Scopes Monkey Trial 1925: Innes Lecture 2020

T.T. Martin Headquarters, Anti-Evolution League at 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial

For the Innes Lecture 2020, I discussed the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Owing to COVID-related public health restrictions, we moved this lecture online. Details on access now are available through the John Innes Centre. The premier was 17 September 2020.

The Innes Lecture was followed by a live online discussion which included questions and comments sent from viewers. Questions and comments came through Twitter, using the hashtag #Innes2020.

My Innes Lecture also was part of the Heritage Open Days 2020 festival.

Summary of the presentation

In 1925, an American school teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution. This was global news and an important moment in the ever-changing relationship between science and religion. My talk will tell the story of the Scopes Monkey Trial. I also will highlight key themes in the public reactions. I’ll relate this history to one simple question. Why have so many people – over two centuries and around the world – hated evolution? The answer does not hinge on facts and evidence. There’s something deeper; something more fundamental; something much further reaching. The answer will connect us more strongly to core ideas in public engagement with science and to science’s engagement with its many publics.

More about the Scopes Trial

If you only vaguely remember what the Scopes Trial was, you can learn a lot from the Wikipedia page, “Scopes Trial“. My advice is not to get bogged down in the details about events day-to-day. Better to keep a wide view. 

To brush up on this story, many people rush to watch the 1960 film, “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. In my talk, I’ll mention why this is both a good and a bad way to learn about the trial. Still, it’s a great film. Well worth watching these two Academy-Award winning actors at work. But beware: Inherit the Wind is not a documentary; it was created for issues in 1950s America, not 1920s America (especially the anti-communist campaigns of McCarthyism).

Several excellent books have been written on the Scopes Trial. 

  • Larson, Edward J. 1997. Summer for the gods : the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: BasicBooks. This won a Pulitzer-Prize.
  • Ruse, Michael. 2005. The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Numbers, Ronald. 2006. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Shapiro, Adam. 2013. Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

One older account is widely read and referenced, thought it is less rich in its use of source materials:

  • De Camp, L. Sprague. 1968. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.

My own short article summarising the Scopes Trial offers something of a precise for my Innes Lecture 2020:

What’s happening in Britain on the science-and-religion front at the same time? An excellent starting point is available:

  • Bowler, Peter. 2001. Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early-Twentieth Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

On William Jennings Bryan

  • Kazin, Michael. 2006. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Alfred Knopf. The best biography of William Jennings Bryan in many years.

In 2009, I republished Bryan’s never-delivered closing argument from the trial. He planned to publish it, was working on that at the time of his death, and Bryan supports followed through shortly thereafter.

What’s that evidence for universities causing doubt?

William Jennings Bryan liked to cite a study by James Henry Leuba, The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological, and Statistical Study, first published in 1916. This presents the data I mention in my talk, that the percentage of students reporting doubt increases over the time of their university studies. Leuba’s research was widely discussed, and his methodologies examined in detail.

A few years ago, I had a student more-or-less repeat Leuba’s research for UCL. I am trying to locate her to obtain permission to publish her study, and I’ll post it here once I get that permission.

Trial transcripts

Shortly after the trial ended, the National Book Company (Cincinnati, Ohio) published transcripts of the trial. Under the title, The World’s Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case, this claimed to be a “complete stenographic record”. I’ve made this available as an open access, free, searchable pdf document.

Evolutionists campaigning after the Scopes Trial ended

One project I worked on some years ago involved locating all issues of the pro-evolution magazine, Evolution: A Journal of Nature. This was marketed to school teachers and presented itself as a front-line defines against fundamentalism in America. I especially like the cartoons.

Music from the Scopes Monkey Trial

I’ve heard about a dozen songs written specifically about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Examples of original recordings are on this YouTube compilation. Some were produced as sheet music, for local singers to use. Try it, using the excellent transcription by Carson Robison (2015) “The John T. Scopes Trial“. All this music reinforces the description of the Scopes Monkey Trial as a “folk event“.

Participate in the live discussion and Heritage Open Days

Email questions for discussion
Email questions for discussion

For the Innes Lecture, questions and comments can be submitted by email to the communications team at the John Innes Centre, or through Twitter, using the hashtag #Innes2020. I’ll try to follow-upon questions submitted but not discussed in the following days, posting replies here.

I was scheduled to deliver this lecture for the Innes Lecture 2020 at John Innes Centre, in Norwich in Spring 2020, but this was postponed for reasons related to COVID-19 precautions. My contribution to this series follows some outstanding lectures in the history of science by Sally Shuttleworth and John Tweddle (2018) and Greg Radick (2015) (related to his Villanova talk).