A Brief History of the Trials and Tribulations of Teaching Evolution

Faith Frings, Ohav Harris, and Kaleb Smallwood 
*Authors listed alphabetically; all contributed equally to this piece

The teaching of evolution has always been a polemical topic. People often consider evolution and religion to be in direct opposition to one another, when in actuality the two are concerned with separate realms of reality. Many teachers, and even college professors, often feel nervous about bringing up the topic because they worry about how not only students will respond, but also, in the case of K-12 educators, how their parents might react. In fact, a survey conducted in 2007 and published in 2010 concluded that roughly 532,000 students in Florida were taught by teachers who either felt uncomfortable teaching the subject or refrained from teaching evolution entirely (Fowler and Meisels, 2010). This discomfort with discussing evolution has been present since before Darwin published his theory in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Darwin himself feared how religious and scientific authorities would respond, as scientists such as Georges Cuvier, a lauded naturalist of the time, decried the belief that the extant species had changed much since they first came into being. This caused him to delay his publication after his return to England in 1836 (Pew Research Center, 2009). The controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution reached a head in the United States in 1925, during the Scopes trial.

The Scopes Trial of 1925 (also called the Monkey Trial) is one very infamous example of the aggravation evolution can bring about in the classroom. John Thomas Scopes, a Tennessee high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution, which was against Tennessee law at the time due to the Butler Act, which outlawed any philosophy that opposed creationism and taught that mankind descended from animals (Arnold-Forster, 2022). Scopes did so intentionally, as he was working with the ACLU to defy this law as the defendant. Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan aided the prosecution. Citizens acted as chimps to mock the defense. Unfortunately, since Scopes himself was on trial and not the law he acted against, the defense was not allowed to call scientists in to provide testimony and Scopes was found guilty of breaking the law and fined $100. The verdict was overturned in 1927, but this was only on a technicality. This means that for two years, it was illegal to teach evolution in schools in Tennessee. Two years may not be much in hindsight, but ideas can become entrenched in a person’s mind in that amount of time. Numerous people would have been ignorant of evolution or told that it was a lie in some cases, breeding a lack of scientific literacy that would have made it more difficult for people to accept evolution or science in general in the future. Worse still, laws of this nature persisted in places such as Mississippi and Arkansas (Arnold-Forster, 2022).

While the thoughts and feelings that led to events like the Scopes Trial may seem like a thing of the past now, such vehement sentiments against evolution have flared up more recently than one might think, leading to yet another court case regarding the teaching of evolution in 2005, this time in Pennsylvania. Kitzmiller et al. v Dover Area School District et al. differed from the Scopes Trial in two crucial ways. First, the issue was not a law banning the teaching of evolution, but the school district teaching evolution alongside intelligent design, a philosophy often used as an alternative to creationism. Second, the defense was allowed to call expert scientists as witnesses, turning the trial into something of an educational seminar for those in attendance, showing them that there is plenty of evidence in favor of evolution and that a scientific theory differs from a theory in the colloquial sense (Humes, 2008). Rather than a denial of science in favor of religion, this trial showed not only that evolution is valid, but also that it can be accepted while holding religious beliefs. Many opponents to the teaching of evolution, due to religious beliefs, came to understand the evidence for evolution over the course of the trial and came to accept it without sacrificing their religious values. While the significance of this trial and its subsequent ruling cannot be understated as they allowed the legal teaching of evolution to continue, the most important note to take from this trial is the masterful teaching put on display. Rather than chide the crowd and opposing litigants for their lack of comprehension of science, the scientists brought on by the defense were considerate, respectful, and humorous. There are important lessons to be learned from this trial by those who aspire to teach evolution or subjects such as paleontology or biology where evolution is integral to a comprehension of the subject.

For example, one important point established by the defense in the Kitzmiller case is the fact that science and religion are not mutually exclusive, but they deal in different areas of reality. Religious explanations of phenomena and other things observable in the world often tend to be supernatural, going outside of the confines of what science can and should be used to explain. Science deals strictly with the natural, observable world. Science uses what evidence exists in the natural world to come to conclusions best supported by that evidence. As such, scientific explanations of processes observable in the world do not rule out the existence of a god or other greater power. Science cannot broach the subject at all. Consequently, acceptance of evolution does not require a rejection of one’s faith, nor are the two in conflict at all. It may be helpful to point out this fact for those in a class who feel strongly about their religious affiliations to ease their worries in that regard. Additionally, this trial shows the significance of preparing thoughtful and clear  answers for any questions  raised by students in class. One outlandish argument brought up during the trial was that of irreducible complexity. It was argued that cars and planes are made using similar parts, but neither a car nor plane came from the other. Additionally, if one vital part of a car or plane was removed, the object would cease to function. It was argued that the same went for organisms. Ken Miller’s response was complete and used the relevant example of the multipurpose proteins in bacterial flagellum, which was something discussed ad nauseum in the trial, to show that organisms are not irreducibly complex (Humes, 2008). The proteins that make up the flagellum can also be used for various other functions, so it is not accurate to say that the system is irreducibly complex. In another setting, those proteins can be seen performing completely different functions. Being ready to address questions and detractors is crucial to getting an audience to listen to and respect you. Doing so while respecting people’s lack of knowledge or their skepticism is equally crucial. Through proper teaching, evolution can transition from the controversial topic it is sometimes seen as into being well-accepted as the scientific theory that it is by the public, similar to the theory of gravity or cell theory. Calmly explaining to students that we did not come from monkeys, assuaging their worries regarding religion, and encouraging scientific thinking are all important steps along this road. Evolution is just as important a scientific subject to understand as any other to allow people to understand the natural world around them and how it functions.

Works Cited

Arnold-Forster, Tom. “Rethinking the Scopes Trial: Cultural Conflict, Media Spectacle, and Circus Politics.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 56, no. 1, 2022, pp. 142–166., doi:10.1017/S0021875821000529.

Humes, Edward. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. Harper Perennial, 2008.

“Darwin and His Theory of Evolution.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, 4 Feb. 2009, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/02/04/darwin-and-his-theory-of-evolution/.