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The Impact of Charles Darwin's Research on Monkeys

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Evolution can be defined in quite a few ways, depending on the aspect from which one views it, such as when discussing the evolution of a population versus evolution at the species level. Charles Darwin described evolution in its simplest terms as “descent with modification.” He said that all species are similar because they are closely related by descent and that modifications among species result from differential reproductive success among individual organisms showing genetic differences in traits. Although we now know much more about evolution than Darwin did, in his days he knew much more than most, and his thinking was on the right track.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England in 1809. From an early age, young Charles was interested in natural history. Soon after his graduation from Cambridge in 1831, Darwin was recommended for a scientific expedition to study geology and biology in the Pacific and South America. This trip took a stop in the Galapagos Islands and, while there, Darwin observed that different species of finches habituated different islands. This observation led him to consider that the finches were adapting to their distinct environments. Darwin collected samples of different species and concluded that each evolved from a pre-existing animal with slight variations in size, color, or anatomy. He knew that many details about evolution were yet to be discovered and on November 24, 1859 he published his treatise On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin believed in the principle of natural selection. He knew that when environmental conditions are favorable and allow the survival of all offspring, the number of individuals in a population will tend to increase exponentially and that evolution occurred through gradual change in the hereditary composition of a species. He based this conclusion on his observations of gradual variation among individuals, varieties, sub-species and species. Darwin said that his principle applied not just to less-developed animals but to humans as well. That would mean that his theory proposed that humans descended from apes.

Before 1859, when Charles Darwin introduced his new theory of the creation of man, a majority of the population believed that God created the world and although many people rose up against his theory, many others looked at this idea as a new and welcome belief. However, the issue of whether an all-mighty God created the universe and people, or people evolved from monkeys, remained a heated topic for years to come. This subject matter led to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Darwin died 43 years before the Scopes trial, but the effects of his work changed the human culture forever and were the driving force behind the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The Scopes Monkey Trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee in the Rhea County Courthouse. The trial was started after John Scopes, a substitute biology teacher, was accused of breaking the Butler Act. The Butler Act was an act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities and public schools of Tennessee, that are provided with public funding from the state, and it says that all violators are to be subject to penalties for their violations. Section two of the act specifically states that “any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense.” John Scopes was brought to court and tried for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a Dayton, Tennessee school.

Dayton Tennessee was a small town and many Daytonians viewed the Scopes trial as an opportunity to put their town on the map. Under normal circumstances, the law would not have been challenged but a plan was hatched out by George Rappleyea, a staunch evolutionist and local businessman in Rhea County, who saw the trial as a way to attract money and attention to the small town, helping to raise up its failing economy. During the trial, the normally quiet yet prosperous town became, for about two hot weeks in July, a fair of lemonade and hotdog stands, banners and monkey pennants, caged apes, hawkers of religious tracts and biology texts, Holy Rollers and evangelists, and hundreds of members of the press. Dayton was, however, a very religious community, and with nine churches in town, it was apparent why the people did not want evolution taught in the classrooms. H. L. Mencken, a writer who once visited the town said it was “full of charm and even some beauty” but also complained that because of its strong religious beliefs the town had “no bootleggers, no gambling, no place to dance, and that no fancy women.” During the trial however, it was said that the town “was literally drunk on religious excitement.” There was seating available in the courthouse for 700, but 300 more standees crammed in to watch Dayton’s most historic event take place. Rappleyea’s plan was coming into play and working just as he had hoped. Attention to the town was coming from all over as the trial began.

William Jennings Bryan, by then a legend in American politics for nearly 30 years, was perhaps the most fervent voice in the nation against Darwin’s theories. He saw the theory of evolution, which he called “ape-ism”, as an incomparable threat to the sacredness of the human condition. For years he had been on a personal mission to remove the teaching of evolution from public schools. When asked by prosecutors to help present the case against Scopes, Bryan readily agreed.

