Trial of the Century: Bad Science and Bad History

Gregg Jarrett’s hagiography of Clarence Darrow perpetuates the myth of Scopes.

by David Thigpen on July 21, 2023

Gregg Jarrett (coauthored with Don Yaeger) has written a new book called The Trial of the Century about the Scopes Trial of 1925, also called The Monkey Trial. This trial has been the subject of numerous books, plays, and films. The question is: why is Mr. Jarrett writing another book on the topic? First, Clarence Darrow is a personal hero of Jarrett. Also, on interviews for the book, he expressed that freedom of speech is again under threat as it was in 1925 and that we haven’t learned the lessons of the Scopes Trial.

The Trial of the Century book cover

In the introduction, he says that “Darrow’s commitment to the principles of the First Amendment remains timely today. Almost one hundred years after the Scopes Trial, questions about free speech persist in higher education and social media . . . Darrow defended the right of free thinking in the classroom and advocated the benefits of science exploration. He believed that progress was dependent on uninhibited expression.” He then notes that “free speech is particularly relevant amid today’s struggles over partisan censorship in political discourse, polarizing disinformation campaigns, accusations of classroom indoctrination, a sometimes punitive ‘cancel culture’ under the guise of social justice, and, for example, the movement on college campuses to adhere to a particular orthodoxy that excludes diversity of opinion and opposing views.” He also notes that this happens also in tech company censorship when “dissent is mislabeled and denounced as misinformation” (Jarrett, XX–XXI). He is also somehow under the impression that in “some public schools across America, biology teachers are quietly discouraged from even mentioning Darwin’s cornerstone theory despite its inclusion in textbooks universally” (Jarrett, XXIII).

Although the book is well-researched on the topic of Clarence Darrow, this historical retelling of The Scopes Trial fails to grasp the history, bungles the science, and even misses the moral implications of the famous trial. The story that Jarrett is relaying is more what historian Edward Larson would call the mythology of Scopes. In his Pulitzer-Prize–winning book, Summer for the Gods, Larson noted that the mythology of the trial perpetuated by H.L. Mencken’s reporting had a lasting impact on American society. A play adapted into the 1960 film Inherit the Wind brought that mythology to the silver screen, and textbooks relying on those sources indoctrinate a new generation of students. In Jarrett’s book, he adds to this mythology with another source: Clarence Darrow. He uses Darrow’s accounts of the trial and also Irving Stone’s biography to effectively write a hagiography of Darrow rather than a biography. This is the result of Jarrett’s interest in his hero since his youth.

What Was the Scopes Trial About?

During Scopes Trial, two versions of democracy were on trial. William Jennings Bryan wanted to protect majority rule and democracy from a challenge by the ACLU, citing unlimited free speech and intellectual freedom. Darrow, on the other hand, wanted to turn the trial into a chance to ridicule Christianity and Bryan and focus on a debate about creation and evolution. Darrow fell somewhat short of his goal but was then posthumously aided by the movie Inherit the Wind. In his excellent analysis, Dr. David Menton pointed out that this 1960 fictionalized movie based on a play used the trial to feed preconceived stereotypes. In that movie, the trial was lionized as the triumph of science over religious ignorance and bigotry and of free speech over religious fundamentalist suppression of thought. This same portrayal in Jarrett’s book unfortunately got the history significantly wrong. As noted, the mythology reimagined by textbooks and movies was the real influential event of history, not the historical trial itself. There were two religions being discussed in 1925: Christianity and secular humanism. One is being increasingly banned in schools today and another is approved by the government. In Jarrett’s book, he disappointingly misapplies the Scopes Trial to today’s issues. He does this because he resurrects the mythology not the history.

Hagiography of Clarence Darrow

Unfortunately, most of the premise of The Trial of the Century relies heavily on the perspectives of two participants in the event. Both are antagonistically anti-Christian: caustic and witty newspaper writer H. L. Mencken and committed agnostic and brilliant lawyer Clarence Darrow. Since this book is a paean to Darrow, Jarrett really gets him out of balance. Jarrett notes from Stone’s biography that friends “believed him to have deep religious promptings,” and he “is a man who lives by Christ’s teachings.” He quoted a Unitarian minister as saying, “No one was a greater worker for the good of mankind and for God than Clarence Darrow” (Jarrett, XVIII–XIX). In Jarrett’s telling, Darrow is the ultimate champion of the little guy, the defender of freedom of thought and speech, and liberal education, the enemy of all hypocrisy, bigotry, and ignorance.

