The Scopes trial, or “Monkey” trial in the early 20th century is one of the most famous modern clashes between science and religion. Specifically, it was a clash between progressive, educated liberals and a bunch of religious ignoramuses over whether evolution should be taught in public schools. At least that’s the usual story, most famously portrayed in a play (and movie) called “Inherit the Wind.” In this version of the trial of John Scopes, in trouble for teaching evolution, we witness a brilliant agnostic lawyer take on a foolish religious bigot, John Scopes sent to jail, and mobs of angry Christian folk antagonizing anyone who disagrees with them. If one wishes to discover the real story, Edward Larson’s Pulitzer prize (in history) winning book Summer for the Gods is there to help.
In the 1920’s there was indeed a push (misguided, in my opinion) by religious fundamentalists to pass laws that would ban the teaching of evolution. The reasons for the stronger negative reaction from religious folk are complex, but included a growing scientific acceptance of Darwin’s particular naturalistic mechanism of evolution, natural selection (which had been almost universally rejected by scientists throughout the 19th century), the perception that naturalistic evolution would lead young folk astray by convincing them that the human soul and morality are illusions, and a growing discomfort with the teachings of eugenicists. This latter reason was one of the most important to William Jennings Bryan, the politician who famously represented the prosecution in the Scopes trial, defending the Bible and Christianity from the perceived evils of evolution and dying a few days after the trial ended. He is generally portrayed as an ignorant religious bigot and fundamentalist, but this is hardly an accurate description. He was of course a Christian, and he was not exactly a sophisticated intellectual, but he was a champion of the common people (his nickname was “the Commoner”), an advocate of women’s rights, an advocate for peace, an anti-imperialist, and he frequently railed against what he saw as the growing, rampant greed of capitalist corporations in
What most people don’t realize about the Scopes trial is that it was in fact simply a publicity stunt. Organizers in the little town of