Southeastern Section - 64th Annual Meeting (19–20 March 2015)

Paper No. 7
Presentation Time: 10:30 AM


WITHERSPOON, William D.,, P.O. Box 33522, Decatur, GA 30033,

The 1925 trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee was one of the great media events in the history of science. The first nationwide radio broadcast ever made from a non-studio location, it quickly became a faceoff between super-celebrities William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. It is best remembered for Darrow’s humiliation of Bryan on the witness stand, as Darrow ridiculed Bryan’s literal interpretation of the Bible.

Ironically, as Grabiner and Miller (1974) showed, the trial led to an immediate and sustained watering down of textbook references to evolution. Today, biblical literalists continue to succeed in legislatures, if not the courts, in influencing educational practice.

A renewed look at the trial shows both positive and negative lessons. Most interesting from a positive standpoint is the most popular speech of the trial, by defense attorney Dudley Malone, which according to a contemporary account received four times the ovation from the local audience as the preceding speech, by the great orator Bryan. Rather than pitting the scientific narrative against the biblical, Malone emphasized giving youth all the tools they would need to deal with a difficult world, and being unafraid of the truth, wherever it might lead.

The current STEM emphasis on learning science in the context of its application in the workplace can help steer science educators toward an approach to evolution more similar to Malone’s than to Darrow’s. The intention should not be to displace the biblical narrative, but to demonstrate the practical benefits of scientific understanding, the dedication to evidence, and the essential place of evolution in that context.