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VOL. 7, NO. 13Nov. 21, 2005

"On Men and Monkeys: The Oldest Fight in the Culture War" 

A recent Associated Press article noted that "the argument over the teaching of evolution, which has been raging . . . [for 80 years] shows no sign of abating." This is hardly news to those of involved in this controversy. And the current controversies in Kansas and Dover City, Pennsylvania, over "science" and "intelligent design" have raised the public visibility of this fight. But few Americans realize how much the courts have influenced this battle, although the number of court decisions directly addressing the evolutionism v. creationism fight is small.

Court Watch will focus on this oldest fight in America's Culture War in this "Briefing" and in subsequent issues. It is especially fitting that we launch this series of studies at Thanksgiving time. What better way to honor our amazing, bountiful God than to focus on His marvelous act of Creation?

Three court decisions constitute the heart of the judicial attack on creationism. Though few in numbers, they are vicious in their influence. The judicial triumphs of evolutionism have paved the way for anti-constitutionalists to launch their later vicious attacks in such fundamental cultural/constitutional arenas as life policy, religious liberty policy, and homosexual rights policy.

We begin our survey of evolutionism v. creationism at the beginning — in July, 1925, in the small, then-unknown town of Dayton, Tennessee. This state court trial has come to be known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial," although its formal title was Tennessee v. Scopes. A Tennessee law, quite similar to laws in five other states, prohibited the teaching of evolution in the Tennessee public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union was in its early days and wanted a test case to attack "fundamentalist meddling" in politics. And some local Dayton businessmen supported the case, thinking that the publicity would help their business.

The ACLU recruited as its petitioner to attack the law John Scopes, a local teacher and coach. Agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow argued for Scopes. The "silver-tongued orator," William Jennings Bryan, defended the law. The trial was riddled with ironies and flaws. One of the worst was the fact that John Scopes did not teach any evolutionism. He was substituting in the biology class for the regular teacher and was busy making plans for his ball team rather than teaching evolutionism, as he was accused of doing. Thus, this was a framed case which no court should have heard.

Furthermore, contrary to the public's prevailing view of the case, the trial did not focus on Charles Darwin's infamous and anti-scientific book, The Origin of Species. Rather, the focus was on the text that Scopes was supposed to have taught — George W. Hunter's Civic Biology. An additional irony was that the trial took no note of Hunter's racist concluding statement in his evolution chapter: "the highest type of all [mankind], are the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America." Not surprisingly, Darwin's work was also racist. The entire title of Darwin's book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (emphasis added). The trial occurred before a jury, and Clarence Darrow hoped that the jury would find against Scopes so that the case could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. That Court, Darrow hoped, would then throw out the Dayton decision as being unconstitutional.

The temperature inside and outside of the small courtroom intensified as the agnostic Darrow viciously attacked Biblical beliefs defended by William Jennings Bryan. Darrow argued that Bryan was "opening the doors for a reign of bigotry equal to anything in the Middle Ages." Bryan responded that "If evolution wins, Christianity goes." [When we look at American life and law today, do we see Bryan as a prophet?]

The jury found Scopes guilty, and Bryan died six days after the trial. A year later the Tennessee Supreme Court did throw out the Scopes conviction — but on technical grounds, not on the constitutional grounds for which the ACLU and Darrow had hoped. One of the most rational statements made in the entire proceeding was the State Supreme Court's comment dismissing the case: "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."

Yet the Scopes trial legacy has not only remained alive, but has had an explosive impact on contemporary American life and law. We will chronicle the Scopes trial legacy in later issues of our "Court Watch Briefings." Stay tuned!


Court Watch Wishes You and Your Loved
Ones a Blessed and Bountiful Thanksgiving!

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