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Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was
one of the most revolutionary scientific ideas to emerge during the
nineteenth century. The theory, which Darwin developed in his landmark
work On the Origin of Species (1859),
proposes that the living organisms found on the Earth today evolved
from simpler organisms in a long, gradual process of natural selection.
In short, the natural environment favors, or selects, organisms
that are best adapted to survive in that environment. Those organisms
that are not well adapted to the environment struggle and eventually
Darwin’s theory caused great controversy because it challenged existing
ideas about the origins of humankind, such as the creation story
told in the book of Genesis in the Bible. This controversy divided
America, which was going through great social change during the
period in which Darwin’s theories became widespread. Industrialization,
urbanization, long-distance transportation, increased access to
education, and wave after wave of immigration transformed the United
States from a country composed largely of backwater territories
into a modern, egalitarian nation. In large cities, particularly
on the East Coast, Americans quickly embraced new ideas, values,
and technologies. Many regions of the country, however, particularly
the South and the Midwest, were slow to sacrifice traditional beliefs.
Two camps formed in response to Darwin. Evolutionists
eagerly accepted Darwin’s ideas and believed that humans shared
a relatively close common ancestor with apes and other primates.
Creationists, meanwhile, firmly believed in the literal truth of
the creation story in the Bible, which claims that humans appeared
on Earth fully formed. The debate between evolutionists and creationists
raged throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Inherit the Wind recounts the famous 1925 criminal
trial Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (often referred
to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”), which was a landmark in the debate
between evolutionists and creationists. In 1922,
John Washington Butler, a Tennessee legislator, had argued that
the Bible provided the basis for the American governmental system
and that therefore any deviance from the Bible constituted disrespect
for the law. During his second term in the Tennessee legislature,
Butler penned the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution
in Tennessee public schools. The Tennessee legislature passed the
law by a wide margin, and in 1925 the
governor signed the act into law.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), based in New
York City, opposed the Butler Act and others like it that were springing
up in other states. They sought a teacher willing to challenge the
law and offered to cover all of that teacher’s trial expenses. A
businessman named George Rappleyea from Dayton, Tennessee, saw the ACLU’s
appeal and regarded it as a potential economic opportunity for his
impoverished county. After consulting with local leaders
and obtaining their consent, Rappleyea recruited John Scopes, a
twenty-four-year-old substitute science teacher. Scopes agreed to
challenge the Butler Act in the classroom. He taught Darwin’s theory
to his classes, and in the summer of 1925,
the town constable arrested him.
The American media took immediate interest in the Scopes
trial and sent reporters to cover it, most notably the muckraking
critic H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun. Both
sides recognized that the Scopes trial would be
a highly significant opening battle in an ideological war between
progressives and fundamentalists over freedom of thought. Conservatives
recruited William Jennings Bryan, one of the most prominent figures
in American Christian fundamentalism, to serve as prosecuting attorney.
Bryan’s lengthy résumé in public service included two terms as a
U.S. congressman, a post as secretary of state under President Woodrow
Wilson, and three unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. presidency.
To counter Bryan, the prominent criminal litigator Clarence Darrow,
an avowed agnostic, volunteered as Scopes’s defense attorney.
Scopes’s trial provided some intense courtroom drama.
Early in the trial, the defense tried to call several experts on
evolutionary theory to the witness stand, but the judge ruled this
testimony inadmissible. After that ruling, the media believed that
the defense had been painted into a corner, with no possible effective
strategies left. Darrow, the defense attorney, made a dramatic and
unexpected move by calling to the stand the prosecutor, Bryan, as
an expert witness on matters relating to the Bible. Darrow’s line
of questioning forced Bryan to admit that his own literal interpretation
of the Bible—a basic tenet of Christian fundamentalism—was full
of contradictions. Darrow’s questioning prompted many courtroom
spectators to shift their support to the defense.
The following day, the judge ordered that Bryan’s testimony
be stricken from the record, resulting in a guilty verdict for Scopes
and a victory for Bryan. However, Darrow and Scopes, through press coverage
of the trial and popular support for the defense, won a moral victory
that reflected the changing times. Bryan died in his sleep five
days after the trial’s conclusion. Scopes was acquitted on a technicality
in a higher court of appeals.
In the early 1950s,
playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee adapted the Scopes trial
into a play. The work, Inherit the Wind, was first
performed in New York in 1955.
Although the playwrights took creative liberties with the story,
their version, which draws heavily from journalist H. L. Mencken’s
coverage of the trial, is true to the spirit of the trial and to
the characters of its most prominent players. Lawrence and Lee,
who had collaborated since the late 1940s,
went on to write more than thirty works together before Lee’s death
Although the Scopes trial was a dramatic
high point in the debate between evolutionists and creationists,
the trial failed to resolve the constitutionality of the Butler
Act, which remained a Tennessee state law until 1967.
Since that time, mainstream America has largely accepted evolution
theory as an essential part of basic science education. However,
similar issues involving the separation between church and state
continue to play a part in legal controversies—for example, school
prayer and religious education in public schools, among many others—to
Ace your assignments with our guide to Inherit the Wind!