July 21 is verdict day in the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. The verdict came in from a jury in Dayton, Tenn., that John Thomas Scopes had committed the crime of teaching evolution to students at his high school, for which transgression he was fined $100.
After Scopes had originally been charged with the misdemeanor the legal proceedings quickly became a show trial between fundamentalist religious leaders eager to “dramatize their battle against evolution” and those devoted to advancing “man’s understanding of himself and the world he lives in.” These quotes come from Fay-Cooper Cole, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, who was recruited by noted civil libertarian lawyer Clarence Darrow to be an expert witness for the defense. The article by Cole, present at one of the most fascinating milestones on the road to truth, was written for us in January 1959 and is available from the Scientific American Archive at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-witness-at-the-scopes-trial/
The trial, as it played out in the popular press, electrified the nation. In the end the jury was unconvinced (11 jurors were fundamentalists) and they returned a guilty verdict. Victory, however, belonged to the science of evolution. As Cole said, “No attempt at repression has ever backfired so impressively. Where one person had been interested in evolution before the trial, scores were reading and inquiring at its close.” By 1967 the state of Tennessee had advanced enough to take the flawed law off their statute books.
The struggle between creationism and science continues, however. For a roundup of recent battles, see our In-Depth Report on the Web at http://www.scientificamerican.com/report/creationism-vs-evolution/
For news on history and social sciences at Scientific American, follow us on Twitter @SciAmHistory.
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