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Scopes v. State: A Lawsuit from a Bygone Era Where Evolutionists were the Persecuted, Not the Persecutors

Casey Luskin

Scopes v. State is probably the most famous court case in the history of the evolution controversy. It’s most well known because a play, Inherit the Wind, was turned into a movie based loosely upon the trial, and has been shown in countless college and high school classrooms promoting a stereotype that Darwin-skeptics are ignorant, close-minded, intolerant ignoramuses. Ironically, today it’s the evolutionists who behave like the fundamentalists in the Scopes trial, holding all the power and banning viewpoints they don’t like.

1. Summary
In 1925, teacher John T. Scopes was convicted under the recently adopted Tennessee “Monkey Law” that had criminalized the teaching of evolution.10 In Scopes’s defense, attorneys working with the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) argued that it was unconstitutional to force a teacher to present only one view of humanity’s origin, namely the Biblical account of creation.11 The Tennessee high court upheld the law, stating that because the prohibition of evolution did not establish an official government religion, the law did not violate the Establishment Clause.12 Mr. Scopes’s conviction was later overturned on a technicality.13 Over four decades later, Scopes v. State was overruled by Epperson v. Arkansas, which recognized that it is illegal to prohibit, much less criminalize, the teaching of any scientific theory due to religious motives.14

2. Importance and Commentary
The widely-publicized “Scopes Monkey Trial” became famous as a radio-broadcasted courtroom trial that debated the validity of evolution versus the Biblical account of creation.15 Although Scopes “lost,” the public perceived that the pro-evolution side won after prosecutor William Jennings Bryan took the witness stand to be cross-examined by lead defense counsel Clarence Darrow.16 Popular notions of history, based upon the dramatized account portrayed in the play and movie Inherit the Wind, typically teach that Darrow humiliated Bryan with well-reasoned questions about the creation account in Genesis that Bryan was unable to answer. Yet evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould reminds that:

[T]he most celebrated moment–when Darrow supposedly forced Bryan to admit that the days of creation might have spanned more than twenty-four hours–represented Bryan’s free-will statement about his own and well known personal beliefs (he had never been a strict biblical literalist), not a fatal inconsistency, exposed by Darrow’s relentless questioning.17

Cultural memory has recorded a version of the Scopes Trial that differs sharply from reality; but nonetheless, as a result of the trial, “Antievolutionists and Fundamentalists in general were portrayed as foolish, unthinking, religious zealots.”18

Despite its infamy, the Scopes case has little direct relevance to current law. The trial was later dramatized by the play and movie Inherit the Wind, which “contributed to the negative public image of Fundamentalists”19 and is still regularly shown to high school and college students.20 Many Americans do not realize that this movie falsely casts the trial, as well as the entire debate over evolution, as being between close-minded, backwards, and religiously motivated “Christian fundamentalists” versus enlightened, progressive, and freedom-loving evolutionary scientists and educators.21 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia calls this portrayal the “beloved secular legend of the Monkey Trial,”22 while another legal scholar calls it the “Inherit the Wind stereotype.”23 Unfortunately, many people believe this stereotype is valid, unaware that a significant number of well-credentialed scientists find legitimate scientific reasons to question Darwin.24 Moreover, this stereotype continues to be perpetuated by the media covering modern curricular battles because the story of enlightened Darwinian scientists and educators versus bigoted and unsophisticated fundamentalists riles emotions and sells newspapers just as well today as it did in 1925.25 As will be discussed, this caricature has even infiltrated the minds of some judges who believe that opposition to evolution necessarily endorses fundamentalist Christianity. While the criminalization of teaching evolution by the Tennessee Legislature was inimical to freedom of inquiry and the fair administration of justice, Scalia believes that today we have “Scopes-inreverse,”26 where viewpoints that do not support evolution are excluded from classrooms through misguided law and a climate of fear and intimidation.

[Editor’s Note: This survey of Scopes v. State is an excerpt from Casey Luskin’s article “Does Challenging Darwin Create Constitutional Jeopardy? A Comprehensive Survey of Case Law Regarding the Teaching of Biological Origins,” Hamline University Law Review, Vol. 32(1):1-64 (Winter, 2009), published by Hamline University School of Law. This is the first survey in a series of 21 cases discussed in the article that will be surveyed here on ENV in the coming months. This excerpt covers the case Scopes v. State; the full article can be read here.]

References Cited
[10.] Scopes v. State, 289 S.W. 363 (Tenn. 1927).
[11.] Id. at 364.
[12.] Id. at 367.
[13.] Id.
[14.] Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 109 (1968).
[15.] See Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods (Basic Books 1997).
[16.] Jay D. Wexler, Note, Of Pandas, People, and the First Amendment: The Constitutionality of Teaching Intelligent Design in the Public Schools, 49 Stanford Law Review 439, 446-47 (1997).
[17.] Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages, 137 (Ballantine Books 1999).
[18.] Eugenie Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, 96 (2004). For an account of the Scopes Trial that is more accurate and complete than the popular Inherit the Wind versions, see LARSON, supra note 15.
[19.] Scott, supra note 18, at 96.
[20.] Id. at 97 (stating that Inherit the Wind is “often read and performed in high schools”).
[21.] For an excellent account of the actual historical events versus the Inherit the Wind version, see Larson, supra note 15; see also Phillip Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds; Scott, supra note 18, at 94-97.
[22.] Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Educ. v. Freiler, 530 U.S. 1251, 1255 (2000).
[23.] See Johnson, supra note 21, at 24-36.
[24.] See generally A Scientific Dissent from Darwin
[25.] A recent popular book which makes heavy use of the “Inherit the Wind stereotype” while telling the story behind the Kitzmiller v. Dover lawsuit is Edwards Humes, Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007).
[26.] Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 634 (1987) (Scalia, J., dissenting).


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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