The Monkey Scopes Trial and its Impact on Intellectual Freedom

The consequences of many historic court cases are apparent in contemporary society, but how we learn from them and understand their faults and benefits truly allows us to mature as a population. A trial that arose from a small dispute regarding the extent of scientific versus religious thought evidences the lessons that we can derive from our past. This court case began in the mere 1,800 soul town of Dayton, Tennessee, across several balmy June afternoons in 1925, and it kindled the creation-evolution controversy that exists to this day. An individual known as Sir John Thomas Scopes shattered the schism between the public and private spheres, as Immanuel Kant would voice, and revolutionized the ideology of speaking against the norms, or constraints, of society. Scopes believed a certain academic freedom to speak of his intellectual beliefs had been hindered by the state school board. By analyzing the overall impact and the resulting disparate perspectives on Scopes’s actions in the infamous State of Tennessee vs John Thomas Scopes trial, also known as the “Monkey Scopes trial,” a better understanding of this censorship, and whether it had been appropriate, can be grasped.

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Fig. 1:

          Dayton, Tennessee began with a hoorah for the arriving of Sir William Jennings Bryan in early June, 1925 (see Fig. 1). Three-time presidential candidate and the main arguer of the prosecution in favor of the Tennessee law, Bryan had been a well known Presbyterian orator and politician from Nebraska, perhaps even the best-known lecturer of the era. He had come to defend the newly passed Butler Act of Tennessee, which “prohibited the teaching of Evolution Theory in all the Universities…and all the other public schools of Tennessee… and to provide penalties for the violations thereof” (UMKC). Professor John Thomas Scopes had been prosecuted for reading from a book not prescribed by the Tennessee legislature to a high school biology class, reading instead from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, an act verboten by section two of the Butler Act. He anticipated to make a statement in the debate of creation versus evolution, but with Bryan as prosecuting attorney, the courtroom already expected an upcoming “’duel to the death’ between science and Christianity” (Morgan 48). A devout Christian orator, Bryan would fight to the death – and quite literally – to support the Genesis text regarding the creation of man by God. According to the bible, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth… And God said, Let there be light; and there was light” (Genesis 1.2-1.3). The prosecuting supported this belief and this belief only.

Sir Clarence Darrow spoke as the defense attorney for Scopes, assisted by Attorney Hay. Darrow, despite his oratory prowess and quick intuition, had been infamous in the South for his scientific loyalty and lack of religious vigor. Still, the defense was heroically brave in its adamant statement on evolutionism. Rather than God creating man on the sixth day of the existence of the universe, Scopes read to the students how “all the individuals of the same species, and all the species of the same genus, or even higher group, are descended from common parents; and therefore, in however distant and isolated parts of the world they may now be found, they must in the course of successive generations have travelled from some one point to all others” (Darwin 2). Homo sapiens had essentially been derived from previous origins over the course of many million years. As mammals, apes, or the hominids, had been the direct predecessors of Homo sapiens. Over the millennia, humans grew taller and leaner, became harrier and more sophisticated. This notion of deriving from monkeys granted the trial its name and further antagonized many devout Christians. It seems rather condescending, referring to humans as offspring of apes rather than of a divine being. Still, Scopes decided to enlighten his students with this new philosophy of the origins of humans and oppose his defined restrictions of speech as a schoolteacher. He had ignited an everlasting battle questioning the appropriateness of rebelling over submitting to the defined law.


Fig. 2:

            On day eight of the trial, the jury rules Sir John Thomas Scopes unanimously guilty. The judge sets the fine at the minimum of one hundred dollars (equivalent to $1,349 in 2015) and the case is appealed to the state court. Scopes loses the trial, but in essence, still implants his image on history. His actions reverberate discussion thereafter and the effects of the verdict too garner controversy of the appropriateness of his actions (see Fig. 2). Following the trial, many publishers feared the expulsion of their textbooks from the academic curriculum around the United States and hence self-censored their work to exclude any mention of Darwinism or evolution. Such a trepidation signified an unsaid lack of expression, a lack of voice, a lack of freedom. Immediately following the verdict, “Anti-evolutionists recognized quickly that state laws were not their only weapons. On the country level, hundreds of boards of education, in the South especially, took formal and informal steps to ban evolution and to bar the hiring of evolutionists and ‘non-believers’” (Morgan 52).  A nationwide anti-evolution campaign became vulgar in its efforts to adapt and censor science textbooks, and “evolution” was nowhere to be seen, replaced with “development” and other religious quotations. By witnessing the lasting effects of the case, one can today question whether Scopes had been justified in violating the law, in acting against his defined role as a schoolteacher, in acting according to his own moral framework.