Bryan, who had recently arrived on a train from Illinois, was known as “The Great Commoner.” A well-known Congressman, Bryan had also been a three-time Democratic contender for the presidency and the Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan was a fundamentalist, believing strongly in the bible. Throughout the south, his views were embraced by many. Over the prior two years, he had pushed his work in law aside to spread his views. He came to Dayton more to speak publicly about his beliefs than to offer legal counsel, but once he arrived he quickly changed his mind, seeing his chance to make history and further spread his teachings.

Serving as Bryan’s nemesis was Clarence Darrow, the most famous trial attorney in America at that time. A self-described disbeliever, Darrow was thought by many to be an atheist although, born in rural Ohio, he considered himself an agnostic. Clarence Darrow arrived in Dayton just a day before the trial was set to start. Darrow was well known at the time for defending labor leaders, radicals, and many high profile killers. Darrow’s most famous clients were probably Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb the two wealthy Chicago teens convicted of killing a schoolmate, who Darrow helped escape the death penalty. Darrow took the case of Leopold and Loeb, as a unique opportunity to combat the death penalty. This case was getting so much publicity around the country and the world that it was a rare chance for him to be widely heard on his capital punishment views.

Similarly to Bryan, Darrow also ran for congress but lost many elections, blaming his losses on Bryan. He was disturbed by the deep-rooted influence of religious fundamentalism throughout rural America, a fact that made the Scopes trial as much a personal crusade for him as it was for Bryan. His intention in taking the case was to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law.

Although it may seem strange, Darrow wanted the jury to find Scopes guilty, so he could then appeal the decision in a higher court. He did all he could to keep the technicalities out of the case and called expert witnesses such as scientists, theologians, scholars to prove the Darwin theory was correct. Bryan fought to keep these experts out of the court saying that “to permit an expert to testify upon this issue would be to substitute trial by experts for trial by jury.” The judge immediately ruled out testifying by expert witnesses and Darrow became enragaged and accused him of bias, but apologized soon afterwards. The next day Darrow had a new plan. He put Bryan on the stand as an expert witness. Surprisingly, Bryan agreed saying that Darrow could ask any question he wanted about the Bible because he would have all the answers needed. Darrow was well prepared, and his goal was to get Bryan to admit that parts of the Bible were open to interpretation, even by creationists.

Three thousand people showed up to watch the square off between the two men. Darrow’s questioning of Bryan continued for two hours trapping Bryan multiple times in his own logic, until Judge Raulston had had enough, and abruptly adjourned the court. The judge pulled out Darrow’s examination of Bryan from the record, saying it was not relevant and both sides retreated for the day. The next morning Darrow asked the jury for a guilty verdict. He said “As far as this case stands before the jury, the court has told you very plainly that if you think my client taught that man descended from a lower order of animals, you will find him guilty, and you heard the testimony of the boys on that questions and heard read the books, and there is no dispute about the facts. Scopes did not go on the stand, because he could not deny the statements made by the boys [from Scopes’ class who testified]. I do not know how you may feel, I am not especially interested in it, but this case and this law will never be decided until it gets to a higher court, and it cannot get to a higher court probably, very well, unless you bring in a verdict.”

The jury left and returned quickly with a guilty verdict and Scopes was given a fine of one hundred dollars. Darrow appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the case on a technicality because at the time in Tennessee, juries were responsible for setting fines, not judges. Darrow won this specific case but the anti-evolution law stayed on the Tennessee books for another 40 years before it was removed from the books. Bryan died five days after the trial while Darrow lived for another thirteen years and continued practicing law.

The Scopes Monkey Trial came at a crucial time in history, a cross-roads of decisions. People had to make the decision of clinging to the past or moving on to the future, believing in the Bible or believing in the more logical Darwin theory of evolution. The trial went beyond being just the trying of a man who taught evolution against the law. It became a trial of religion vs. evolution. Scopes lost the case, but won the public’s favor, although the Butler Law remained on the books in Tennessee.

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