The Scopes “Monkey” Trial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Scopes trial is a case involving a high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes, charged under Tennessee law with having violated a ban against teaching evolution in public schools. It became known as the “monkey trial” because of its connection to the evolutionary idea that human beings are biologically related to (or “descended from”) the great apes. Evolutionary principles were anathema to many adherents of traditional Christian religion at the time, particularly those living outside the major cities. The Scopes trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee, attended by much media fanfare. For the defense was the famous Chicago attorney and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow, and on the prosecution team was the three-time presidential candidate and fundamentalist Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan. One of the trial’s most memorable moments was Bryan’s testimony as an expert on the Bible, under questioning by Darrow. The exchange demonstrated the blind faith Bryan would prefer be applied to the understanding of scripture (and life), as against the critical, historical perspective Darrow sought to advance. In any case, defendant Scopes was found guilty of having taught evolution in violation of state law and fined $100. On appeal to the state supreme court, however, the verdict was overturned on a technicality: the jury, not the judge, should have set the amount of the fine. The case illustrates the conflict between religion and science in 1920s America.

The Scopes trial is a case involving a high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes, charged under Tennessee law with having violated a ban against teaching evolution in public schools. It became known as the “monkey trial” because of its connection to the evolutionary idea that human beings are biologically related to (or “descended from”) the great apes. Evolutionary principles were anathema to many adherents of traditional Christian religion at the time, particularly those living outside the major cities. The Scopes trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee, attended by much media fanfare. For the defense was the famous Chicago attorney and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow, and on the prosecution team was the three-time presidential candidate and fundamentalist Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan. One of the trial’s most memorable moments was Bryan’s testimony as an expert on the Bible, under questioning by Darrow. The exchange demonstrated the blind faith Bryan would prefer be applied to the understanding of scripture (and life), as against the critical, historical perspective Darrow sought to advance. In any case, defendant Scopes was found guilty of having taught evolution in violation of state law and fined $100. On appeal to the state supreme court, however, the verdict was overturned on a technicality: the jury, not the judge, should have set the amount of the fine. The case illustrates the conflict between religion and science in 1920s America.

Categories: History Content