Intelligent dissent

Kit R. Roane is a senior writer with U.S. News & World Report.

I didn't expect to be surprised by Edward Humes' "Monkey Girl." In many ways, I'd already lived it. My teenage years were spent in a relatively rural area of East Texas, where a God of a decidedly fundamentalist stripe held sway. A pastor's view seemed behind nearly everything my peers said and about half of what they did. Although I wasn't particularly religious, religion was not something I could escape. To date that pretty girl, I had to go a few rounds at her father's Baptist church. When a good friend of mine -- the first to get me drunk -- found Jesus, he expected me to come along for the ride.

So I know the pervasive power of religious fundamentalism in America. Or at least I thought I did. Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has opened my eyes. I only wish I could close them again.

"Monkey Girl" is the story of the Dover, Pa., school board's attempt in 2004 to "balance" the well-tested scientific theory of evolution with a faith-based version of human origins. The board's headlong plunge into an expensive legal battle for the souls of Dover's young people makes for an explosive and colorful read. The contest pitted a pregnant Sunday-school teacher, who knew religion when she saw it and didn't want it in science class, against a former cop steeped in creationism and OxyContin. His withdrawal from the drug would be blamed for some of the less-than-Christian treatment of his evolutionarily inclined opponents, who were verbally and profanely bludgeoned for trying to keep Dover's science classrooms religion-free.

Although Humes attempts to keep an even keel in reporting on this maelstrom, he clearly has a hard time finding much good to say about some of evolution's opponents, expressing amazement at the "near-total incuriosity and ignorance" of a board member who admitted "chirpily" on the stand that she was opposed to a science she didn't understand and was helping to ram through a creationist textbook she had never actually read. Such displays, he adds, shocked even the presiding judge, a conservative jurist and devout Christian -- and, indeed, he ended by ruling against the school board.

Humes is a good storyteller, and "Monkey Girl" (the title refers to the epithet schoolmates hurled at the daughter of one of the board's opponents) is full of vivid descriptions and interesting facts. Were you aware, for instance, that the 1925 Scopes trial, a litmus test for a Tennessee law that criminalized the teaching of evolution, was ginned up at a Dayton, Tenn., drugstore by town leaders who wanted to revive Dayton's moribund economy with a show trial? John T. Scopes, the high school football coach and a part-time science teacher, agreed to help, Humes writes, because "it sounded like great fun."

Where Humes especially shines is in his careful explication of the history of this larger fight over how human beings arose and what God's role -- if any -- was in their creation. The Dover case was more than simply a reflection of the poor state of the U.S. educational system or an illumination of how religion and science might collide in one small town. Instead, Humes explains, it was the latest salvo in a long-standing war on evolutionary thought that can be traced back to 1859 and Charles Darwin's seminal work on the subject, "The Origin of Species" -- a book that, in the eyes of most believers, threatened to turn God's masterpiece into "nothing more than a happy accident ... no better (or worse) than a marsupial or mollusk."

Though it's easy to see why Darwin's theory continues to agitate those inclined toward biblical literalism, Humes points out that many faiths -- Roman Catholicism, for example -- have come to terms with evolution. Those who don't accept Darwin's premise often mischaracterize it; for instance, Darwin never said that human beings were descended from monkeys, despite this favored refrain of the creationists. Humes also notes that those who embrace the Bible's account of human origins might find more contradictions or gaps there than they would like. Though the Bible's moral lessons are timeless, Genesis, if taken literally, soon becomes contradictory, claiming at one point that man and woman were created simultaneously and at another that Eve was made sometime later, from Adam's rib.

In Dover and elsewhere, the anti-evolution argument was carried forward by a bit of ingenious hocus-pocus called "intelligent design," a theory that is little more than creationism in new, more complicated clothing. Championed by a retired UC Berkeley law professor named Phillip E. Johnson and the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, intelligent design is brilliant mainly for what it doesn't say. Explicit references to God are eliminated. Instead, intelligent-design advocates insist that gaps in evolutionary data equal flaws in evolutionary theory. Their mantra has been to "teach the controversy," eschewing direct religious connotations in favor of emphasizing life's "irreducible complexity," which, they argue, points toward the hand of a mysterious force, an intelligent designer.

Johnson exhibits little of the fire and brimstone of his creationist counterparts. But Humes demonstrates that beneath the gentle exterior lurks the mind of a trial lawyer, one bent on the destruction of evolutionary theory. Humes explains Johnson's game plan thus: "Hammer the wedge into the tree of science hard enough,

In support of this reading, Humes cites the Discovery Institute's 1998 "Wedge Document," which promises to replace evolutionary materialism with "a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." The primary educational text of the intelligent-design movement, "Of Pandas and People," began life as a creationist tome called "Creation Biology," and the title, Humes notes, was just about the only thing changed in the book after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creation science wasn't a science. The other updates consisted of such things as stripping out references to creation and creationism and replacing them with the phrase "intelligent design."

Humes' conclusion is that none of these facts may matter in the end. The ultimate veracity of evolutionary theory and the mountains of geologic and genetic evidence supporting it mean little to true believers. These evolutionary doubters, Humes notes, include about 25% of the nation's science teachers. The apocalyptic "Left Behind" series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, remains a bestseller, and creationist Kent Hovind's homespun arguments against the evidence for evolution provided by the fossil record ("If I got buried on top of a hamster, does that prove he's my grandpa?") still raise the roof on tour. Nor are believers dissuaded by the numerous court decisions that have tossed religious interpretations of human origins out of science classes.

In what must come as a cruel twist to evolutionists, nature may carry part of the blame here. Recent evidence, Humes writes, suggests that human beings are "genetically disposed to believe in mysteries, miracles, God, and faith."

But whatever the cause of this stubborn persistence of belief, it is certain that the Dover court's decision will not mark the end of the battle over evolution. *

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