Evolution Law Has Parallels to Historic Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow cross-examines William Jennings Bryan. Photo from Smithsonian archives.

Tennessee’s legislature passed a law this spring allowing classroom debate about evolution and other scientific theory. The measure garnered national attention, and comparisons to a piece of Tennessee history, the Scopes Monkey Trial.

It was on this day in 1925 that a grand jury in Dayton indicted high school teacher John Scopes on charges of teaching evolution. Just that year, the General Assembly passed the first law in the US banning the theory from public schools. Scope’s case quickly became one of the biggest national stories of the day, even inspiring novelty songs.

That July, so many people travelled to Dayton to see the trial that court was held outdoors. On the seventh and final day of testimony, Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow called a lawyer from the prosecution to the stand. William Jennings Bryan agreed, and the two engaged in a lengthy and now legendary discussion of whether the Bible is open to interpretation.

Scopes lost. And rather than let the appeals process play out, the state supreme court dismissed the case, calling it “bizarre.”

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