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No. 824:
Scopes Trial

Today, Stephen Jay Gould sips Coca-Cola in Robinson's Drug Store. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The year was 1925 -- the town, Dayton, Tennessee. The State Legislature had just passed a bill making it illegal to teach any theory of creation that denied the Genesis account.

The ACLU badly wanted a test case they could lose in Tennessee, then take to a higher court. So a few Dayton boosters asked the new PE instructor, John Scopes, to meet with them in Robinson's drugstore. Would he consent to be arrested? Then they could have the big trial in Dayton. It'd put them on the map.

Scopes had been only a substitute biology teacher. He'd never actively taught evolution. But he had asked his students to read a textbook that mentioned evolution. That was enough.

So Scopes said, "Okay." They arrested him. Then Clarence Darrow squared off against William Jennings Bryan for the media event of the age. Oddly enough, the actual trial was pretty dull.

The best oratory came, not from Darrow or Bryan, but from Darrow's associate, Dudley Malone. When Malone sat down, even the fundamentalists of Dayton cheered him; and H.L. Mencken wrote:

... these rustics delight in speechifying, and know when it is good. The Devil's logic cannot fetch them, but they are not above taking a voluptuous pleasure in his lascivious phrases.

So the trial ground on. When Darrow put Bryan on the stand, he did less damage to Bryan than Bryan had already done to himself. Despite all that, Scopes lost -- just as he was supposed to. Everything was on right schedule for the ACLU.

Then things went wrong. First, the judge fined Scopes $100. But that was illegal. Any fine greater than $50 had to be levied by a jury. The conviction was automatically overturned. There was no longer any case to appeal.

Bryan's posturing was exposed, but Bryan eluded that by dying a week later. Darrow made some memorable speeches in favor of freedom of speech, but he didn't change anyone's mind. Scopes went on to study geology and to live as anonymously as he could.

Now Stephen Jay Gould goes back to Robinson's drugstore to drink Coca-Cola and see where it all happened. Dayton's a lovely town, he finds. A fundamentalist college in Dayton is named after Williams Jennings Bryan, despite his sorry performance there.

Gould weighs it all and reaches a poignant conclusion. The fundamentalists of Dayton aren't the enemy. Creationism and evolution may be antagonists, but neither is our enemy. The only real enemy is intolerance. Gould sees little of that in Dayton.

Yet he knows that menace still rides behind all this serene comic opera. For witch-burning intolerance is an evil that always waits beneath the gentle surface -- and not just here in Dayton, but in you and me, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gould, S.J., A Visit to Dayton, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1984, pp. 263-279.

deCamp, L. S., The Great Monkey Trial. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1968.

For more on the Scopes trial, see the website: