes to find that, even though many of them objected to the law itself, Scopes was technically guilty. Scopes was fined $100 by the judge, and promptly appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court. That court heard the arguments and threw out Scopes’ fine on a technicality (it should have been set by the jury, not by the judge), avoiding the question f the law’s constitutionality. Indeed, the law would remain on the books until 1967, when another teacher would be charged with teaching evolution in Tennessee.

Today, there is relatively little controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. But there is still a lot to be learned about exactly how evolution works. If you’d like to help discover the intricacies of this subject, then why not head over to Fossil Finders and work with their Devonian fossil collection?

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