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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Monkeying Around With The Truth

This July is the 86th anniversary of the beginning of what many people believe was the “Trial of the Century.” It was the Scopes “Monkey” Trail which was conducted in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was tried for violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools. The violation was only a misdemeanor, but it drew the attention of the entire country. The trial was perceived as a monumental clash between fundamental creationism and modernist evolutionary theories.
Powerful individuals and groups lined up on opposite sides of the question. National media, including radio, swarmed into this small town to see the contest. Arguing for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic candidate for President; and the defense was headed by the famed attorney, Clarence Darrow. Both men were supplemented by prestigious legal teams. After eleven days, the jury found Scopes guilty of the violation, but more importantly popular opinion in the country began to tip in favor of the evolutionary theory. But there’s more to the story, much more.
Thirty years later the trial was made into a stage play called “Inherit the Wind” and in 1960 it became a very famous and influential film with the same title. The film has been used in schools to represent the conflict between theocracy and science during the era of the 1920’s. But was the film historically correct or was it a semi-fictional story that compromised truth for emotional appeal? Don’t get us wrong, we love the movie, it’s still compelling a half century later. But there is a lingering feeling of uneasiness about the film’s premises.
Enter an amazing website “www.themonkeytrial.com
Here is a great site devoted to analyzing both the trial and the film side by side. It includes a scene-by-scene synopsis of the film that compares “statements either contained in or strongly implied by the movie” with “statements of a factual nature related to the actual trial.” They have also included 35 video clips from the film to illustrate. The authors of the website have done a thorough job comparing and contrasting movie hyperbole with historical fact.
Here are some examples:
1. Tennessee passed a statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution.
True, but the Butler Act supporters were equally against teaching the Bible in public schools, and felt it was unfair that only evolution could be taught. They believed they were “leveling the field.”
2. Biology textbooks in Tennessee supported the creation theory.
Actually, the textbooks in 1925 in Tennessee were 100% pro-evolution and had been for 20 years.
3. John Scopes was a victim of a fundamentalist witch hunt
No. The ACLU had been advertising in Tennessee for a teacher to act as a defendant in a trial to test the State’s law. Scopes cooperated willingly. Dayton town fathers on BOTH sides of the evolution issue encouraged Scopes to violate the law to “boost the economic prospects of their small town” by hosting a sensational trial.
And there are dozens of other examples sited. Most relate to the main participants in the trial (and film) such as William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, and H.L. Mencken; or to the courtroom proceedings themselves.
Check it out. We think you’ll enjoy it.

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