State v. John Scopes: A Final Word

by Douglas O. Linder

The eight days of the Scopes trial in the summer of 1925 have the poignancy that accompanies the memory of a moment just before a life-changing event.   A sepia-toned photograph of trial participants could be the photograph of a group of white-water rafters as they approach Class V rapids.  William Jennings Bryan is seen shouting furiously to other rafters to paddle backwards, away from the falls.  Looking at the picture, we know he is seconds away from his doom.  Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken chomp on their cigars, laughing mockingly at the concern of their frenzied raftmate.  Scopes is there too, sitting quietly and staring ahead.  The defense’s religious and scientific experts are crowded together at the back of the raft, talking among themselves about the best way of avoiding the deadly boulders that lie ahead.  In the trees on the far bank and over the rapids there appears to a mist—the mist of a god or of a departing god, perhaps.  The water is churning, suggesting the presence of the ideas that moved human history.

The falls, to carry the metaphor just a bit further, is not one that can be portaged around.  Darwin Rapids stands out among all others on the river of human history.  Copernicus Rapids, Lyell Rapids, and all the rest created by ideas that previously challenged the comforting stories of the Bible seem barely threatening in comparison.  If run successfully, the rapids ahead, Big Bang Rapids and Universe of Universes Rapids included, should all be manageable.   Somehow the rafters will have to withstand the jolts, the twists, the sudden drops through space, that come with the realization that the faith of their fathers can no longer be their own.

Like every metaphor, this one has its limitations.  Darwin Rapids, like any real rapids, doesn’t have the same defined location for all river-runners: some people today are just beginning to hear its roar, others—blissfully ignorant and supremely confident in the old superstitions—never will face it.  “Facts are stubborn things,” however, and eventually the stubborn facts that point strongly to evolution—not divine intervention—as the cause for the variety of life on earth will win the day for Darwin.

To what extent, then, does it make sense to compare the Scopes trial to Darwin Rapids?  Or, to drop the metaphor, in what ways and for how many Americans did July 1925 mark the beginning of a re-examination of long-held religious beliefs and a growing acceptance of evolution and its implications for the place of humans on the planet?  The answer is complicated and, as is the case for most important questions, not one anyone can, with confidence provide full details.

Each side came a way feeling their cause had been advanced in Dayton.  Russel D. Owen, writing in the New York Times, reported, “Each side withdrew at the end of the struggle satisfied it had unmasked the absurd pretensions of the other.”  (Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods, p 201.)

There are several places one can look for answers as to how much America changed in July 1925 and the months afterwards when the meaning of the trial was hotly debated.  One way to evaluate the effect of the trial is examine newspaper accounts of public reaction, recognizing all the biases that might accompany such reports.  A second approach is to measure the reactions of editorialists, few of whom could avoid offering an opinion on the attention-grabbing trial.  (Public opinion polls—a more direct measure—were uncommon in 1925.) Another is to look to the decisions of textbook publishers as the readied next editions of biology textbooks for marketing to schools around the country.  A fourth possibility is to study changes around the time of the trial in church membership figures for fundamentalist and more modernist churches in various parts of the country.  Finally, a sense of opinion shifts in certain states might be reflected in how anti-evolution legislation fared in the period immediately following the Scopes trial.

As might be expected, members of the public asked their opinions about evolution at the time of the Scopes trial came up with a variety of answers.  One Dayton high school student, asked by journalist after the trial what he thought of Scopes and the theory he taught, said: “I like him, but I don’t believe I came from a monkey.”  (Summer for the Gods, p. 200)

Paul R. Conkin wrote, in When All the Gods Trembled, that most intellectuals today have forgotten or never understood “the tragic sense of irreparable loss” that their grandparents or great-grandparents suffered in the 1920s when they watched their gods tremble and die.  Those alive at that time “knew, from experience, what it had been like to live in a structured and purposeful universe,” Conkin stated.  “They remembered the awe, the fear, and at times the comfort of living in a world inhabited by gods. Thus they experienced the insecurity, and at times the elation, of knowing that the gods were all dying.”  The dying of their gods, according to Conkin, remained central to the identity of people and their absence filled their thoughts.  The love and support they had counted on was suddenly gone—and it hurt.  In Conkin’s words, “It was like the loss of a father.”  (Paul Conkin, When All the Gods Trembled, p. 175)

There can be no doubt that America went through turbulent waters in the 1920s.  As the decade opens, the country is led by Woodrow Wilson, the only university professor ever to be elected president of the United States.  Wilson’s election symbolized the growing influence of academicians, who not long before were bit players in American life.  Wilson argued that intellect—not Victorian traditions or religious precepts—should guide our social institutions.  At the same time, the country was transforming from an agricultural one to a nation based on manufacturing.  Demand for traditional skills shifted to demand for skills better suited to the new technology.  Electrification changed nights into day and simplified housework.  The automobile became the must-have of every want-to-be.  Radio gave news a new immediacy.  People, freed from some of the drudgery of the past, looked for new forms of entertainment, from jazz to beauty contests to movies.  Walter Lippman, writing in his “Preface to Morals,” summed up the times: “Whirl is king.”

In the sensation-loving 1920s, the sensations that attracted the most attention were those that in some way appeared to be contests between the intellect and Victorian values and beliefs.  The Scopes trial fit this pattern perfectly.  Robert Pirsig (best known for his classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) wrote in Lila that, viewed in one respect, “Clarence Darrow was just taking easy shots at a toothless tiger.”  Pirsig argued that the true meaning of the trial emerges when Darrow is seen “prosecuting the old static religious patterns of the past.”  The trial, Pirsig concluded, “Gave intellectuals a warm feeling of arriving somewhere they had been waiting to arrive for a long time.  Church bigots, pillars of society who for centuries had viciously attacked and defamed intellectuals who disagree with them, were now getting some of it back.”

 The stick and stone throwing at fundamentalists by Darrow and Mencken during the Scopes trial seems, eighty years later, not to have been the most desirable or mature response in such a time of chaos.  “A type of sophomoric rebellion” was the apt description applied to their conduct by Paul Conkin.  (PC, 174)  Conkin believed Darrow and Mencken devoted too much energy to “caricaturing and vilifying those who still affirmed the beliefs they had ‘escaped’” (perhaps out of an “arrogant pride in their own liberation”), and too little energy to suggesting how community could survive when the old gods die and we must come to terms with our exhilarating—yet frightening—new freedom.  (PC, 174)

What society needed in 1925 and still could use more of today are the thoughtful intellectuals and opinion-shapers that comprehend the human costs of dying gods.  Much has been lost, and those who best understand the tragedy are in the best position to provide the guidance now needed. With tact rather than ridicule, these men and women can help plant the seeds of new, non-supernatural beliefs that will preserve human dignity and moral engagement.