Essay on Science V. Religion: The Scopes Monkey Trial
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The 1920’s were a time of change. New ideas were becoming more readily experimented with and even accepted by large portions of the population. Some of these included jazz music and the fight against the alcoholic prohibition. The radical idea I will focus on in this paper, however, is Evolution. It is a theory that had been around for over half a century before the 20’s but had only more recently caught on in the US. It contradicted the Christian theory of Divine Creation as described in the Bible. This caused many religious fundamentalists to fight against it. They took their battle to the law books, and they were challenged by pro-evolution modernists in the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925.
The theory of Evolution was developed by…show more content…
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was on the forefront of the challenge against the Butler Act. The ACLU is a non-profit organization founded in 1920 whose stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States." It posted an announcement in a Tennessee newspaper saying that it would offer its services to anyone willing to challenge the anti-evolution statute. John T. Scopes accepted the offer, after townspeople like George Rappleyea argued that a trial would bring publicity to the small town of Dayton. Scopes was a 24 year old science teacher and coach of the local high school football team. He was indicted by a grand jury for violating the Butler Law on May 25, 1925 and the stage was set for Case Number 5232, Scopes v. State.
The main player for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential nominee and former Secretary of State. He was a devout Christian, a prohibitionist, and fighter of evolution. In a way, Bryan embodied the traditional way of life that many fought to keep during the twenties. For the defense, there was Clarence Darrow, an agnostic lawyer who was famous for defending the underdog in a trial. He, in a way, represented
The Scopes trial is best known for pitting William Jennings Bryan, a populist orator and evangelist who was roughly the Billy Graham of his day, against fabled defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan argued that Tennessee's anti-Darwin law should be upheld; Darrow argued for freedom of speech. Scopes was convicted, but his fine was overturned on appeal. Anti-evolution laws were sufficiently discredited by the trial that most were repealed; in 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against teaching evolution were unconstitutional. Today in journalism and public speaking, the phrase "Scopes monkey trial" is commonly employed as a shorthand way of saying that religion is anti-scientific; in popular culture, the notion has risen that at the Scopes trial, Bible-beating zealots ran amok. But the actualities of the trial do not support this view.
The first point to know is that when Darwin initially aired his thesis, with the 1859 publication of "Origin of Species and the Descent of Man," it sparked a science versus religion controversy in England but not in the United States. Most American faith figures initially did not react against Darwin. Asa Gray, a botanist and devout Christian who was one of Harvard's best-known scientists in the late 19th century, championed Darwin in the United States and wrote that evolution did not conflict with faith; this view was widely accepted.
When "The Fundamentals," a popular series of tracts that sparked the modern American fundamentalist movement, began publication in 1909, most of these works spoke kindly of Darwin, suggesting that evolution helped people understand God's process of creation.
Only in the 1920s did Darwin and religion come into regular conflict in the United States. There were several reasons. One was that paleontologists were beginning to accumulate evidence that human beings descended from earlier primates. Scientific findings of "cave men" were banner headline stories of the time, and though some, notably Piltdown Man, turned out to be hoaxes, some were confirmed as genuine. Although Darwin had openly spoken of "the descent of man" from earlier species, this point had tended not to sink in. While many churchgoers might have been content to believe that the horse evolved from the ancient proto-equus called eohippus, they were less than enthusiastic about evidence that Homo sapiens did not come about in a single divine act of creation. This put opposition to selection theory into play as an American public issue.Another reason that teaching of evolution became a front-burner issue in the 1920s was that it was then that universal publicly funded high-school education was just becoming standard across the country; the question of just what the new high schools should teach was then very much on the minds of activists, newspaper editors, and politicians. When public attention began to focus on the science versus religion aspect of Darwin's theory, some employed the opening for thoughtful debate, and others to promote an explicitly Christian agenda, instilling into the subject a danger that remains today, the use of what is ostensibly scientific arguments as a cover for promotion of a specific religion. (Read a chapter about the evolution debate in the 1920s from University of Georgia historian Edward Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Summer for the Gods.")
But there was a public-spirited motive for the 1920s shift to fear of evolutionary thought. Many members of the clergy had grown terrified of the then-fashionable "Social Darwinism," which held that that "survival of the fittest" should be applied to human society. Social Darwinism maintained that the poor, the disabled, and the troubled--religion's historical first concern--should be weeded out for genetic reasons, and this idea was being openly praised by respectable figures. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton had published a book arguing for the selective breeding of human beings, dubbing his idea "eugenics." Norman Thomas, the most important American socialist of the early century, and himself a former minister, had announced that childbearing should be restricted among "inferior stock." And of course at the time in Germany, the incipient Nazi Party was beginning to speak of Social Darwinism as a philosophy of government. Owing in no small part to religious fears of Social Darwinism, a move to ban the teaching of evolution began.