This view of Clarence Darrow is difficult to reconcile with history. While his commitment to certain ideals is admirable, he was a committed agnostic with deep animosity for Christianity and the Bible. This is clear from the transcripts of the trial. Darrow repeatedly insulted the judge, the court, opposing counsel, the State of Tennessee, the Tennessee legislature, and William Jennings Bryan, always in response to any references or displays of religion. He called the authors of the law religious bigots and ignoramuses. While the judge consistently ruled against Darrow, Darrow clearly could not conceal his disdain for any sort of religious orientation. This is not unexpected for a man who stated that he didn’t believe in God for the same reason he didn’t believe in Mother Goose.

As for God, Darrow was quoted as saying “I am an Agnostic because I am not afraid to think. I am not afraid of any god in the universe who would send me or any other man or woman to hell. If there were such a being, he would not be a god; he would be a devil.” None of this fits with Jarrett’s characterization of a man that was never hostile toward Christianity and ironically was a “theistic skeptic who adhered to the teachings of Jesus” (Jarrett, XIX). In a speech in 1929, Clarence Darrow said, “Can any rational person believe that the Bible is anything but a human document? . . . We know that they were written by human beings who had no knowledge of science, little knowledge of life, and were influenced by the barbarous morality of primitive times, and were grossly ignorant of most things that men know today.” He ended the speech with, “The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom” (Freethought Today, 2004).

Scopes: Was He Oppressed or an Activist?

The origins of the case itself is something that Jarrett is surprisingly schizophrenic about. In all his publicity interviews he presents a heroic, persecuted John Scopes and a white knight Clarence Darrow swooping in to protect the little guy. He begins the book with this portrayal as well. Historically, it is well documented that the ACLU was shopping for this case through ads in papers, and Dayton businessmen talked Scopes into volunteering to get arrested. Scopes had never actually taught Darwinian human evolution. Although the meat of the book seems to grasp that the ACLU, Darrow, and Scopes were on track to lose for the sake of the bigger issue, he keeps going back to the oppressed Scopes and the hero Darrow narrative. Just prior to calling Bryan as a witness, Jarrett waxed eloquently about how Darrow was trying to hit a homerun in the hope of saving his client from the oppressive religious bigots on the jury and in the judge’s chair.

Bad Science

One of the most abused parts of the trial historically (and in Jarrett’s retelling) is the events surrounding the testimony of the esteemed scientists and theologians. Their testimony was introduced as evidence by the defense team. The prosecution was going to let the experts be heard, but only with cross-examination. Bryan was well prepared to take apart their testimony and show that human evolution was at odds with the Bible. In fact, the theistic evolutionists did not even believe in the virgin birth or other miracles as well. After allowing their first witness, Dr. Maynard Metcalf took the stand, but the judge disallowed the testimony when the defense refused cross-examination. They wisely then only admitted written testimonies. Jarrett recognizes none of this history. He only bemoans what he calls a bigoted judge leaving Darrow out of options to defend his client.

Interestingly, the only scientist who did get on the stand (though not in front of a jury), zoologist Dr. Maynard Metcalf, said some appallingly anti-scientific statements as impeachable fact. For instance, “The fact of evolution is a thing that is perfectly and absolutely clear. . . . Evolution, I think, means . . . change. It means the change of an organism from one character into a different character . . . I mean its structure, or its behavior, or its function, or its method of development from the egg of anything else” (Jarrett, 154). He and several other scientists used now-refuted arguments from embryology to make their case. The abuse of embryology in making the case for evolution is still widespread in the education system. Science has demonstrated that all the genetic material for a human being is present at conception. Each embryonic stage is the process of that genetic information informing the cells in developing the embryo. Adulthood is a few years along the process. In laymen’s terms, you were you at conception. You did not become you eventually. Every adult human has gone through that same process. There is no scientific evidence of it being otherwise. The observable wonders of embryology showcase God’s design. But this theory, known as recapitulation, keeps getting recycled in spite of its lack of scientific basis. Because the religion of Darwin has the only voice in the education system there is no question of whether things evolved, only how they evolved.

In the written arguments, the scientists also used the argument of appendix and coccyx in humans and hip bones in whales as vestigial biological structures. But science has now demonstrated that each of these has a function and cannot have evolved. The appendix has functions in the anti-viral functions of the body. The coccyx is important for keeping the organs in our abdominal cavity from falling through between our legs and for helping to control the elimination of waste from our body (life would be difficult and fraught with problems in both of these situations). The whale hip bones play an important part in procreation for these wonderfully created animals. Ironically, they are also another example of bad science being peddled to kids because of truth being pushed out of the process.

