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The Monkey Trial

It was illegal to teach theory of evolution in most of states in US.  John T Scopes, a biology teacher, was prosecuted to teach it. He was defended by Clarence Darrow. This post of the LegalTrek series is about that trial.

Scopes' trial in the lawns. Bryan being cross examined by Darrow - Picture courtesy Smithsonian Institute Archives

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Charles Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809. In 1831, he took  a world voyage  in HMS Beagle as a naturalist. The  sea voyage took about five years to complete. During the sea voyage, he collected data and a new theory, about the origin of species, started taking shape in his mind. It was published in 1859.

The new theory was against the Book of Genesis in the old testament and was not accepted by  the Christian fundamentalists. They are most vocal in US. They got anti evolution law enacted in most of the states in US. In March 1925, the Tennessee legislature almost unanimously (75 is to 5) passed a law declaring 'teaching of any doctrine denying the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible as illegal.’ It banned the theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin.

John T. Scopes was a high school teacher at a government public school at Dayton. He decided to violate it as a test case and the Civil Liberties Union promised to defend him free of cost. Scopes was arrested and indicted by a grand jury for teaching the theory of evolution. His trial attracted world-wide attention and has come to be known as ‘The Monkey Trial’.

William Hennings Bryan led the prosecution side and Clarence Darrow the defence side. Bryan opened the case with the remark,
'The trial uncovers an attack on religion. If evolution wins, Christianity goes.’
Darrow retorted with,
‘Scopes is not on trial, civilization is on trial.’
During the trial, the courtroom echoed with laughter, applause, and demonstration. There was a chance that the floor might give way. The judge ordered the trial to be transferred to the court-house lawn.  The Judge, Jury, and counsel were seated on the raised platform and below the platform tables were set out for newspaper, telegraph and radiomen. The lawn was filled with 5000 spectators. It is in these surrounding that ‘The Monkey Trial’, described as the most amazing court scene in Anglo Saxon history by the New York Times, took place. 

The defence was prevented by the judge from producing any expert to prove  authenticity of the theory of evolution.  At this stage, Darrow asked his adversary if he would like to testify as an expert on the Bible.  The offer was accepted and Bryan, the chief prosecuting counsel entered the witness-box. But by doing so, he invited his own doom. During cross-examination, Darrow tore him apart. The next day the judge ruled to strike out Bryan's entire testimony on the ground that it was not relevant.  This sealed the fate of the defence case. It was admitted that Scopes had taught the theory of evolution. He was convicted and fined one hundred dollars.  Bryan died a day after the judgement. Many say he could not withstand Darrow's cross-examination. 

The matter did not end there. An appeal was taken to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Five judges heard the case. It took a year for the decision to come. By the time one of them had died. Only four delivered the judgement. The decision was unanimously reversed. Surprisingly, it was not set aside on the merits but on a technicality.  

The Supreme Court of Tennessee held that the conviction was illegal as the judge, instead of the jury, had fixed the amount of fine.  Only one judge held that the anti-evolution law was unconstitutional; two of the judges had held that it was constitutional. The fourth judge had held the law to be constitutional but it neither barred the teachers to teach Evolution theory nor it applied to the Scopes case. This permitted the State to retry Scopes but the Attorney General withdrew the case.

It is interesting to note that anti-evolution Law continued in most of the States in US. Arkansas is also one  such State. Ultimately Susan Eperson challenged this law and it was unanimously so declared on 12.11.1968 in Eperson V Arkansas: 393 US 97: 21 LEd 2d 228. 

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