The Scopes Trial: Background information when reading The Explanation for Everything

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The Explanation for Everything

by Lauren Grodstein

The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2013, 372 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2014, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Beyond the Book:
The Scopes Trial

Print Review

John ScopesBiology professor Andrew Waite (the protagonist in The Explanation for Everything) had a predecessor in John Scopes, a 24-year-old high school teacher who decided to teach the theory of evolution in his Dayton, Tennessee high school classroom defying a then newly implemented state law banning this practice. The year was 1925, a time when jazz and Hollywood movies were believed to be corrupting influences on America's youth and the last thing the evangelical superiors in Tennessee wanted was a challenge to the word of God.

Taken aback by the Tennessee decision, The American Civil Liberties Union looked for teachers to become "test cases" - to teach the theory of evolution defying the state law. John Scopes was one such teacher. When Scopes was brought to trial, the ACLU backed him in the "trial of the century" which is often referred to as the Monkey Trial (making a mockery of the theory of evolution linking man to ape). Scopes's lawyer, Clarence Darrow, a champion of labor, was an avowed agnostic. Scopes was eventually found guilty and fined $100. Upon learning of his guilty charge, he declared his intent "to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom - that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom."

Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the Scopes Trial.In 1968 the Supreme Court finally ruled that the theory of evolution could not be banned from being taught in classrooms due to religious reasons. Despite this ruling, however, the teaching of evolution remains a contentious issue with some portions of the American population. In 1973, Tennessee became the first U.S. state to pass a law requiring that public schools give equal emphasis to "the Genesis account in the Bible" along with other theories about the origins of man. The bill also requires a disclaimer be used any time evolution is presented or discussed in public schools. This disclaimer demands that evolution be taught as theory and not fact.

As recently as 2011, Texas school board members were pushing for more conservative Christians to become members even while denying rumors that "intelligent design" curricula were on the agenda. And in 2009, the chair of the state's education board worked on the science curriculum after stating that the theory of evolution was "hooey." What Texas does and incorporates in its textbooks is critical because its enormous purchasing power gives it the ability to swing the curricula for a national audience.

Visit NPR for an illuminating timeline relevant to the Scopes trial.

First Image: John Scopes; second image: Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the Scopes Trial.

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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