The evolution of life on Earth is a complex, ever-changing story.
Illustration by Ned M. Seidler, National Geographic

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  • On July 10, 1925, the trial of John Scopes began in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes was a substitute teacher who included information about evolution and natural selection in his high-school biology class. At the time, teaching evolution was against the law in Tennessee, because it challenged the Biblical story of creation. 
    The Scopes trial featured the two most well-known attorneys in the United States. Former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan prosecuted the case, while legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented Scopes.
    Bryan and his supporters simply rejected the science of evolution, and especially the common misunderstanding that human beings evolved from monkeys—“not even from American monkeys, but from Old World Monkeys,” said Bryan. The trial was quickly nicknamed the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
    Both sides had carefully prepared for the trial. Tennessee had only recently passed the law forbidding the teaching of any challenge to the Bible. In fact, the textbooks the state required teachers to use still explained and endorsed the science of evolution. By using the textbook, defense lawyers pointed out that the state was requiring teachers to break the law. Bryan responded by saying that teachers could use other materials, and if Scopes had taught what was in the textbook, he was breaking the law.
    Scopes lost the case, and was fined $100. The ACLU appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, where the case was set aside on a technicality. As of 2014, Tennessee and Louisiana are the only states that continue to allow creationist instruction in public schools.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    appeal Noun

    review of a legal decision by a higher court.

    attorney Noun


    Bible Noun

    holy book of the Christian religion.

    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    creationist Noun

    person who believes the theory that all things were created as they now exist, by an omnipotent creator, and did not evolve or change over time.

    endorse Verb

    to support.

    evolution Noun

    change in heritable traits of a population over time.

    evolve Verb

    to develop new characteristics based on adaptation and natural selection.

    forbid Verb

    to disallow or prohibit.

    legendary Adjective

    famous, heroic, or celebrated.

    natural selection Noun

    process by which organisms that are better -adapted to their environments produce more offspring to transmit their genetic characteristics.

    prosecute Verb

    to accuse and carry out legal action against a person or organization.

    public Adjective

    available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.

    reject Verb

    to refuse or throw away.

    represent Verb

    to stand for a person, community, or idea.

    technicality Noun

    petty, formal issue arising from the strict interpretation of a rule.

    trial Noun

    judgement of a person or organization's responsibility for a crime or misdemeanor.