In preparation for the trial of the century, the town of Dayton formed an “entertainment committee” which directed the building of a tourist camp, added an outdoor speaking platform to the courthouse as well as camera platforms for reporters, transformed Dayton’s main road into a festival ground complete with vendor stalls, and relabeled the Constable’s motorcycle the “monkeyville police.” Robinson’s drug store began serving “simian sodas” and Joe Mendi, a famous chimpanzee, was flaunted around town. The Scopes Trial was the first to be broadcast nationwide and was filmed for newsreels for distribution to movie theaters.
Two of the most famous lawyers of the era prepared to face off. William Jennings Bryan, outspoken Christian and famed orator, was the prosecuting attorney. Bryan served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and had run for president three times.
Clarence Darrow, outspoken agnostic and critic of fundamentalism, represented the defense. He was known for defending many unpopular people and radical causes.
The only legal question in the trial was whether or not Scopes had violated the Butler Act. However, both sides knew this was a “test case” and ultimately Scopes’ guilt or innocence meant nothing. These were the attorneys’ self proclaimed objectives:
Bryan: “First, to establish the right of the taxpayers to control what is taught in schools. Second, to draw a line between the teaching of evolution as a fact and teaching it as a theory. Third, to see that any teacher that might be found guilty of this offense should be given an opportunity to resign.”
Darrow: “My object and my only object, was to focus the attention of the country of the program of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America.”
Darrow’s initial plan was to have experts testify on the validity of evolution. However, the judge ruled against allowing the jury to hear these testimonies because the validity of evolution had nothing to do with whether or not Scopes was guilty of breaking the law (the only purpose of the trial). Instead, these testimonies were entered into court records by deposition. Faced with this obstacle, Darrow came up with a brilliantly unconventional plan. He convinced Bryan to take the stand as an expert witness defending the Bible. Why the judge would agree to allow the validity of the Bible to be questioned when he rightly refused to allow testimony on the validity of evolution is beyond me- they were equally irrelevant to the case.
The testimony of Darrow’s experts illustrated that scientists of the day had no concrete understanding of the evolution theory. They all equated evolution with embryology (the study of life forming from a single cell). A sperm cell enters an egg cell (conception), then those cells divide repeatedly resulting in a fully formed organism. Witnesses argued this was what evolution was all about- if you believe this, you believe in evolution. Although embryology highlights that life does indeed form from one cell, that one cell is species specific, always giving rise to its same “kind.” When asked to define evolution, Darrow’s “experts” responded with convoluted nonsensical ramblings. The transcript of the trial, ramblings included, can be viewed at the Clarence Darrow Digital Collection.
The “evidence” entered in support of evolution has since been discredited. For example, “Nebraska Man’s” fossilized tooth (later revealed as a fossilized pig tooth) was mentioned as a transitional ape-man. To this day, science has been unable to provide even one example of a transitional form. Darwin expected that, given time, a preponderance of evidence would be unearthed to support his theory. Over a century has passed and scientists are still looking for this proof.
Bryan was an intelligent and educated Christian, but not a Bible scholar. Darrow proceeded with a line of questioning focused on: (a) illustrating Bryan’s mostly literal biblical interpretation; (b) highlighting supernatural biblical accounts; and (c) pointing out Bryan’s imprecise and sometimes contradictory responses. Bryan had a compromised fundamentalist belief at best. His belief in the day- age theory of creation and a local rather than global flood, among other things, rendered him incapable of providing consistent defense of either creation or biblical inerrancy. Darrow exposed Bryant’s inconsistency by reading directly from Genesis, noting the terms “morning” and “night” which define what the term “day” means in context. He made a mockery of Bryan’s belief that the creation account could be understood to impart that creation occurred over millions of years rather than 6 literal 24-hour days.
Bryan had agreed to take the stand believing that Darrow would do the same as an expert on evolution the next day. Instead, Darrow instructed the jury to find his client guilty as charged which ended the trial. The jury declared Scopes guilty within 10 minutes and he was fined $100. The goal of the ACLU (and the reason Darrow recommended that Scopes be found guilty) was to appeal the verdict, ideally all the way to the Supreme Court in a case that would find laws like the Butler Act unconstitutional nationwide. That never occurred. Scopes’ appeal was overturned on a technicality leaving the ACLU nothing to pursue. Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep during an afternoon nap.
Darrow was brilliant- succeeding in duping both the judge and prosecution into framing the argument as “religion vs science” setting what has proven to be an inescapable, fallacious legal precedent of equating creation science with “legal advancement of religion” versus secular science as an “accepted collection of unbiased facts.” Courts continue to operate under this fallacy. Proponents of creation science in the classroom are not advocating the “teaching of religion.” While the theories presented by creation science do corroborate the Bible, the only aspects of creation science belonging in the classroom are evidences that support a Creator as the origin of life- not theological implications. By the same token, the only aspects of secular science belonging in the classroom are evidences that corroborate their theory of the origin of life- not indoctrination of a secular worldview.