The Kentucky-Darwin Connection

Step just inside the front entrance of the University of Kentucky’s historic Miller Hall and you might notice a brass plaque on the righthand side titled Freedom of Inquiry, the Teaching of Evolution, and the “Monkey Trial”. The plaque reads, in full:

In March 1922, the Kentucky House of Representatives debated a bill to prohibit the teaching of “evolution as it pertains to man” in all public institutions. The president of the University of Kentucky, Frank L. McVey (1869-1953), spoke against it before the House, and a one-vote majority defeated the bill. The University trustees commended the student body for its “splendid attitude… in defending the institution against attack… on the subject of evolution.”

Arthur M. Miller (1861-1929), known to his students as “Monkey” Miller, UK’s first Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and first football coach, championed the teaching of Darwinian evolution. One of his students was John T. Scopes (1900-1970) from Paducah, who graduated from UK in 1924 with a degree in law and minor in geology. In 1925, while employed by the Dayton, Tennessee school system, Scopes admitted to teaching human evolution, a subject prohibited by law. Scopes was tried, convicted, and fined, although the conviction was overturned on a technicality in 1927. The “monkey trial” is one of America’s most famous culture clashes.

While most people should be familiar with the broad outlines of the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, many don’t realize that the accused, John Thomas Scopes, was born and raised in Paducah, Kentucky (he went to high school in Illinois), and earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. After the infamous trial, Scopes earned a graduate degree in geology from the University of Chicago and spent the remainder of his career in the oil industry. 

The Butler Act (the Tennessee law that Scopes ran afoul of) was not repealed until 1967; that same year, Scopes (who generally tried to stay out of the limelight most of his life) published, with James Presley, a book titled Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. Scopes offers a summary of his life and career, with considerable emphasis on his experience as one of the most famous defendants of the 20th century. 

As explained in the plaque mentioned above, when it came to the teaching of evolution, Kentucky—barely—escaped the educational disaster that befell neighboring Tennessee. In his book, Scopes notes that the same “Fundamentalist” forces were at work in Kentucky as in Tennessee, including intense lobbying by some churches and by three-time presidential contender William Jennings Bryan (who would go on to lead the prosecution in the Monkey Trial). These efforts led to the introduction of a bill in the Kentucky House of Representatives to prohibit the teaching of “Darwinism, Atheism, Agnosticism, or the theory of Evolution as it pertains to man.” A similar bill was introduced in the Kentucky Senate.

But Kentucky’s educational community, including the faculty of UK (my alma mater!), were not about to let the Commonwealth’s curriculum be dictated or distorted by religious fanatics. They organized their own lobbying efforts, including campus tours for legislators that emphasized the benefits of academic freedom (tours that, just to be sure, were led by the “prettiest coeds… to dazzle the lawmakers”). In the end, the anti-evolution bills failed in the Senate by two votes and in the House by a single vote. In contrast, Tennessee’s Butler Act passed with overwhelming support in the legislature and no discernible opposition by educators (whom Scopes speculates “may have been afraid of losing appropriations”). And the rest is history. Tennessee’s public-school students received an unnecessarily incomplete picture of biological science for at least forty years.

John T. Scopes died in 1970 at the age of 70. You can visit his grave at the Oak Grove Cemetery in his native Paducah. Look for a historical marker titled “Grave of John T. Scopes” on Park Avenue near the cemetery entrance.

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