Defending Darwin

On this day in 1925 the Tennessee Legislature passed a law that made it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal.” This set in motion the Scopes Trial, and the circus atmosphere that engulfed Dayton and the rest of the state that summer. The trial ended on July 21, the anticipated guilty verdict completing the entertainment: “3,000 AT APE TRIAL GET THRILL,” read the banner headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Clarence Darrow died on this day in 1938. Darrow defended Scopes at his own expense, seeing it as another opportunity to engage the big questions, these addressed not only in the courtroom but in essays with such titles as “Is There a Purpose to the Universe?” and “Is the Human Race Getting Anywhere?” and “Are We Machines?” In the following excerpt from Resist Not Evil, Darrow advocates for the progressive reform of American crime law based on the historical truth that “All new communities, where land is cheap or free and labor has ample employment, or, better still, a chance to employ itself, are very free from crime”:

As civilization has swept westward through the United States, jails have lagged behind. The jail and the penitentiary are not the institutions planted by colonists in a new country, or by pioneers in a new state. These pioneers go to work to till the soil, to cut down the forests, to dig the ore; it is only when the owning class has been established and the exploiting class grows up, that the jail and the penitentiary become fixed institutions, to be used for holding people in their place.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.