Many individuals would object, as the jury had done, that Scopes’s actions had been unrighteous, uncalled for, and completely inappropriate for his duty as a public education schoolteacher. By referring to page one of Origin of Species, Scopes had disobeyed the law and the school district policy and impaired his status as a teacher. According to political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt of the early twentieth century, Scopes had acted against the will of his society and acted without true purpose. Arendt believes that action consists primarily of two spheres: freedom and plurality. Yet, Arendt’s definition of freedom contrasts from the Christian philosophy of freedom wherein God grants man the ability to choose among a set of alternative possibilities. Rather, she argues that freedom is the capacity to enact something new and do the unexpected, only possible because of man being born. Because man is born, because of natality, there is a promise of a new opportunity to be pursued. Still, acting cannot be performed with isolation of others. Arendt defines plurality as “the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world,” and declares it the condition of human action “because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live ” (Arendt 7-8). Hence, she emphasizes plurality as a supplement to freedom. This ideology is what antagonizes her from Scopes’s actions, for she believes that one has the obligation to act so that others can judge the quality of what is being enacted. With the variety of perspectives – and hence judgment — of others, action has a purpose in the context of plurality. Therefore, action requires the consent of others, the approval of society, and the synchronization with the thoughts and ideals of the community. Sir John Thomas Scopes inhabited a town wherein the majority did not see his actions as righteous. Rather, most of the town had been devout Christians, adamant in their views presented in Genesis on the origin of man. Because Scopes behaved on his own behalf, and without eliciting the consent of the community, he did not practice a freedom of action, but rather practiced an act of selfishness. The norms of his society opposed the teachings of Darwinism, and according to Arendt’s beliefs, by teaching evolution anyway, Scopes alienated himself from his society and was truly guilty in breaking the law.

Another figure shares similar thoughts to those of Arendt. German philosopher of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, argues a position that also finds the actions of Scopes as unjustified and guilty. Through one of his most well-known works, What is Enlightenment?, Kant emphasizes a schism that exists between the public and private spheres of a individual, two spheres that do not necessarily contradict one another, but that include disparate views and duties of an individual’s role in society. The public sphere is a place where individuals are free from obligation of their calling, and subjects are free to speak or write critically. An individual retains “public use of his reason, an unrestricted freedom to employ his own reason and to speak his own person” (Kant 61). Opposed to this, the private sphere is where people have an actual duty to restrain the expression of political judgment and withhold the critique of societal norms. “Here one is certainly not allowed to argue,” Kant discerns, “rather, one must obey… he is engaged in part as a passive member” (Kant 60). In understanding Scopes’ situation, Kant would argue that as a public education school teacher, Scopes already sacrificed his rights of freedom of speech for his ability to teach school children the prescribed curriculum as provided by the Tennessee board of education. Scopes’s obligation in society had been to teach the materials from Genesis regarding the creation of man. His defined private role ensured that he would remain submissive and perform his job. If Scopes had wished to voice his opinions regarding evolution, Kant would argue that Scopes should pursue such inclinations in his public sphere, in writings outside of the classroom, potentially criticizing the school system and voicing his loyalty to Darwinian thought. From there, he could garner public support and potentially lead a movement in changing the school curriculum. However, by articulating his beliefs inside the classroom, Scopes shattered the schism between the two spheres and broken the etiquette of the distribution of reason. In such ways, Scopes was rightfully guilty in his actions and deserved to be incarcerated to prevent further disorder in Dayton, Tennessee.

