Monday, January 29, 2007
By Edward Humes
Ecco, 400 pp., $25.95
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Listen to an audio excerpt of Monkey Girl: Evolution, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul: MP3 - Podcast
"When I said I thought it would be kind of good to learn more about evolution, some other kids started calling me Monkey Girl. 'Cause they said God made them, but that I must've come from chimps... " -- 14-year-old from Dover, PA
Two years ago, on Feb. 1, 2005, the committee charged with drafting science standards for Kansas public schools held a hearing at Schlagel High in Kansas City, Kansas. It was the first of four hearings scheduled for different parts of the state. These sort of public policy meetings are an essential part of the democratic process, but they are rarely well attended.
That night, to nearly everyone's astonishment, more than 400 people gave up the warmth of their living rooms and the pleasures of "Will & Grace," "The Gilmore Girls," and one of the hottest shows of the new season, "American Idol," to drive through the winter night in order to attend. More than 60 of them indicated they wanted to speak on the draft science standards, and a two-minute time limit was established to accommodate them all. Even so, the meeting and a spirited debate continued long past the hearing's scheduled end.
This intense concern about the science curriculum, normally of interest only to public school teachers, administrators, and a small handful of parents was sparked by the results of a school board election two months earlier. Social conservatives, led by Steve Abrams, a veterinarian from Arkansas City in south-central Kansas, won a majority on the board.
In 1999, Abrams led an effort by Christian conservatives to remove all references to evolution, the age of the earth, and the Big Bang from the state's science curriculum. That effort was thwarted when pro-science moderates won the next election.
In Kansas, half of the 10-member school board comes up for election every two years. By 2004 the conflict that energized so many voters just a few years earlier seemed to have receded into the past. Few voters were paying attention to the down-ticket school board races. When the results were announced, Abrams found himself back in the majority with six of the board's 10 votes.
Abrams was elected board chair and promised to revise the standards again. This time not with Bible-based creation science as he had in 1999, but with something new.
That something new was called intelligent design theory. It's backers said it had nothing to do with faith or the Biblical creation story told in the book of Genesis. Intelligent design advocates, such as John Calvert, a retired attorney and leader of the ID Network, claimed that a growing number of scientists were embracing this new theory. The plant and animal life we see around us, they said, isn't a product of evolution as the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin believed, but of design. The identity of the designer could not be determined, these theorists said, but the evidence of the designer's work was all around us.
The auditorium at Schlagel High that night was about equally divided between defenders of evolution and supporters of revising the curriculum to include the new theory of intelligent design and its criticisms of evolution.
The speakers who took the mike to defend the standards developed by the majority of the curriculum committee were mostly high school science teachers, biology professors from nearby colleges, and members of Kansas Citizen's for Science, a group that had come together in 1999 to oppose Abrams' insertion of creationism into the standards. They spoke passionately about the embarrassment Kansas was suffering at the hands of late-night talk show hosts, the likely damage to the Kansas economy, and the setback delivered to science education in the state.
Those who spoke in favor of the ID-inspired revisions supported by the school board's conservative majority had little to say about intelligent design. Instead, they spoke of their heartfelt desire to teach Christian values to their children. Others spoke about their distress at what they took to be attacks on their religious faith. Still others admitted they didn't know much about intelligent design, but if it meant that their children would learn the creation story told in Genesis, they would support it.
"If we come from monkeys, how come there's still monkeys around?" one speaker who identified himself as a minister demanded to know.
The minister delivered his line about monkeys with the considerable satisfaction of a man who has decisively settled an argument by stating a previously unacknowledged obvious.
He clutched a Bible in his hand as he paced back and forth before the curriculum committee, disdaining the microphone, his voice projected into the farthest reaches of the auditorium without the slightest need for amplification. He spoke in the familiar call and response cadences of a revival meeting, and many in the audience punctuated his rhetorical pauses with a percussive "Amen!"
John Calvert was sitting in the audience that night, but he didn't speak and, despite the strong showing by the anti-evolution side, he didn't seem very happy with what he saw. Later, Calvert would report on the hearing on a Discovery Institute discussion board, and his reservations about the public hearings would become clear:
Calvert knew the public hearings posed a problem for intelligent design advocates.
One thing is obvious. This is not the proper process for deciding this issue. Focused hearings from experts are desperately needed to cut through the misinformation, ridicule and half truths.
It would have helped to have more scientists on our side. If that had been the case we would have won the debate hands down. As it was, the objective observer would leave scratching his head.
Creationists had lost a series of court rulings over the years:
- In 1968, the Supreme Court found that an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional because the motivation was based on a literal reading of Genesis, not science.
- In 1981, a federal judge ruled that Arkansas' "balanced treatment" law mandating equal treatment of creation science with evolution was unconstitutional.
