The Jazz Age of the 1920's was associated, among other things, with moral and ethical degradation in American society by the fundamentalist Bible Belt - much like the '60s hippies, the lifestyle just seemed so shocking to the regular young person's stiff parents. In 1925, a man named John Washington Butler, no doubt influenced by what he felt must qualify as degeneracy, framed the Butler Act in Tennessee because his children returned from school to tell him that the Bible was nothing but hogwash. The subsequent law made it a crime to teach that 'man had descended from a lower order of animals'. Evolution was under threat - the stage had almost imperceptibly and suddenly been set by the Butler Act and the movement of William Jennings Bryan, for a fierce debate in schools across the United States sparked by a wider struggle in society over the maintenance of traditional values and mores.
This debate (the evolution one, not the one where Jazz is awesome) is especially interesting for us biologists given its sensitivity inside and outside the lecture hall. Needless to say, in today's United States, creationists can no longer hope to push forward a law that challenges the teaching of what is largely agreed upon across the board in science, but the evolution (pun intended) of the debate is interesting: in 1925, John Scopes, a physics teacher for the local high school in a sleepy town called Dayton, happened to substitute for the biology teacher, and assigned a chapter on evolution to the students in the classroom. This resulted in an extremely high-profile case which, for most people, represented the aged struggle between religion and science with creationists represented by William Jennings Bryan and the evolutionists by a man named Clarence Darrow. The film and Broadway play, Inherit the Wind, tells the tale with dramatic flair (maybe even a tad too dramatic, felt Stephen Jay Gould according to whom the trial was certainly not the debate of free inquiry vs. dogmatism that it was depicted to be). Scopes was found guilty for violating the law (but not before Darrow famously forced Bryan to admit that creation may have lasted more than 24 hours - the Bible believes the Earth is only about ten thousand years old - for those of you who took Biochemistry, we beg to differ), but on a technicality, the decision was overturned and Scopes returned to the streets a free (thinker) man. The law was never repealed until 1968, when a certain Susan Epperson challenged the law on the basis that it obviously appealed to the Christian faith which of course violates the First Amendment.
The story is fascinating in its own right, as is the fact that the Scopes trial is commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial. The battle, however, continues. Stephen Jay Gould's essay Trouble in Our Own House tells about how creationists, having lost the battle in Tennessee, came back reinvigorated with a different aim under the umbrella term of creation science, intending this time to give equal time to the Biblical Genesis story in schools where evolution was taught.
One amusing anecdote of the trial challenging the law in Arkansas and Louisiana goes like this: a teacher was testifying about how he used a long piece of string to teach children about the origin of life. A long piece of string was strung from one side of the classroom to the other, and children were placed at variable points on the string to represent the extinction of dinosaurs, early man, the Ice Age and other such important landmarks. When asked how he would give equal time to a faith which believed the Earth was only ten thousand years old and that man was 'created' and placed on Earth, the teacher replied that he would need a much shorter piece of string. Cue raucous audience laughter. Stephen Jay Gould elucidates: "the image that had immediately popped into my mind - the thought of twenty earnest second-graders all scrunched up along one millimeter of string".
Science and religion for many people seem irreconcilable. The Scopes trial, of course, represented but one milestone in the teaching of science which seemed so contrary to publically-held religious beliefs, but it by no means was the last frontier. We can, however, fight hard for the rights of those teachers who felt they had an conscionable duty to their students to teach the truth. We may wonder how such a law would change what was taught in the classroom - we don't, however, need to look much further than the summation Clarence Darrow gave at the trial in 1925 to find what we need to set the ball rolling:
If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools and next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and newspapers...Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding. Always feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers; tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.
The story is instructive, however. Consider for one moment what would happen to the state of education in our madrassahs if science was replaced by something pretending. Considered? Now you may break out the Louis Armstrong CD's.