Still, despite much public support for Scopes’s incarceration and the justification thereof by both Arendt and Kant, another perspective could actually shed light on Scopes in kindling a revolution for free thought against the norms of society. This perspective is that of Rene Descartes. Descartes, known as the father of rationalism, had lived during the time of the scientific revolution and throughout the course of his life witnessed many objections and reactions to the societal norms – especially during the time of the Copernican revolution and the works of Galileo Galilei. From the rebuttal, arrival, and revival of many ideologies of the time, Descartes spent one European winter evening in a warm sauna, contemplating his philosophies on life and how he could comprehend all of what had been occurring. After such contemplation, Descartes established what is known today as the Cartesian method, wherein one breaks down elements for further analysis of just the simple components in order to form a basis of unequivocal knowledge. To do this, Descartes would have to eliminate his previous developed thoughts that society had implanted and construct new thoughts according to the exacting standards of his own reason. Before abandoning his former opinions entirely, though, Descartes formulates a law that would direct his inquiry, a guiding philosophy that distinguishes Descartes to this day. Descartes planned “never to accept anything as true that [he] did not plainly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid hasty judgment and prejudice; and to include nothing more in [his] judgments than what presented itself to [his] mind so clearly and so distinctly that [he] had no occasion to call it in doubt” (Descartes 11).

With such philosophy, Descartes would have similarly supported Scopes during the trial, not because of his doubt in faith, but rather because of the many proofs of natural selection. Evolutionary evidence was provided in Darwin’s Origin of Species and especially by archeologists thereafter. Fossils depicting the natural selection of specific species evidenced a favoring of certain genes and a slow manipulation of the genotype and phenotype of animals. The whale, for example was proven to have higher nostrils than previous generations to prevent complete surfacing for acquiring oxygen (Than). The seal, too, was scientifically proven to have had clumsier limbs as a Ambulocetus natan before its evolutionary front fins, and the peacock was similarly demonstrated to have experienced a sexual natural selection, whereupon more vibrant tail fathers attracted female mates, causing a favoring for such genes (Bioscience). From such evidence, firm conclusions could be validated in support of Darwinist theory. Meanwhile, Descartes’s philosophy chooses to shun aspects of the world that remain nebulous and can cause doubt. Because the teachings of Genesis stood indefinitely, Scopes actions were in synch with Descartes thought. Scopes behaved appropriately, not because of the rebuttal of a God creating man, but because he acted against ideals that were not completely certain. Even though he had been in the classroom, presenting information that could be uncertain was against Descartes’s ethic code. Only an unequivocal truth was justified to be reason, and hence, only unequivocal truth should be taught. Descartes would thus dignify Scopes as a hero of independent thought and a champion of intellectual curiosity and boldness.

A full analysis on the appropriateness of Scopes’s deeds cannot be made without exploring the repercussions of either reading from Genesis or reading from The Origin of Species. Had Scopes, according to Kant, remained in his private sphere and conformed with the norms of his community, the case would not have occurred and the stance on the evolution versus creationism debate would have been delayed to another date and location. Dayton schoolteachers would have thereafter continued to read from Genesis and potentially voice their concerns elsewhere, outside the classroom, where a political voice may or may not be heard in the clunky gears of government and eventual societal progression. If this voice were to be heard, however, a similar court case would arise, with the usual creation versus evolution positions. By choosing to read form The Origin of Species, Scopes may have caused an immediate trepidation and mass self-censorship for biology publishers, but he also kindled the revolution, ignited the path so that the issue was voiced and the debate now created into words and actions, rather than an unsaid battle between submission and uncertainty. Scopes possessed an intellectual freedom and chose to teach students what he believed to be the unequivocal truth of mankind’s past. By undermining the will of the community and by entangling his private and public roles in society, Scopes executed the unprecedented, and although “losing” the case, set a model for today: despite the restrictions set by others on intellectual freedom, according to Descartes, with the proper evidence and reasoning, an individual should have the right to explore and distribute knowledge and make a stand in his community.



Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1958. Print.

“Bible Gateway Passage: Genesis 1-4 – New International Version.” Bible Gateway. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. < 1>.

“BioScience.” The Lingering Impact of the Scopes Trial on High School Biology Textbooks. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. <>.

D’Entreves, Maurizio. “Hannah Arendt.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 27 July 2006. Web. 5 Dec. 2015. <;.

Darwin, Charles, and Gillian Beer. The Origin of Species. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Donald A. Cress. 4th ed. Indianapolis / Cambridge: Hackett, 1637. 1-22. Print.

Kant, Immanuel, and James Schmitt. “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? (1784).” Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy: 58-63. Print.

“Kant’s Public and Private Uses of Reason.” Kate Prudchenko. 3 Sept. 2012. Web. 5 Dec. 2015. <;.

“Tennessee Anti-evolution Statute – UMKC School of Law.” Tennessee Anti-evolution Statute – UMKC School of Law. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. <;.

Than, By. “What Is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 13 May 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2015. <;.