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Timelines: 1925

Prev : Next The Scopes trial

Monkey business


Clarence Darrow's opening argument at the Scopes trial

In May, John Thomas Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee is charged with charged with violating the Butler Act, a 1925 Tennessee law that prohibited teachers from denying the biblical account of ‘creation.’ The Butler Act declared that “…it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Scopes had been teaching evolutionary theory in his classroom, using a textbook that presented ideas from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

The highly publicized case pits fundamentalists against those who believed that the bible is consistent with evolutionary theory. It is intended to stir up controversy from the start. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had decided to finance a test case that would involve recruiting a teacher to break the law intentionally by teaching the Darwinian account. Scopes volunteered to participate and was charged. Each side brought high profile lawyers to Dayton to try the case. The prosecution was spearheaded by Williams Jennings Bryan, a Democratic politician and former U.S. Secretary of State, who believed that evolutionary theory posed threats to morality and democracy. Defending Scopes was prominent attorney Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU and a staunch legal defender of civil libertarian causes. The judge was John Tate Raulston, who eventually handed a guilty verdict to Scopes, along with a fine of $100.

The verdict was overturned on appeal, due to a procedural technicality: the amount of the fine should not have been set by Raulston, but rather by a jury, which was absent from the trial. The arguments in the case examined the scientific evidence for evolutionary theory, and engaged the public in thinking about the origins of human life. The trial marked the start of the long-standing and still enduring conflict between creationism and evolutionary theory in debates on science education in American public schools. 

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