Sunday Science Book Club, February 15 2009

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul
by Edward Humes
HarperCollins, 2007

It is rare for the world to see born on one day two towering individuals whose imprint on history is strong enough to be noted around the world 200 years later. Abraham Lincoln successfully saw the United States through a near-fatal convulsion, whose early symptoms had been palliated but not cured at the nation’s founding; the after-effects have reached all around the world. Charles Darwin, more than anyone else in the 19th century, put biology on its modern scientific footing, and his ideas play a critical role in the genome sciences at the very forefront of 21st century biology.

We celebrate their achievements this week, but both Lincoln and Darwin have left legacies of divisiveness, and in fact these legacies intertwine. The contours of the rift that initiated the Civil War still shape American politics, from Nixon’s influential Southern Strategy to the Red State-Blue State divide in the 111th Congress. Evolution is a poster child for culture war. It may not be a top issue on the national political agenda, but it is a culture war conflict that penetrates just as deeply and personally than any other, as Edward Humes vividly describes in Monkey Girl, the best book about the nation’s first court trial over Intelligent Design in public schools.

The Personal Touch of Evolution

Darwin divides because his discovery illuminates who we are as human beings. It’s hard to overstate how the science of the last 500 years has shifted our relationship to the rest of the Universe, at least as that relationship has been seen in the West. We’ve gone from being the entire purpose of creation, placed at the center of the universe to face an epic struggle between good and evil, to one species among millions, residing during a brief moment on a stage much too big for the drama, as the physicist Richard Feynman put it. As Humes’ writes,

It was one thing for science to destroy geocentrism, or to turn the Bible from literal history into lovely metaphor, but when it tried to dethrone man as God’s masterpiece and render him no better (or worse) than marsupial or mollusk, then science simply had gone too far. (p. 5)

Evolution was the last straw.

Most people don’t come to the issue with a solid sense of this history, but the problem of perspective raised by evolution is deeply felt. Different religions and believers have adapted their stance in various ways. How a religious believer relates theology to science is an extremely personal choice, and Monkey Girl very effectively captures the gritty friction produced when these personal choices bump up against one another. Some members of the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, felt strongly that creationism needed to be taught to Dover’s public school students in order to counter the influence of evolutionary biology in the science curriculum. When the school district’s science teachers requested funds to purchase a new biology textbook for the high school, two creationist members of the Board, Alan Bonsell and William Buckingham, saw an opening and took it. They essentially held the new textbook hostage, refusing to purchase the needed books until the rest of the board agreed to allow room for creationism in the curriculum. After months of heated school board meetings, vandalism, taunts, severed friendships, resignations of pro-evolution school board members, and even death threats, the school district settled on what was supposed to be a compromise. Before the start of the evolution unit of the 9th grade biology curriculum, school officials walked into class and read a one-minute statement telling students, in tortured English, that there were gaps in evolutionary theory “for which there is no evidence,” and that students could turn to an Intelligent Design textbook, Of Pandas and People, as a reference. While the statement was read, the science teachers (who refused to read the statement themselves) left the room, along with other students who were conscientious objectors to the new policy. Copies of the intelligent design textbook were donated to the school, after Buckingham and Bonsell failed to get the school board to purchase this book.

The personal pain on both sides of this conflict was real. One of the plaintiffs in the resulting court case, Julie Smith, who was suing the school board to stop the intelligent design policy, related on the witness stand how the school board’s actions had prompted her daughter to come home and ask, “What kind of Christian are you anyway?” Smith's daughter had concluded that “you can’t be a good Christian and believe in that lie” of evolution. Smith herself believed that Christianity and evolution were compatible, and was angry that the school board had injected itself into such a personal issue.

One of the main school board culprits, William Buckingham was bullying, manipulative, and deceitful, even to the point of lying under oath in court, but nobody can doubt his sincerity when during a school board meeting he declared, “Two thousand years ago somebody died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?” In Monkey Girl, Humes lets the players speak for themselves, and he makes the reader understand the motivations driving the players in this story. The fracture in the community of Dover and the resulting hostility between neighbors that this conflict produced makes clear why the Founders of the United States were so determined to keep the government out of the radioactive matter of religion that had bloodied Europe and the Middle East for centuries. There is nothing like religious division to prompt different segments of a community to see each other in apocalyptic terms, and nothing brings these latent conflicts to the surface like evolution.