After 150 years, Neo-Darwinists are still trying to find the actual testable scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution. They still can’t find the missing links or the biological mechanisms to achieve changes across kinds. Instead, science continues to demonstrate the biblically based principle of changes within kinds through adaptability by way of God’s created information system. They can only hope that the Darwinian model can be achieved by mixing in the magic of millions and billions of years. In The Trial of the Century, there is nothing about these inconvenient issues. It would hurt the carefully crafted case that Jarrett is making. He is playing the good lawyer who is skillfully making his case to reprieve a guilty client. He does do this well, but it is not good history, and he abuses science.

Social Consequences of Untrue Science

Jarrett arbitrarily concludes that evolution and creation complement each other. He held that the human body was created by evolution from our common ancestor by means of mutations. Darwinian evolution is just good science and any question of it in schools is an attempt to quell free speech and destroy our educational system. What God had to do with the creation, Jarrett never stated. He said, “Had it been allowed, their testimony would have been a fantastic tutorial on synthesizing evolution and biblical interpretation. Unlike William Jennings Bryan, these learned men did not believe that the idea of evolution displaces God. On the contrary, they felt that each complemented the other” (Jarrett, 184). The reality is that Bryan was very accurate in his understanding of the effects of Darwinian ideas. As is noted in an Answers Research Journal article,

The evolution of the 1920s that Bryan opposed was blatantly racist and sexist. . . . Hunter’s Civic Biology that Darrow claimed was “enlightened science,” . . . taught that “Negroes” were evolutionarily inferior to whites and openly advocated eugenic policies.

This text specifically teaches racism, noting that there are now “on earth five races . . . of man, each very different from the other. The first is the Ethiopian or Negro type, originating in Africa . . . and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians.” The text also teaches the infamous Darwinian eugenics theory. After the problem of inferior humans is discussed, the writer concludes that if such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country (Hunter 1914, pp. 263–265).

One of the “remedies” to this problem that Hunter proposed was later used in the United States as part of the rationale to justify sterilizing certain people and limiting the immigration of certain ethnic groups such as Jews. This is one central aspect of evolution that Bryan opposed (Bergman 1992; Gould 1981, 1991).

Darrow himself, in the November 18, 1915, edition of The Washington Post, stated: "Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live." Hunter was very clear about what race was the superior race and which one was the inferior race, rejecting the Bible's clear teaching that there is only one race, the human race, all of which were descended from our first parents Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26–28). This account has been demonstrated today through experimental science as all peoples of the earth are a single family and have a common origin.

Gregg Jarrett’s avoidance of any fair evaluation of the evolutionary perspective hides the fact of William Jennings Bryan’s surprisingly accurate view of the results of social Darwinism. Historians rate Bryan’s closing argument as one of the most brilliant speeches on the topic. He had arranged to have it published only one day before he died. In it, he took apart the inaccurate science of the expert testimony transcripts and predicted the degradations of Nazi Germany and our own current culture. He noted that Social Darwinism carried with it the view that within a world of “survival of the fittest,” the social classes have no obligation to each other, and that brute force can be justified by the theory of natural selection without moral restraint. These ideas had been and would be used to justify the excesses and atrocities of economic, social and political movements of the time. He was right in how it was applied to eugenics, communism, unregulated capitalism and, within less than a decade of his speech, German National Socialism. Ultimately, the true source of all these problems is sin. Naturalistic worldviews, of which Darwin provided a basis, prevents the true source from being considered. Instead, it provides a distorted view of human nature which leads to a destructively distorted method of building culture.