- In 1987, in Edwards vs. Aguillard, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to invalidate Louisiana's "Creationism Act" because it violated the Establishment Clause.
With intelligent design, opponents of evolution like Calvert, thought they'd found a plausibly secular alternative to evolution that could survive a court challenge, but unsophisticated supporters who linked ID with creationism at the public hearings were giving the game away.
A "proper process" as Calvert delicately put it, had to be found to keep unwitting ID supporters from supplying ammunition for a court challenge to the science standards the conservative school board majority planned to adopt.
A few weeks after Calvert aired his proposal on the Discovery Institute discussion forum, the six conservative members of the state school board voted to short circuit the curriculum development process by creating a sub-committee of the board to hold hearings on the science curriculum.
The sub-committee, made up of Abrams, Kathy Martin, and Connie Morris, planned to spend a couple of weeks in May questioning a panel of experts, half supplied by the Discovery Institute to represent intelligent design, and half from the scientific community to speak for mainstream science. The two sides would square off against each other in a modern re-creation of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
There was just one problem. The judges, composed exclusively of conservative school board members, would not be impartial.
Kansas Citizen's for Science called it a kangaroo court. Harry McDonald, who was then president of KCFS, called on scientists to boycott the hearings. Not one mainstream scientist participated in what ID activists, on and off the board, hoped would be a national showcase for intelligent design.
As a result, public attendance at the hearings was sparse -- much smaller than at the four public hearings conducted by curriculum committee back in January and February -- and the national media, after an initial appearance, went home early.
The refusal of scientists to participate in the Kansas hearings left many ID activists with a bitter taste in their mouths. William Dembski, a prominent ID theorist who publishes the Uncommon Descent blog, posted a response to the scientist's refusal titled, The Vise Strategy: Squeezing the Truth out of Darwinists.
Dembski's sense of outrage at the events in Kansas was revealed by a number of photos that accompanied his post. They showed a Darwin doll with its head locked in a vise.
"The recent hearings conducted by the school board in Kansas," wrote Dembski, "made it clear that what needs to happen is not for our side to be interrogated by Clarence Darrow manqués (like Pedro Irigonegaray, the attorney for the other side in Kansas) but for our side to get to interrogate the Darwinists."
When Dembski wrote those words, he and others in the ID camp, believed they might get the chance to do just that. A school board in Dover, PA had mandated that a statement critical of evolution be read to students in the district. The statement mentioned intelligent design as an alternative theory and it directed students to copies of Pandas and People, an ID textbook edited by Dembski, that had been anonymously donated to the school library.
A group of 11 parents represented by the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit against the board's statement contending it violated the First Amendment to the Constitution. The school board was to be represented by the Thomas More Law Center, which describes itself as "the sword and shield for people of faith, providing legal representation without charge to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square." The case would be heard by a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush who had a reputation as a conservative Republican.
The opportunity to make their case in a public hearing before an international audience, to present their own experts -- Dembski and other fellows of the Discovery Institute were signed on as expert witnesses by the defense -- and to interrogate "Darwinists" under oath which was denied them in Kansas would, in just a few short months, offer itself again, this time in Pennsylvania.
The stage had been set for the greatest confrontation between opponents of evolution and the scientific establishment since the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.
Monkey Girl: Evolution, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul by Ed Humes tells the fascinating story of the Dover trial. His highly readable account of the trial and the events leading up to it will be released on January 30.
Humes is the author of eight critically acclaimed nonfiction books including Over Here, School Of Dreams, Baby E.R., Mean Justice, No Matter How Loud I Shout, and the bestseller Mississippi Mud. He's received the Pulitzer Prize for his journalism and awards from PEN and Investigative Reporters and Editors for his books.
Red State Rabble received an advance copy of Humes' book, we've read it cover to cover, and we can recommend it unreservedly. Even those who have followed the battle over evolution obsessively will find much that is new in this book.
Part of the power of Humes' book come from the scrupulous fairness with which he treats all participants in the story. Even so, he goes beyond the "he said, she said" sort of writing that passes itself off as journalism these days.
For example, Humes paints a sensitive, balanced portrait of William Buckingham, the Oxycontin-addicted Dover board member who drove hardest for the adoption of the anti-evolution policy. But in doing so, Humes doesn't allow Buckingham to escape responsibility for his actions. Actions which ultimately cost the taxpayers of Dover $1 million in court costs and lawyer's fees.
Monkey Girl, we think, will prove to be the book on the culture war fought out over evolution in Kansas and Pennsylvania. We'll be writing much more about it in coming days. We haven't felt this strongly about a book since Dava Sobel's masterful Galileo's Daughter.
Correction: In our original post, we said that Jack Krebs was president of KCFS during the May 2005 Kansas science hearings when in fact Harry McDonald was president. Jack Krebs, the current president of KCFS was vice-president then.