In the summer of 1925, a timeless battle raged in a courtroom. On one side stood Salem, Illinois native John T. Scopes and his lawyer Clarence Darrow. On the other: the people of Tennessee, as represented by Salem-born politician-prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. The theory of evolution was to the interwar period what climate change is today: a host battlefield for America’s never-ending culture wars. As often was the case with such spectacles, the trial shined a spotlight on a determined thwarting of knowledge by the mighty forces of discomfited ignorance.
Like any good culture war dust-up the trial got a hashtag-worthy nickname—the Scopes Monkey Trial—and primo coverage across the nation. On July 21, the jury convicted Scopes of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act when, as a substitute teacher, he taught human evolution in a state-funded school. John W. Butler, author of the legislation, fulfilled a cherished American political tradition by later admitting he knew nothing about evolution.
Despite losing the case, Darrow’s relentless witness-stand grilling of Bryan (the eventual winner of the case) is often cited as as a victory for Modernists. Bryan was a national figure, if a faded one. He had run for president three times, quit the job of Secretary of State to protest the policies of Woodrow Wilson, and earned the nickname The Great Commoner for his populist leanings. No matter. Darrow tore him to pieces. Only the judge stepping in saved Bryan from Darwin-knows-how-much humiliation on the stand.
In Intelligently Designed: How the Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution, Edward Caudill writes:
The ridicule of Bryan. . . . served the immediate purposes of proevolutionists. It was easier to assail an individual than a system of beliefs that was inconsistent, ill defined, and scientifically illogical. Bryan, its flag-bearer, was a distinctive and public target. But the verbal barrage was inconsequential in the long-term battle, in which Bryan’s defenders glorified his self-sacrifice and righteousness in defense of a holy cause. . . . Historians and filmmakers have judged Darrow the winner, even though he lost the case. The contrived event grew into a forum on science and religion, modernism and fundamentalism–charismatically presented by Darrow and Bryan.
As Caudill points out by mentioning “filmmakers,” the courtroom theatrics would later inspire the 1955 stage play Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, which in turn would serve as the basis for the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy.