Chapter 7: Creation Science—a Public Issue
Little did I suspect when my work began in 1962 that nineteen years later the results of my research would
become a public issue. This all started in the spring of 1981 when the Arkansas state legislature passed Act 590, a
bill requiring "balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution in public schools." The American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of the Act, and a trial date was set for
December 7, 1981, at the Federal District Court in Little Rock.
The enactment of Act 590 served as a reminder of the anti-evolution law, the Butler Act, passed in Tennessee
in 1925. That law was also challenged by the ACLU, and this led to the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
It is necessary to focus briefly on this earlier trial because its popular legacy as an overwhelming victory for
evolution was a key factor in shaping the outcome of the Arkansas trial.
The principals in the 1925 trial were (1) John Scopes, a high school football coach and substitute science
teacher, (2) William Jennings Bryan, the great fundamentalist orator and three times presidential candidate, who
prosecuted the case against Scopes, and (3) Clarence Darrow, the eminent trial lawyer, who defended Scopes.
Scopes' voluntary assent to be arrested for teaching evolution became nationwide news. The reaction to this
extraordinary publicity showed that many Americans felt the foundations of their religious beliefs were at stake in
this battle. To some the trial was seen as a means of either confirming or denying their understanding of the
The Lessons of Scopes
Generally, popular accounts of the trial picture William Jennings Bryan as a man who feared the truth because
of his presumed refusal to permit expert testimony for evolution to be given at the trial. Clarence Darrow, on the
other hand, is credited with having outmaneuvered such bigotry when he arranged for his expert witnesses to give
their scientific evidences for evolution to the news reporters covering the trial. By this master stroke, Darrow
managed to have the theory of evolution disseminated to the remotest bounds of the civilized world. Just as
significantly, this was accomplished without any arguments against evolution being mentioned. Thus evolution
appeared to be based on incontrovertible evidence.
As a result, evolution is thought to have won the day (even though Scopes lost on a technicality). The perceived
outcome of the trial among scientists was both pervasive and self-perpetuating. From henceforth any scientist who
openly professed any belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis became suspect among his peers. This disdain for
creation was passed on to each new generation of university students by both scientists themselves and educators,
many of whom knew no better than to echo their scientific colleagues. Since the Scopes trial, three generations of
college-educated Americans have been indoctrinated with the view that evolution represents scientific truth. This
widespread indoctrination provided the ACLU with a tremendous psychological advantage as they prepared for the
The presiding judge at the Arkansas trial did not live in a vacuum. Even though the Arkansas trial was
supposed to be decided solely on the basis of evidence presented in Court, the ACLU well knew the historical
impact of the Scopes trial could work to their favor. In addition, the news releases pertaining to the Arkansas trial
could be a decisive factor. In general those news reports came from the pens of media representatives who reflected
the American cultural scene. It is safe to assume they all had been educated in the mold of contemporary science
and its overwhelming preference for evolution. And most likely their image of creation science had been molded by
the popular accounts of the Scopes trial. Inevitably their perceptions, and hence their news reports, of the Arkansas
trial would reflect the prior conditioning from those accounts.
Unfortunately, it seems much that has been written and filmed in certain of those accounts cannot be
substantiated either by historical records or by the transcript of the trial. To illustrate, a critique by Dr. David
Menton has shown that the account which has received the greatest publicity, [p. 89] namely, the Scopes trial
motion picture Inherit the Wind, bears little resemblance to the actual events and details of the trial itself.
An important part of this critique (Menton 1985) focuses on the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Scopes for
presumably breaking the law. According to the historical records, Scopes maintained he never taught evolution
during the two weeks he substituted as a science teacher. Thus, in reality, he never broke the law. His arrest was
based on a trumped-up charge. It was contrived, with Scopes' assent, by a local mine operator so that the ACLU
could challenge the Butler Act.
Did the lawyers who acted in Scopes' defense know of these circumstances? The critique mentioned above
provides a clear answer to this question when it refers to L. Sprague de Camp's book, The Great Monkey
Trial. In this book a remarkable conversation is recorded between Scopes and reporter William K. Hutchinson
of the International News Service:
"There is something I must tell you. It's worried me. I didn't violate the law."
"A jury has said you had," replied Hutchinson.
"Yes, but I never taught that evolution lesson. I skipped it. I was doing something else the day I should have
taught it, and I missed the whole lesson about Darwin and never did teach it. Those kids they put on the stand
couldn't remember what I taught them three months ago. They were coached by the lawyers. And that April
twenty-fourth date was just a guess."
"Honest, I've been scared all through the trial that the kids might remember I missed the lesson. I was
afraid they'd get on the stand and say I hadn't taught it and then the whole trial would go blooey. If that
happened they would run me out of town on a rail."
"Well you are safe now," said Hutchinson.
"Yes, I'm convicted of a crime I never committed," said Scopes. "But my skirts are clear. You know I
pleaded 'not guilty.'"
"That will make a great story."
"My god, no!" cried Scopes. "Not a word of it until the Supreme Court passes on my appeal. My lawyers
would kill me if it got out now." (de Camp 1968, 432)
Thus, incredible as it seems, those who acted in Scopes' defense apparently not only knew of, but abetted the
situation by encouraging some of Scopes' students to commit perjury and testify that Scopes had taught evolution.
(Interestingly, deCamp's book (p. 432) singles out Darrow as the lawyer who did the coaching.) In his memoirs
Scopes once again disclaimed teaching [p. 90] evolution, which at his trial included a reference to the earth once
being "a hot molten mass" (Scopes and Presley 1967, 132-134). At the same time he also attempted to deflect the
clear implication of perjury by claiming his students were possibly confused about where they had heard about
evolution (Scopes and Presley 1967, 134). These circumstances reveal an aspect of the Scopes trial that is not
One of the most questionable parts of Inherit the Wind relates to its portrayal of William Jennings
Bryan as a man who feared the truth because he objected to the introduction of expert testimony for evolution.
Quoted below are two paragraphs of Menton's critique which presents a different perspective on this matter:
MOVIE: The defense is unable to get permission to use their several expert witnesses because Bryan is
afraid of their testimony and considers it irrelevant. One by one, Darrow calls his distinguished scientists to the
stand but each time, thanks to an ignorant and biased judge, Bryan needs only to say,
"objection—irrelevant," and that is the end of it.
FACT: Technically, the only point at issue in the trial was whether or not John Scopes actually taught the
evolution of man from lower orders of animals, so naturally the lawyers for the prosecution did question the
relevance of the testimony of expert witnesses. The testimony of the evolutionists assembled by the defense was
prevented, however, because Darrow adamantly refused to let his scientific witnesses be cross-examined by the
prosecution (transcript, pages 206-208). Bryan had asked for, and received, the right to cross-examine the
expert witnesses, but Darrow was so opposed to allowing his experts to be questioned that he never called them
to the witness stand! Bryan pointed out that under the conditions demanded by Darrow, the evolutionists could
take the witness stand and merely express their speculations and opinions on evolution without fear of either
perjury or being contradicted. (Menton 1985)