Evolution on Trial

Steve Kemper in Smithsonian Magazine:

In the summer of 1925, when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow clashed over the teaching of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee, the Scopes trial was depicted in newspapers across the country as a titanic struggle. Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and the silver-tongued champion of creationism, described the clash of views as “a duel to the death.” Darrow, the deceptively folksy lawyer who defended labor unions and fought racial injustice, warned that nothing less than civilization itself was on trial. The site of their showdown was so obscure the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had to inquire, “Why Dayton, of all places?”

It’s still a good question. Influenced in no small part by the popular play and movie Inherit the Wind, most people think Dayton ended up in the spotlight because a 24-year-old science teacher named John Scopes was hauled into court there by Bible-thumping fanatics for telling his high-school students that humans and primates shared a common ancestry. In fact, the trial took place in Dayton because of a stunt. Tennessee had recently passed a law that made teaching evolution illegal. After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced it would defend anyone who challenged the statute, it occurred to several Dayton businessmen that finding a volunteer to take up the offer might be a good way to put their moribund little town on the map.

More here.