scientists claim 

the earth was 

created in six 

days, less than 

10,000 years 

ago, and most 

fossils formed 

as a result of 

Noah's flood.





The Trials of Evolution
Evolution and "creation science" in the courtroom
 By Jeanine Denoma 
Darwin's 1859 The Origin of Species shocked the Christian world by displacing man from his position as the "Creator's Masterpiece" to a descendant of apes. Darwin at first attempted to avoid the controversial, materialistic implications in his book by including only the cryptic remark, "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Within 20 years, scientists largely accepted Darwinian evolution; although some, including Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution, maintained a belief in divine intervention for man's creation. Many leading clergy of the late nineteenth century saw no conflict between evolution and the Creation as described in Genesis. In the late 1800s, confusion in the public's mind between Social Darwinism and Scientific Darwinism created political opposition to evolution, but, in general, objections to it were largely absent in America until after World War I.

     Evolution emerged as a major issue when William Jennings Bryan took up a campaign against it. Bryan was convinced Darwinism had been responsible for World War I by breaking down the mores of the German people. He also believed the teaching of evolution in schools was causing a decline in religious belief in America. Confident that most Christians concurred with him, Bryan told creationists, "Forget, if need be, the highbrows both in the political and college world, and carry this cause to the people." Bryan won his greatest support in the rural, conservative South. Several states proposed, and Tennessee passed, legislation forbidding the teaching of evolution.

     On July 10, 1925 a Dayton, Tennessee football coach and science teacher, John Thomas Scopes, went on trial for violating the Tennessee state law which had made it "unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the state ... to teach any theory which denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals." Scopes was defended by one of the great trial lawyers of the time, Clarence Darrow. The prosecution was lead by William Jennings Bryan: orator, fundamentalist leader, three time presidential candidate, and former Secretary of State. The trial immediately became a national media event.

     The defense asked for a dismissal, arguing the law violated free speech rights and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that laws were not to support dogmas. The judge ruled the law did not deny free speech since one need not accept employment in Tennessee and that the public had a right to decide what can be taught in public schools.

     A team of scientific experts from leading universities went to Dayton to argue for evolution. Community sentiments ran strongly against the evolutionists. Eleven of twelve jurors were members of fundamentalist churches. The trial's real audience, however, was the nation. The prosecution challenged experts as unnecessary, since the only issue before the court was whether Scopes had taught evolution in violation of the law. The defense countered that Bryan was afraid of meeting the issues and that by denying expert testimony "the prosecution alone carried the sword." Audience sentiments swayed with the defense's arguments. The crowd wanted to hear the debate: religion against evolution, Bryan against Darrow. The judge, however, ruled with the prosecution. Expert witnesses were denied the witness stand. Immediately the scientists prepared statements for the assembled press explaining the case for evolution which they had not been allowed to present in court.

     Scopes was convicted and fined $100. The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court which narrowly upheld the law, but dismissed Scopes' fine on a technicality.

     According to Faye-Cooper Cole, an expert witnesses called to Dayton for the trial, "No attempt at repression has ever backfired so impressively. Where one person had been interested in evolution before the trial, scores were reading and inquiring at its close. Within a year the prohibitive bills which had been pending in other states were dropped or killed. Tennessee had been made to appear so ridiculous in the eyes of the nation that other states did not care to follow its lead."

     One effect of the Scopes' trial which went largely unnoticed, however, was a decline in the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes and its absence in high school textbooks. It was not until the 1960s when the National Science Foundation, in the wake of Sputnik, launched an overhaul of science curriculum that evolution returned to high school classrooms.

     Fundamentalists' opposition to evolution reemerged in the 1960s in response to the new science curriculum. Unlike Bryan's brand of creationism, which accepted the "days" in Genesis as representing geological ages, fundamentalists now emphasized a literal six-day interpretation of Genesis and a 6,000 to 10,000 year old earth. Publication of The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in 1961, which argued "major geological formations and virtually all fossilbearing strata were formed by the Flood," became the catalyst for the "scientific creationism" movement. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR), formed in the early 1970s under the direction of Morris, became the leading institution supporting "creation science."

     In 1979 William Bird at ICR drafted a model resolution for education boards called "The Balanced Presentation of Evolution and Scientific Creationism." This was circulated nationally. Paul Ellwanger of Citizens for Fairness in Education, based in South Carolina, used Bird's resolution to draft model legislation for mandating "equal time." This draft was introduced into 20 state legislatures over the next two years but, with the exception of Arkansas and Louisiana, most were never voted on.

