What the Scopes Trial Teaches Us About Climate-Change Denial

The Tennessee courtroom battle showed what can happen when big business joins forces with religious faith.
Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial in 1925 (Associated Press)

America has largely forgotten Ray Ginger, the mid-20th century historian whose tenure as a professor at Harvard University ended badly during the McCarthy era when the college, to its eternal discredit, demanded that he and his wife swear loyalty oaths. Afterward, Ginger wrote two excellent books, including Six Days or Forever, which remains one of the most colorful and definitive accounts of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" and the iconic courtroom clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.*

Ironically, Six Days now reads like the Book of Revelations (which Darrow grandly mocked before, during, and after the trial). Indeed, it is revelatory to see how the forces that animated the run-up to the Scopes trial 90 years ago are still present today. We see their work mostly in the dogged renewal of the fight to teach creationism to our children and in the rancor over the truth about the human causes of global warming. To call these forces anti-science is accurate but not the entire story. It's something broader than that.

The Good Old Days

In his introduction to Six Days, Ginger emphasized the role that recent immigration had played in reanimating fear-based practices and policies among white Americans. "The anxiety was nationwide, because some of the major causes were nationwide," he wrote. First, there had been the great European migration to America in the 1890s. "The new immigrant groups came to be voting blocs of more significance than were native-born Americans in one city after another," Ginger wrote.

Next came the Great War. "The sense of losing one's birthright, of alienation, of betrayal, was heightened by World War I," Ginger wrote:

Before the war Christianity had turned increasingly toward the Social Gospel, which sought to face the social problems of industrialism and urbanism and to deal with them in a spirit of practical idealism. ... Then came the war. ... Gone was the previous hopefulness, the cheery conviction that progress is inevitable. ...

Present, too, with many, was a vague sense of guilt. ... The feeling of having sinned, of being on the verge of eternal damnation, was intolerable, and men had to assure themselves of their basic goodness. This effort required a simple definition of morality: a good man is a man who does not drink, or smoke, or gamble, or commit adultery, or contravene the Word of the Bible, and who punishes the sins of others.

This "social creed," Ginger argued, was heavily promoted by corporate interests, including the United States Chamber of Commerce. These business groups, he wrote, "helped to create good growing weather for the anti-evolutionary movement. They too preached the overwhelming need for social order, for stony-faced resistance to change." From Six Days:

The big business groups and the fundamentalists likewise agreed that education should consist in the inculcation of received truths, not in the development among students of certain modes of analysis, not in the discovery of new truths. Truth is known. Teach it. Who knows it? We do. How do you learn it? The fundamentalists replied: God revealed it to us. The business groups replied: We are the elite. We know everything.

Ginger distilled these attitudes. "A desperate flight backward to old certainties replaced the prewar belief in gradual adaptation to new conditions," he wrote. "In a convulsion of filiopiety, men tried to deny the present by asserting a fugitive and monastic virtue. Not progress, but stability and certainty." This dynamic helped explain, Ginger wrote, the new rise of fundamentalism as a political force. It accounted for great skepticism of the new truths of science. And it generated the rise in nativism and xenophobia that gripped the nation during that time as well as the restrictive immigration policies that resulted from it.

There is evidence all around that the same thing is happening today. We have a new generation of fear and prejudice wrought by a new wave of immigration. We have a new wave of weariness of war after two more bloody conflicts. And we have a new wave of skepticism about science that has manifested itself in two distinct ways. Nearly 90 years after the Scopes trial, there are still anti-evolution forces pushing to include creationism in our public schools And nearly 90 years after the Monkey trial corporate forces still are pushing back against science, still promoting the "inculcation of received truths."


The Tennessee law that started it all was called the Butler Act, named after an earnest, well-meaning lawmaker named John Washington Butler who drafted the statute after he heard a story, from a traveling preacher, about a young woman who had gone to college and come back believing in evolution. Why did Butler do it? "In the first place," he said later, "the Bible is the foundation upon which our American Government is built. ... The evolutionist who denies the Biblical story of creation, as well as other Biblical accounts, cannot be a Christian. It goes hand in hand with Modernism, makes Jesus Christ a fakir, robs the Christian of his hope and undermines the foundation of our Government."

And so Butler wrote a bill that he hoped would delay if not actually stop "Modernism," a measure he hoped would insulate the children of his age from what he considered a radical and dubious theory, one that directly threatened the moral and legal building blocks of the society he cherished. In pertinent part, the law he drafted (that was challenged by John Scopes) stated:

...it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Now let's speed ahead 90 years, to late September 2013, and to Sunday's edition of The New York Times for a story out of Texas. Here's the lede in Motoko Rich's piece:

One is a nutritionist who believes "creation science" based on biblical principles should be taught in the classroom. Another is a chemical engineer who is listed as a "Darwin Skeptic" on the Web site of the Creation Science Hall of Fame. A third is a trained biologist who also happens to be a fellow of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based center of the intelligent-design movement and a vice president at an evangelical ministry in Plano, Tex.

As Texas gears up to select biology textbooks for use by high school students over the next decade, the panel responsible for reviewing submissions from publishers has stirred controversy because a number of its members do not accept evolution and climate change as scientific truth.... Six of them are known to reject evolution.

Texas is not the only state where creationism is seeking to make a return to public policy. This year, Oklahoma flirted with an anti-evolution measure -- it passed out of Committee but died without a vote in the legislature. Last year, Alabama went down the same path. The year before that, in 2011, Florida mulled over the concept. "Why do we still have apes if we came from them?" asked state Sen. Stephen Wise. And in Tennessee itself, the scene of Darrow's destruction of Bryan, creationism again may be taught in public classrooms (alongside evolution) thanks to a law passed largely by Republicans in 2012.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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