Luther Spoehr: Review of Edward Humes's, Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul (HarperCollins, 2007)
Despite its unhelpful title (it’s a schoolyard slur, first mentioned on page 183), journalist Edward Humes’ story of the “second Scopes trial,” Kitzmiller v. Dover, is a clear-eyed, thorough, and persuasive rendition of the latest battle over teaching evolution in the public schools.
In 2004 the Dover, Pa., school board decided that, before being taught about evolution, students must be read a brief statement informing them that “[Darwin’s] Theory is not a fact.” Students were instructed to “keep an open mind” and consider consulting a “reference book, Of Pandas and People,” that would tell them about intelligent design, an alternative to evolution. Finally: “there will be no other discussion of this issue.”
Bad policy. Worse prediction. Angry parents, many of them church-goers, saw the move as an unconstitutional attempt to sneak creationism into the science curriculum and religion back into the schools. They sued. Soon both sides in the argument were lining up allies, and the little town of Dover found itself in the national spotlight.
The first half of the book goes a little slowly as Humes painstakingly sets the stage. He recounts how almost a century and a half of research has confirmed Darwin’s theory of evolution and reviews the history of persistent resistance to evolutionary theory in this country, mostly by religious fundamentalists. Most important, he shows that this resistance does not consist of random outbursts in the Bible Belt, but has become an organized national effort, spurred by groups such as the Discovery Institute and the Thomas More Law Center, and funded by wealthy conservatives such as Thomas Monaghan (of Domino’s Pizza).
A March 2005 survey by the National Science Teachers Association found that “nearly a third of those who responded felt pressure by students and parents to include creationism, intelligent design, or other alternatives to evolution in their science classrooms.”
Thanks partly to the drama inherent in courtroom confrontation, the narrative’s pace quickens when Humes comes to the trial, held in the fall of 2005. Unfortunately for the school board, internal bickering depleted the ranks of their expert witnesses and left Lehigh University’s Michael Behe, best known for his theory of “irreducible complexity,” pretty much alone to defend intelligent design as science. The plaintiffs fielded a scientific all-star team, including Brown University biologist Ken Miller, “affable and articulate,” a Catholic and an evolutionist (and co-author of the textbook that sparked the showdown).
By trial’s end, they had reduced “irreducible complexity” to rubble. In his decision, Judge John Jones, a conservative Republican, stingingly rejected the school board’s policy. Predictably, this promptly inspired the usual polemicists to denounce him as an “activist judge.” So the war isn’t over. But as it continues, readers of Humes’ invaluable book will know whom to root for, and why.
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