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May 5 Teaching Evolution and the Scopes Trial

Today we look at infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee in 1925 and the attempt to overthrow the Butler Act which prohibited teaching evolution in schools. Also how the anti-evolution movement evolved into a Christian Science movement.


On May 5th, a football coach John Thomas Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee's Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee schools. It was a test case that had been financed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The emerging theory of evolution had become a flash point between scientists and those who took a fundamental and literalistic interpretation of the Bible. At the time the state of Tennessee required teachers to use the assigned textbook, Hunter's Civic Biology which included a chapter on evolution which seemed as though teachers were essentially required to break the law. One of the key architects of the trial was George Rappleyea, an engineer and geologist and was keen to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act, if they could find a Tennessee teacher who was willing to act as a defendant. The case is known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

A band of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, also saw this as an opportunity to get publicity for their town, and they approached Scopes. When asked about the test case, Scopes was initially reluctant to get involved. After some discussion he told the group gathered in Robinson's Drugstore, "If you can prove that I've taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I'll be willing to stand trial." The case ended on July 21, 1925, with a guilty verdict, and then the case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In a 3–1 decision written by Chief Justice Grafton Green, the Butler Act was held to be constitutional, but in a classic legal fudge, the court overturned Scopes's conviction because the judge had set the fine instead of the jury. The Butler Act remained in effect until May 18, 1967, when it was repealed by the Tennessee legislature. After the trial, Scopes admitted to a reporter that he had actually skipped the evolution lesson, and that his lawyers had coached his students to go on the stand.

The trials impact soon reached wider than Tennessee, escalating the political and legal conflict in which strict creationists and scientists struggled over the teaching of evolution in Arizona and California. After Scopes was convicted, creationists throughout the United States sought similar anti-evolution laws for their states and by 1927, there were 13 states, that had deliberated over some form of anti-evolution law. Nearly all these efforts were rejected, but Mississippi and Arkansas did put anti-evolution laws on the books after the Scopes trial, laws that would outlive the Butler Act. A Group of committed anti-evolutionists emerged who sought to ban evolution as a topic for study in schools or, failing that, to relegate it to the status of unproven hypothesis perhaps taught alongside the biblical version of creation. This anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s evolved into the creation science movement of the 1960s. This marked a shift from overtly religious to covertly religious objections to evolutionary theory—sometimes described as a Wedge Strategy.

The Scopes trial had both short- and long-term effects in the teaching of science in schools in the US. Though often portrayed as influencing public opinion against fundamentalism, the anti-evolutionary legislation was not challenged again until 1965. The effects of the Scopes Trial on high school biology texts has not been unanimously agreed by scholars. Of the most widely used textbooks after the trial, only one included the word evolution in its index; and the relevant page includes biblical quotations. It seems that in the short-term there was a trend for the removal of evolution from texts, but in the mid-long term the anti-evolutionist movement died out. Biology textbooks began to include the previously removed evolutionary theory reflecting that there was a growing demand for science textbooks to be written by scientists rather than educators or education specialists. In his book Trying Biology Robert Shapiro examines many of the biology textbooks of the time and finds that while they may have avoided the trigger word ‘evolution’ to placate anti-evolutionists, the overall focus on the subject was not greatly diminished, and the books were still implicitly evolution based. An attempt to rewrite history, erasing its nuances, was seen in a popular play titled Inherit the Wind which became a film. The character representing Scopes is shown being arrested in class, thrown in jail, burned in effigy by frenzied, mean-spirited, and ignorant townspeople, and taunted by a fire-snorting preacher. None of that actually happened in Dayton, Tennessee.


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