Nine decades after a Tennessee jury found science instructor John T. Scopes guilty of teaching evolution, both sides can claim victory in the ensuing religious, cultural and scientific debate over the creation of Earth, observers say.
Scientists note the trial helped ensconce the theory of evolution within America's classrooms, while those who doubt evolution contend the controversial trial strengthened their efforts to support their creationism, defined as a literal belief in the Bible's creation account, with scientific evidence.
The courtroom clash, in which evolution was portrayed as scientific and creationism as a vestige of religious tradition, highlighted a then-growing clash between religious fundamentalism and more progressive spiritual interpretations that allowed for evolution. That debate continues today, observers note.
In 2014, the Gallup organization reported 42 percent of Americans "continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago," down from 46 percent in 2012.
Noting that pro-creationism percentages have varied between 40 and 47 percent throughout the survey question's history, Gallup said, "at the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999," to 19 percent.
The 11-day trial in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, gave unprecedented national exposure to the creation/evolution debate. Noted Chicago attorney (and atheist) Clarence Darrow squared off against popular Christian (and three-time U.S. presidential nominee) William Jennings Bryan, who joined the prosecution team.
The trial received extraordinary media attention with dozens of reporters, including the famous H.L. Mencken of The Baltimore Sun, descending on Dayton to report on the proceedings of what was essentially a publicity stunt. City leaders, the weekly Nashville Scene newspaper reported, were anxious to gain attention for their cities, and Scopes agreed to teach a lesson on evolution to facilitate the charges.
Today, evolution is regularly taught in public high schools, while supporters of the biblical account continue their quest to have their viewpoint taught as well. The state of Texas is a central battleground over the issue. Last fall, WBUR-FM reported, new textbooks containing information that is challenged by academics on subjects including evolution will be rolled out to more than 5 million public school students.
Alice Linahan, an education activist from Dallas, told the radio station she wants to have various viewpoints offered to students.
"If there’s question if it is seen as not a fact to some, both sides need to be presented," Linahan said. "I think that if there is a question — whether it’s evolution, creationism, whatever — that both sides should be presented."
The debate over creation versus evolution has taken place in the Christian college classroom as well. La Sierra University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Riverside, California, was called out in 2010 by activists and at least one student over allegations some biology teachers presented evolution over creation as the "preferred" explanation of origins, the Adventist Review reported. The university's religious sponsors hold to a "recent" creation in "six literal days."
More recently, Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, terminated the employment of professor Thomas Oord, citing financial pressures, although science and religion scholar Karl Giberson, writing at The Daily Beast website, said it was Oord's support of evolution and "open theism" that drew fire.
"Fundamentalist critics called (Oord) a heretic and had been vying for his termination for years," Giberson wrote.
Although university officials later said Oord could teach full time for another year and part time for two more, Giberson said the effective dismissal of a popular professor "strengthens the hand of the fundamentalists, making it even harder for those (faculty) who remain to avoid controversy."