The Scopes Monkey Trial is as relevant now as it has ever been. Roughly half of all Americans reject purely secular evolution. A percentage of those who do accept evolution only accept a theistic version in which God has a role in keeping the project of natural selection on track. Darwin and evolution have become such a contentious topic in the States that a majority of science teachers avoid mentioning evolution simply to avoid the hassle. And one can only imagine how the insane Christian supremacists in the Trump administration will exacerbate the conflict.
This was not always the case. On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and was more or less immediately accepted by the scientific community. By the end of the 19th century high school textbooks were in circulation containing a purely Darwinian version of creation. However, a movement of anti-evolutionism was building. The battle between creation and evolution came to a head in the early 1920s with the anti-evolution crusade. This movement had momentum in large part because of the efforts of William Jennings Bryan.
Amazingly, court cases similar to this still pop up frequently. Never with the same notoriety or public appeal, but they happen. Creationism has been rebranded Intelligent Design, but make no mistake, it is the same old nonsense. As The Who said, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The story somewhat conveniently maps onto an operatic form. H. L. Mencken and his articles make for natural narration. His coverage of the trial is essential to any understanding of the case. But his writings are more than just an obvious parallel monologue. While calling the people of Tennessee “buffoons” and “parasites of progress” were of course unnecessary punches at some common folk, his writings were an amplification of peoples’ attitude toward the trial.
As for the two main characters Darrow and Bryan, they were two of the finest wordsmiths of the 20th century. Their dialogue was as dramatic and substantive as one could ask for. In Scopes, tension grows constantly up through their final battle on day three in the interrogation of Bryan by Darrow.