From Scopes to Dover-9: The Scopes trial begins

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee was brief, lasting just eight days, much of it involving legal wrangling over technicalities that took place with the jury out of the courtroom. There were only two occasions when Bryan and Darrow were able to make speeches and these occurred in the middle of the trial during legal skirmishes.

The legal backdrop to the Scopes case did not involve the US constitution. Recall that the First Amendment to the constitution (ratified as part of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791) says simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is important to realize that originally the First Amendment was considered to apply only to laws passed by the federal government, since the wording explicitly only barred Congress from passing any law that infringed on those rights. [Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-8: Freedom of speech or science versus religion?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

What is interesting about the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial’ case is that it was really fought on two levels, both of which have survived to this day. On the surface level, the legal arguments had little to do with the issue of inserting religion into the public schools. Bryan was arguing two points: (1) that the community, through their elected representatives, had the right to decide what should be taught in their local schools, and (2) that since the teaching of religious doctrines had already been eliminated from public schools, so should other unproven doctrines like evolution, especially since the latter doctrine undermined the former. As he said in his essay God and Evolution (New York Times, February 26, 1922, p. 84):

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?
. . .
Our opponents are not fair. When we find fault with the teaching of Darwin’s unsupported hypothesis, they talk about Copernicus and Galileo and ask whether we shall exclude science and return to the dark ages. Their evasion is a confession of weakness. We do not ask for the exclusion of any scientific truth, but we do protest against an atheist teacher being allowed to blow his guesses in the face of the student. The Christians who want to teach religion in their schools furnish the money for denominational institutions. If atheists want to teach atheism, why do they not build their own schools and employ their own teachers?

Bryan was trying to drive a wedge between what he felt were well-established scientific truths like the heliocentric model of the solar system, and unproven theories like evolution. Bryan was also advocating a majoritarian point of view, arguing that elected officials had the right to determine what was taught and to exclude the teaching of those things that were not scientific facts. Darrow and the ACLU, on the other hand, were arguing that this was an issue of academic freedom, that teachers should not be barred by law from teaching what they believed to be true. (Note that this is an interesting reversal from recent battles where it is the advocates of creationism who argue that not allowing the teaching of intelligent design in schools is a violation of the free speech rights of teachers. As we will see later, this switch has occurred because over time, as a result of several US Supreme Court decisions, the legal and constitutional issues involved have shifted considerably from those that were at issue in the Scopes trial.)

But beneath the surface level, there was clearly another level in which both Bryan and Darrow thought that the theory of evolution and religion did conflict, and this was the real fight that was relished by and sought for by both, to determine which worldview was true. This second front in the case caused some consternation to their respective allies, which consisted of state attorney general Tom Stewart for the prosecution and the ACLU for the defense.

The lead prosecutor Stewart wanted to try the case on a simple question of fact, whether Scopes had violated the law by teaching about human evolution. Hence he opposed the introduction of any scientific expert testimony and Biblical analysis, arguing that these were irrelevant.

But Bryan, the much-higher profile prosecution co-counsel of Stewart, felt that when the ideas of evolution were applied to human beings, it led to a devaluation of humanity and was the cause of much evil in the world. Being a political progressive and advocate of peace, he was concerned that the theory of evolution was leading to exploitation, injustice, and wars. He was thus eager to argue a much more expansive case and show that evolution was a false and dangerous theory.

The main strategy of the defense was to exploit the fact that the wording in the Butler Act only prohibited teaching evolution that “denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. This provided them with an opening to examine the role that interpretation played in understanding the message of the Bible and to show that more sophisticated interpretations seemed to make the Bible and evolution compatible. This enabled them to also teach about the theory of evolution, to show that that it was true and had the support of scientists, and that teachers should have the free speech right to teach accepted scientific theories without the threat of punishment. This strategy was what led them to request that they be allowed to provide the expert testimony of scientists and theologians.

But in addition to the free speech case, Darrow was also a well-known militant agnostic who thought that Christianity was just a bunch of superstitions and relished the chance to demonstrate the superiority of science and the absurdity of Christian beliefs.

With the two most famous people in the case, Bryan and Darrow, both eager to extend the case not only beyond narrow questions of fact, but also beyond the issue of free speech, it was inevitable that they would prevail and the case would become a high-profile contest between evolution and religion, just as the civic leaders in Dayton had hoped.

POST SCRIPT: The Beagle project

As I have mentioned before, 2009 will be a big Darwin year, commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. I came across The Beagle Project which seeks to create a replica of The Beagle, the ship on which Darwin made his epic voyage, and recreate the path taken on the original trip, starting in 2009 and ending in 2011.

The trip is not meant to be simply a joy ride. It will also carry out scientific experiments.