     In 1981 the Arkansas legislature passed Act 590 mandating the "balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution-science in public schools." It passed almost without debate and it was signed by the governor without his having read it. The Act stated as its purpose: "to protect academic freedom... ensure freedom of religion ... guarantee freedom of belief and speech... prevent establishment of religion ... prohibit religious instruction concerning origins ... bar discrimination on the basis of creationist or evolutionist belief."

     The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law as unconstitutional on three counts: 1) it violated separation of church and state because "creation science" was religion, not science; 2) it infringed on academic freedom; and 3) it was unconstitutionally vague. Arkansas attorney general, Steve Clark, was to attempt to show creation science was, in fact, science and that it could be taught without reference to the Bible.

     U.S. District Court Judge William Overton heard the case. Testifying against the Act were theologians who argued "creation science," as defined, was a particular brand of religion. Scientists, such as Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, argued "creation science" was not science. In many cases the state's witnesses were their own worst enemy. Some claimed "creation science" was religion then, turning the argument on its head, said "creation science" was not science, but neither was evolution. A series of witnesses argued evolution was a religion, leading Judge Overton to scold them for wasting time on attacking evolution, since creationism, not evolution, was on trial.

     Judge Overton exhibited an unusually keen understanding of what constitutes science and of the scientific principles of  evolution. Gould, writing about Judge Overton in Bully for Brontosaurus said, "Judge Overton's brilliant and beautifully crafted decision is the finest legal document ever written about this question ... [his] definitions of science are so cogent and clearly expressed that we can use his words as a model for our own proceedings."

     Judge Overton's ruling was devastating to creationists. He ruled "creation science" was not science, but religion. "There is not one recognized scientific journal which has published an article espousing the creation theory..." He criticized "creation scientists" methods saying, "The creationists' methods do not take data, weight it against the opposing scientific data, and thereafter, reach the conclusions... Instead, they take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it." He criticized creation science, as defined in Act 590, variously as being vague, meaningless and based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Concerning the Act's definition of evolution, he decribed it as "a hodgepodge of limited assertions, many of which are factually inaccurate." Of the dichotomy between creationism and evolution he said, "The two model approach of the creationists is simply a contrived dualism which has no scientific basis or legitimate educational purpose."

     "Since creation science is not a science," he wrote, "the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion." Finally, he pointed out, "No doubt a sizable majority of Americans believe in a Creator ... and see nothing wrong with teaching school children about the idea ... The application and content of the First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a  majority vote ... No group ... may use the organs of government ... to foist its religious beliefs on others."

     Meanwhile, Louisiana had passed a similar law, the "Balanced Treatment Act," which would slowly make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 19, 1987 the Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts stating the Louisiana law was unconstitutional and that its "primary purpose was to ... provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine." The vote was seven to two, with Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia dissenting.

     The Supreme Court had ruled in 1962 that states cannotforbid the teaching of evolution. In 1987 it ruled states cannot require the teaching of "creation science." Nothing, however, prohibits the teaching of "creation science." Eugenie Scott, director of The National Center for Science Education writes, "Since the 1987 Supreme Court decision ... neo-creationism has evolved. Now in addition to regular creationism, we have euphemisms like 'intelligent design theory' and 'abrupt appearance theory.' We also hear of teachers being directed to teach the weaknesses in evolution, which makes about as much sense as teaching weaknesses in spherical-earth theory."

     Scott goes on to explain that teachers are increasingly coming under pressure from parents, principals and local district officials. "This problem isn't always on the front page, but it's always there at the local level. If chemistry teachers were not allowed to teach the periodic table, it would be a scandal. Not allowing biology teachers to teach evolution is just as basic."


Cole, Fay-Cooper. 1959. A witness at the Scopes' trial. Scientific American Jan. pp. 120-130.

Gilkey, Langdon. 1985. Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. Winston Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 199 1. Bully for Brontosaurus. W.W. Norton and Co. 1983. Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. W.W. Norton and Co. 1973. Ever Since Darwin. W.W. Norton and Co.

Grabiner, Judith and Peter D. Miller. 1974. Effects of the Scopes' trial. Science 185:832-7.

National Center for Science. 1995. Hotline to Defend Evolution Established: 1-800-290-6006. Press Release.

Numbers, Ronald L. 1992. The Creationists. Alfred A. Knoff.

Whitcomb, John C. and Henry Morris. 1961. The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. Baker Press.

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