Evolution in the Back Seat
The idiom “take a back seat” means “to be given a less important role,” and it was employed accordingly in 2005 by the headline writer for The New York Times for Cornelia Dean’s article entitled “Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes.” Quoting NCSE’s founding executive director Eugenie C. Scott among others, Dean convincingly argued that evolution is often downplayed or omitted in public school science classes: “In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.” A few years later, a rigorous national public survey of high school biology teachers would confirm the anecdotal and impressionistic conclusions of Dean’s article. I mention the article now because of a rather more literal case of evolution in the back seat.
Back in 1995, for the seventieth anniversary of the Scopes trial of 1925, John D. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research asked, “Did the Evolutionists Present a Good Case at the Scopes Trial?” Limited by the format of the ICR’s Acts & Facts series, Morris only had about five hundred words to work with. Even so, he didn’t answer the question posed in the headline satisfactorily. He focused on the scientific testimony that the defense team hoped to introduce during the trial, which—as he acknowledged—was ruled by Judge Raulston to be irrelevant to the trial, and claims, wrongly if unsurprisingly, “each one of the arguments for evolution [that would have been presented by the defense’s expert witnesses] are now known to be wrong.” But there was a detail of his treatment that surprised me a bit.
Morris writes, “John Scopes, on trial for teaching evolution (contrary to Tennessee law), didn’t actually do so until after the charges had been filed.” That is not the detail that surprised me. Scopes was a general science teacher (and part-time sports coach) in Dayton. There are conflicting reports about whether Scopes ever taught evolution in class—before the trial, it was suggested that he reviewed the topic while substituting for the regular biology teacher; after the trial, he told a reporter that he skipped the lesson on evolution about which his students testified (“the kids were good sports and wouldn’t squeal on me in court”); and there’s evidence that he discussed it in his general science class. But it is clear that whatever the students might have learned in class, they were also coached about their testimony before the grand jury hearing and the trial.
Morris knows about the coaching, writing—and now, finally, is the detail that surprised me—“Then he did so [i.e., taught evolution] in the back seat of a car, just to be sure he had committed the proper crime.” You might be forgiven for thinking that Morris is confusing the Butler Act with the Motor Vehicle Code, for in fact the Butler Act provided only, “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” with no reference whatsoever to automobiles—or to whatever hanky-panky might occur in their back seats.
But, in fact, Morris was more or less right. According to Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, master’s thesis “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee,” “Scopes, called back from his vacation, herded some of his students into the back of ‘Stumpy’ Reed’s taxicab, and coached them in their answers as he had never done in school. They were to be the witnesses against him!” (Allem’s source was a personal interview with Franklin A. “Stumpy” Reed, conducted on June 22, 1959, the very day that Reed retired from the taxicab business—presumably a coincidence!) Their testimony wasn’t particularly damaging in any case: Darrow elicited laughter from the courtroom audience by asking the teenager Howard Morgan, of Scopes’s teaching him evolution, “It has not hurt you any, has it?” (“No, sir,” was the response.)
A wider consequence of the trial, of course, is that although Scopes’s conviction was overturned on a technicality, there was a chilling effect on the teaching of evolution across the nation. As Judith V. Grabiner and Peter D. Miller argued in 1974, “The impact of the Scopes trial on high school biology textbooks was enormous. It is easy to identify a text published in the decade following 1925. Merely look up the word ‘evolution’ in the index or the glossary; you almost certainly will not find it.” Thankfully, ninety-one years after the Scopes trial, the e-word is conspicuous in textbooks—but evolution is still neglected in too many classrooms. If you’ll excuse the pitch, NCSE is working to ensure that evolution is taken out of the back seat—or perhaps the trunk—of science education and restored to the front seat status it deserves—and we could use your support.