The Scopes Trial (Evolution, Creationism & Intelligent Design)


Key Lecture Points

  • The 80th Anniversary of the Tennessee court decision in John Scopes versus the State of Tennessee was July 2005. The trial focused upon the Tennessee Butler Act of 1925 that made it illegal 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”. Similar laws were being considered, with the assistance of William Jennings Bryan, in 15 other states in 1925.
  • The Scopes trial pitted two larger-than-life American figures against one another. For the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, three times the Democratic nominee for President of the US, argued for the teaching of creationism in public schools. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, famous for his defense of Leopold and Loeb against capital punishment, argued for the teaching of evolution.
  • The results of the trial were mixed. Scopes was convicted, but only after Darrow had asked the jury to convict his client, knowing that a conviction was necessary for the constitutionality of the Butler Act to be determined on appeal. A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality, and NOT due to the unconstitutionality of the law. The text of this decision specifically states that the law was not unconstitutional. Tennessee’s anti-evolution law remained on the books until it was repealed in 1967. Of the 15 other states considering anti-evolution laws in 1925, only 2 actually passed such legislation.
  • Since Scopes, the Supreme Court decided in the 1968 case of Epperson v. Arkansas that a law requiring the teaching of creationism, as the Butler Act did, is unconstitutional.
  • The current debate over the teaching of intelligent design as a part of a curriculum including evolution is different than the debate in 1925. Today, the question is not whether evolution can be outlawed; it is whether a legislature can require intelligent design in a public school classroom. This debate is taking place at the state level in Kansas and at the local level in places such as Dover, Pennsylvania.
  • Advocates of intelligent design argue that evolution is not a fact and that there are holes in the theory that can only be explained by the presence of a higher “intelligence”.
  • Opponents of intelligent design argue that it is not science, in that it places some natural phenomenon beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. They say that it is a religiously infused explanation that, if required in a science classroom, would weaken science education.

More to Explore

  • Summary of the Scopes trial Click here
  • Website advocating Intelligent Design Click here
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science; opposition to intelligent design Click here