Intelligent Design as a Public Relations Campaign

If the fight between evolution and creationism was confined to popular books, newspaper editorials, and debates on cable news channels, the community of Dover would never have been embroiled in conflict, nor would the school board have squandered millions of dollars on a court case. Evolution and creationism are divisive but abstract issues until they show up on the agenda of school board meetings. And it is at this point that the story stops being one of two equal sides with different personal preferences. Humes may give all of the participants in the Dover drama their due, but he also makes it clear that the wrongs lie largely on one side of this conflict; one side is wrong on the science, the law, and even the theology.

Just how wrong the school board promoters of intelligent design were is made clear in the ruling of the presiding judge, John Jones. Jones condemned the “breathtaking inanity” of the school board, and handed down an overwhelming victory for the plaintiffs. Jones’ decision emphasizes just how one-sided this issue is, because he was not someone predisposed to rule in favor of evolution out of purely ideological sympathies. Jones was a protegé of the conservative, Republican former senator Rick Santorum, and he was appointed to the federal bench by George W. Bush. Some supporters of evolution were initially nervous about the fact that Jones had been assigned the case, but this worry was misplaced because the legal and scientific issues in the evolution/creation conflict so heavily favor one side.

With a few dramatic exceptions, like Alabama’s Ten Commandments judge, judges are conscientious professionals, whether Republican or Democrat. In some hot-button issues, like abortion, the opposing legal sides are closely balanced, and the ideological sympathies of a judge can make a difference in the outcome. When it comes to creationism, court decisions have overwhelmingly opposed its insertion into public school science classes, and there was no reason to believe that Judge Jones, as a professional arbiter of the law, was going to be any more sympathetic to creationism than previous judges who ruled on the issue.

Jones’ decision was made easier by the missteps of the defendants. The creationist school board members could not coherently describe evolution or intelligent design, and they subscribed to dubious ideas about the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause that have never held water with the US Supreme Court. The intelligent design movement itself is no better. This movement bills itself as a revolutionary new science, but in reality it is a well-funded public relations campaign. Instead of going into the lab or the field to do science, intelligent design promoters write popular books and give lectures to church audiences. Instead of writing scientific papers like most scientists, they put their most technical thinking into a high school textbook, Of Pandas and People (now put out in revised form as Exploring Evolution), in an attempt to side-step the process of persuading the scientific community of the validity of design. Instead of taking their case to professional scientists, intelligent design advocates take their case to school boards around the country; this is not how any real science operates.

As it turns out, it didn’t take much to turn creationism into the supposedly scientific intelligent design. During the trial, the plaintiffs subpoenaed early drafts of Pandas, written before a 1987 Supreme Court decision banning creationism from science class. These drafts made it clear that Pandas was originally written as a creationist textbook, and then hastily revised in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. The smoking gun was found in the very definition of intelligent design found in Pandas. According to the book,

Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact - fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.

But in an earlier draft, the passage read

Creation means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent creator, with their distinctive features already intact - fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.

Intelligent design is creationism in all but its name.

The negative effects of this campaign to indoctrinate public school children in a religious alternative to a mainstream science topic that some Christians find distasteful were not just the conflict in the Dover community. Dover’s science teachers resisted the intelligent design policy, but because they feared for their jobs, they could only resist so much. High school students, who couldn’t imagine that teachers would be afraid to teach, interpreted the teachers' careful navigation of the minefield as a tacit admission that evolution was weak, which was exactly the opposite impression of what the teachers meant to convey. The students were being deliberately turned off to science. The school board and the administration were, through their actions, hinting that scientists were deceptive and that science was not compatible with the faith held by many of the students. By conveying the warped view of science embraced by the promoters of intelligent design, the school was ruining the students' education in a subject that is important for their success, both in college and as citizens. As University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers put it, “Any attempt to incorporate faith and the supernatural into science is as destructive to the enterprise as would be requiring religion to provide concrete repeatable tests of their beliefs.”

Monkey Girl demonstrates that the battle over evolution in school has real consequences, and that this conflict is being driven largely by one side, in ignorance of science, law, and the wide diversity of religious beliefs in the United States. Humes’ great service is to bring clarity to the issue while acknowledging the sincerity of all involved. As he writes, “There is no greater waste or tragedy than a war based on falsehoods; if the evolution wars are to continue, let the combatants be armed with facts, not fiction.”

Have you read Monkey Girl? Offer your comments! And join me for next month's Sunday Science Book Club on March 15th, when I'll discuss Strange Beauty, a biography of Murray Gell-Mann, one of the world's greatest living physicists.

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