Gregg Jarrett’s Distorted Understanding of Evolution in Schools

Gregg Jarrett seems to be an unfortunate example of what happens when children were force-fed only the naturalistic worldview theory on origins. This is not reality. Darwinian evolution is a faith position, not science. Instead of all views getting the free speech treatment in schools, one religious perspective has just been replaced by another. The science that is based upon the scientific method is what is called observational science. You can see and touch that kind of science. Natural selection and genetics are demonstrated in this realm of science. Darwinian evolution is just conjecture and opinion which changes like the weather the bulk of the time. The Theory of Evolution took on the status of religion a long time ago, while the worshipers of such ignore the mounting evidence against it. One-hundred-fifty years of in-depth research has instead contradicted the primary assumptions the theory is founded upon. There is no mechanism for major changes across biblical kinds (approximately equal to the family level of classification). For every successful genetic mutation at the most fundamental cellular level, there are mountains of evidence of failed ones. Increasing studies and mounting fossil records demonstrate that there simply hasn't been enough “time” for what is theorized to have happened. There is still no clear mechanism for evolution to occur, and there are still no missing links. Creation organizations generally don’t actually oppose the teaching of evolution in schools. They also don’t advocate teaching creationism in public schools, since teachers would be ill-equipped to teach it, and many would likely misrepresent and mock it. Christians have an obligation to teach their children about evolution, since they will encounter it from books, museums, social media, and education systems (position of AIG).

In the last chapter, Jarrett seems to argue for balance. He believes that parents have a voice in what their kids learn in school, but anti-CRT laws go too far. He again posits that there is no conflict between Darwinian science and religion. At least Jarrett was right to equate the two. Evolution masquerades as science and CRT masquerades as history. As demonstrated previously, he can only make this statement by lumping in evolution with good science and equating religion with liberal Christianity. William Jennings Bryan was much more scientific and historical in his published closing argument.

Bad Conclusions

The poor historical founding of this book led to several wrong conclusions. One is a distorted view of biblical Christianity. At the end of the Bryan’s testimony and questioning, Jarrett noted that he was devastated by Darrow’s questioning and that he was “slumped in the witness chair in emotional shock. He was still clutching his Bible with both hands. Only a single friend stood by his side” (Jarrett, 198).

He believes that if Bryan had been less blind in his allegiance to fairy tales then he wouldn’t have looked so foolish. In the footnotes, he says he got this idea from the transcript (which can be viewed here). The reality is that this is not in the transcripts but probably from the historically dubious sensationalism of the elitist newspapers or Darrow’s own recollections. The reality is that if Bryan had been more committed to the grammatical and historical interpretation of Genesis 1–11, he would have been more effective. During the questioning, Bryan did not adhere to a six day creation. He could not answer the question of where Cain got his wife. He also seemed to accept evolution up to the point of human evolution. While consistent on other biblical miracles, he undercut the very foundation upon which much of the rest of Scripture stands.

Trial of the Century Misses the Moral Implications

It seems that Darwinism is simply unfit to survive when left to answer actual science.

Writers like Gregg Jarrett have continually tried to portray Bryan and all Bible-believers as ignorant people following made-up stories. It was actually the evolutionists at the trial that introduced myths into the court record and were later proved to be more myth than fact such as Piltdown Man as evidence. Those like Jarrett and Darrow who claim to be fighting for science and truth are doing neither. The ACLU went from defending the free-speech rights of Darwinists to silencing their opponents. Evolutionary scientists today are doing the same thing, and there is no other science allowed. They teach the religion of evolution like it is science. They shut out rival religious perspectives since they cannot fend off growing challenges from actual science or compete with rival theories better adapted to the latest evidence. It seems that Darwinism is simply unfit to survive when left to answer actual science. Jarret finds a home with these voices. He was inspired by Clarence Darrow and his progressive version of First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, his book The Trial of the Century just ends up trying to prop up Darwinism and resurrect the unhelpful myths of Inherit the Wind, which recent scholarship has worked so hard to correct.

In the end of the book, Jarrett says in summing up his work, “The old warrior came to the aid of a young Tennessee schoolteacher who dared to teach evolution in a time when simple minds and timid men surrendered to the zealousness of public pressure and governmental overreach. . . . The wonders and benefits of science were untethered. Generations of Americans became Darrow’s beneficiaries” (Jarrett, 241).

This is an appropriate example of how far removed the book got from reality. It should read more accurately as: A crusading anti-Christian sought to undermine the basis of a stable Western Civilization, biblical truth. He wanted to aid the intrusion into our education system of an untestable theory of human origins that has helped undermine the validity of the Declaration of Independence that asserts our Creator has endowed men with certain inalienable rights—i.e., life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; our system of government; our civil rights; sanctity of human life; and whether absolute truth exists as the basis of our legal system. The wonders and benefits of science have had to fight through the dogma of Darwinian evolution. Science is based upon the principle that the God of the Bible created a world that operates on intelligible laws. Jarrett is right that generations are beneficiaries of the same ideas that Darrow championed. Generations of Americans have had to deal with the consequences of the increasingly destructive results of a culture untethered from biblical truth. The debate is as truly relevant and just as necessary as it was 100 years ago.


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