Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was one of the most revolutionary scientific ideas to emerge during the nineteenth century. The theory, which Darwin developed in his landmark work On the Origin of Species (1859), proposes that the living organisms found on the Earth today evolved from simpler organisms in a long, gradual process of natural selection. In short, the natural environment favors, or selects, organisms that are best adapted to survive in that environment. Those organisms that are not well adapted to the environment struggle and eventually become extinct.
Darwin’s theory caused great controversy because it challenged existing ideas about the origins of humankind, such as the creation story told in the book of Genesis in the Bible. This controversy divided America, which was going through great social change during the period in which Darwin’s theories became widespread. Industrialization, urbanization, long-distance transportation, increased access to education, and wave after wave of immigration transformed the United States from a country composed largely of backwater territories into a modern, egalitarian nation. In large cities, particularly on the East Coast, Americans quickly embraced new ideas, values, and technologies. Many regions of the country, however, particularly the South and the Midwest, were slow to sacrifice traditional beliefs.
Two camps formed in response to Darwin. Evolutionists eagerly accepted Darwin’s ideas and believed that humans shared a relatively close common ancestor with apes and other primates. Creationists, meanwhile, firmly believed in the literal truth of the creation story in the Bible, which claims that humans appeared on Earth fully formed. The debate between evolutionists and creationists raged throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Inherit the Wind recounts the famous 1925 criminal trial Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (often referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”), which was a landmark in the debate between evolutionists and creationists. In 1922, John Washington Butler, a Tennessee legislator, had argued that the Bible provided the basis for the American governmental system and that therefore any deviance from the Bible constituted disrespect for the law. During his second term in the Tennessee legislature, Butler penned the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. The Tennessee legislature passed the law by a wide margin, and in 1925 the governor signed the act into law.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), based in New York City, opposed the Butler Act and others like it that were springing up in other states. They sought a teacher willing to challenge the law and offered to cover all of that teacher’s trial expenses. A businessman named George Rappleyea from Dayton, Tennessee, saw the ACLU’s appeal and regarded it as a potential economic opportunity for his impoverished county. After consulting with local leaders and obtaining their consent, Rappleyea recruited John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old substitute science teacher. Scopes agreed to challenge the Butler Act in the classroom. He taught Darwin’s theory to his classes, and in the summer of 1925, the town constable arrested him.
The American media took immediate interest in the Scopes trial and sent reporters to cover it, most notably the muckraking critic H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun. Both sides recognized that the Scopes trial would be a highly significant opening battle in an ideological war between progressives and fundamentalists over freedom of thought. Conservatives recruited William Jennings Bryan, one of the most prominent figures in American Christian fundamentalism, to serve as prosecuting attorney. Bryan’s lengthy résumé in public service included two terms as a U.S. congressman, a post as secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson, and three unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. presidency. To counter Bryan, the prominent criminal litigator Clarence Darrow, an avowed agnostic, volunteered as Scopes’s defense attorney.
Scopes’s trial provided some intense courtroom drama. Early in the trial, the defense tried to call several experts on evolutionary theory to the witness stand, but the judge ruled this testimony inadmissible. After that ruling, the media believed that the defense had been painted into a corner, with no possible effective strategies left. Darrow, the defense attorney, made a dramatic and unexpected move by calling to the stand the prosecutor, Bryan, as an expert witness on matters relating to the Bible. Darrow’s line of questioning forced Bryan to admit that his own literal interpretation of the Bible—a basic tenet of Christian fundamentalism—was full of contradictions. Darrow’s questioning prompted many courtroom spectators to shift their support to the defense.
The following day, the judge ordered that Bryan’s testimony be stricken from the record, resulting in a guilty verdict for Scopes and a victory for Bryan. However, Darrow and Scopes, through press coverage of the trial and popular support for the defense, won a moral victory that reflected the changing times. Bryan died in his sleep five days after the trial’s conclusion. Scopes was acquitted on a technicality in a higher court of appeals.
In the early 1950s, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee adapted the Scopes trial into a play. The work, Inherit the Wind, was first performed in New York in 1955. Although the playwrights took creative liberties with the story, their version, which draws heavily from journalist H. L. Mencken’s coverage of the trial, is true to the spirit of the trial and to the characters of its most prominent players. Lawrence and Lee, who had collaborated since the late 1940s, went on to write more than thirty works together before Lee’s death in 1994.
Although the Scopes trial was a dramatic high point in the debate between evolutionists and creationists, the trial failed to resolve the constitutionality of the Butler Act, which remained a Tennessee state law until 1967. Since that time, mainstream America has largely accepted evolution theory as an essential part of basic science education. However, similar issues involving the separation between church and state continue to play a part in legal controversies—for example, school prayer and religious education in public schools, among many others—to this day.