What the Scopes Trial Teaches Us About Climate-Change Denial

The Tennessee courtroom battle showed what can happen when big business joins forces with religious faith.
William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryant, 1915. BuyEnlarge/ZUMA

America has largely forgotten Ray Ginger, the mid-20th century historian whose tenure as a professor at Harvard University ended badly during the McCarthy era when the college, to its eternal discredit, demanded that he and his wife swear loyalty oaths. Afterward, Ginger wrote two excellent books, including Six Days or Forever, which remains one of the most colorful and definitive accounts of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” and the iconic courtroom clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.*

Ironically, Six Days now reads like the Book of Revelations (which Darrow grandly mocked before, during, and after the trial). Indeed, it is revelatory to see how the forces that animated the run-up to the Scopes trial 90 years ago are still present today. We see their work mostly in the dogged renewal of the fight to teach creationism to our children and in the rancor over the truth about the human causes of global warming. To call these forces anti-science is accurate but not the entire story. It’s something broader than that.

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.