Thursday, April 24, 2008

Monkey Girl -- Review



With the recent release of Ben Stein's Expelled -- and seeing that James McGrath has reposted his own review of Monkey Girl -- here is a reposting of my review from last year of Edward Humes' Monkey Girl. The book has now been released in a paperback edition (you can buy it here by clicking on the link!). This is a helpful look at the Dover, PA case that revealed to America some of the shenanigans that lay behind the attempts by Fundamentalists to slip creationism into the schools under the banner of Intelligent Design.





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Edward Humes. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle forAmerica’s Soul. New York: Ecco, 2007. xix + 380. $25.95.





In 1925 America was caught up in the frenzy that was the famed “Scope’s Monkey Trial.” In 2005 “Scopes Monkey Trial II” broke out in Dover, PA. In both cases the ACLU was involved, but the outcome was different. In 1925 Evolution lost in the courts, in 2005 it received its reprieve. The first trial marked the apex of the long fought Modernist-Fundamentalist battle, while the second trial marked one more battle in the ongoing Culture Wars.

In Monkey Girl Pulitzer-winning author Edward Humes explores the Dover, PA trial in its Culture Wars context. Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, James Kennedy, Dr. Dino (Kent Hovind) all appear, along with the major figures in the Intelligent Design movement – Philip Johnson, Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, and William Dembski. Although Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District is the centerpiece of this story, and its story is told in great detail, what sets this book out as special is the way Humes weaves the trial into the broader debate about religion and science.

In the course of the book we visit Dr. Dino’s seminars, the Institute of Creation Research in San Diego, and Kansas, where a state school board sought to introduce an Intelligent Design related curriculum (“critical analysis”). We learn about how Intelligent Design evolved from its creationism base – beginning with straight Genesis style creationism to scientific creationism and then on to Intelligent Design. What marks ID from its predecessors is its supposed non-religious identity. While the proponents of ID are almost to a person Christian (conservative evangelical at that), the argument put forward by Behe, Dembski, Johnson, and the rest, is that the nature of the designer (not creator) is undetermined. But through strategies such as “teach the controversy” – though mainstream science is wondering where the controversy lies – and a principle of “irreducible complexity” we are left with supposed gaps that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is unable to resolve.


What we learn in this story is that there is a reason why so many Americans do not believe in evolution. Most of us have never even studied it in any depth. Conventional wisdom suggests that evolution won the day in 1925, but the truth is that across the nation anti-evolution laws remained on the books for decades afterward, especially in the South. Additionally, school boards not wanting to court controversy and text book companies wanting to sell the most books possible essentially conspired to eliminate evolution from science classes for the next half century. Evolution did not become an issue until the late 1950s, when America fearing that it would be left behind by the Soviets put science on the front burner and new science standards were developed that put evolution back into the national conversation. Thus, a new generation of activists was born who were left to believe that Darwin’s theories conspired to undermine America’s religious identity. And once again evolution went underground.

In Monkey Girl we go behind the scenes in Dover to see how all of this works. We see how a conservative Christian led school board seeking to bring creationist ideas into the schools confronted a science faculty insistent on teaching evolution as state standards dictated. It was in this context that the Thomas More Center, a conservative Catholic legal group entered the conversation. They convinced the board to adopt Intelligent Design and offered to support them should they get sued – which as they hoped, happened. This was going to be the test case that would hopefully go to the Supreme Court. That hope, however, was undone by the shenanigans of the board members who had made too many creationist statements, so much so that Intelligent Design’s leading proponents – the Discover Institute – essentially stepped away leaving the District without it’s supposed experts.


The plaintiffs on the other hand not only gained the support of the ACLU, but one of the region’s top legal firms, plus the support of some of the leading scientists in the country, including Kenneth Miller of Brown University. In the end the powerful testimony of the scientists, legal minds, philosophers of science overwhelmed the defense’s team. Michael Behe and other ID proponents withered under the critique, and the judge was left to decide that the science behind ID was sorely lacking. This debacle was compounded by a school board that essentially lied its way through the trial. The judge, a good Republican and George W. Bush appointee was left to decide without question for the plaintiffs. Once again the crossing of the religion-state divide was thwarted.

Although Humes tries to humanize the opposition to evolution and treat them fairly, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie. This isn’t a dispassionate journalistic treatment; this is rightfully a treatise on the dangers to America’s intellectual and cultural life presented by Intelligent Design and its related entities. It is not, however, an anti- religious treatise. Humes recognizes that there are many who seek to bring both evolution and religion together, noting in several places that the biggest enemy of ID is not secularist materialism, but theistic evolution, with Kenneth Miller a star example. What we discover is that Intelligent Design is more religion than science and that even if it is science it is a science that leads to a dead end. For if the gaps are filled with a designer, whey pursue natural explanations – which is what science is, natural explanations for natural phenomenon.

The book is extremely readable, at times reading almost like a novel. We are drawn into the human stories on both sides. We discover what is at stake at the personal level for people of science and people of faith. Overall it is fair in its approach and worthy of a close read.

This is not to say that there are no problems with the book. Indeed, the most glaring error here is the linkage of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly to CNN, not once but twice. Such a glaring mistake stands out because you would think that someone would have caught it. There are of course other grammatical issues that at times confuse the conversation, but they are minor. As a person of faith (a theistic evolutionist) I never found my faith under attack. That was true until the end of the book, when in an epilogue he addresses the odd and error filled attacks made after the trial on Judge John Jones’ decision, the most blatant being that of Ann Coulter, he makes what this reviewer considers an unnecessary and I think ill-informed set of judgments on the bible and the historical statements about Jesus (at least there is a controversy here, unlike in the scientific community).

That being said, they are really incidental and not inherent to the argument. Thus, this is a book of great importance to the debate over the relationship of science and religion.




Reviewed by:


Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall


Ponderings on a Faith


JourneyApril 17, 2007

1 comment:

Gary said...

Theistic evolutionists believe that evolution is true, except for its main idea which is, that the universe, and everything in it, happened by chance and was certainly not created. Now if evolution is wrong about its central idea, which a theistic evolutionist evidently believes it is, why would they be willing to trust anything else it says?

The term "theistic evolutionist" is as contradictory as the term "Christian atheist". Neither term makes sense.