If there’s one good thing about spending an extra night in Buffalo, without access to a computer and with a rather limited selection of channels on the television, it’s that you get a lot of reading done. I managed to plow through all of Edward Humes’ book
Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul. It’s mostly a blow-by-blow account of the big Kitzmiller v. Dover case. It also provides a fair amount of historical context.
Overall it’s an excellent book, difficult to put down. The trial scenes are especially compelling. I was following the trial closely as it unfolded, and it was fun to relive the main events.
One place where the book excells is in its depiction of the striking ignroance of the Dover school board that implemented the ID policy. Not a one of them actually knew anything about either evolution or ID. Here’s an example, in a description of the deposition of Angie Yingling, one of the Board members that supported the ID policy:
When Yingling was asked to explain how she reached her own understanding of intelligent design, her testimony became almost comical; even the lawyers seemed at a loss for words in the face of some of her comments. Yingling initially recalled learning about intelligent design from various books. But on reflection (and after realizing that she could not name a single book she had read concerning ID), she recalled that more likely she learned of the arguments for and against intelligent design by browsing through such publications as People magazine while standing in checkout lines at the grocery store and in Wal-Mart. Then she quickly added that she had also read portions of an issue of National Geographic in a doctor’s waiting room (the only major piece in this magazine that addressed ID at the time had been “Was Darwin Wrong?” published in November 2004 – a month after Yingling voted for the new policy). Then this board member, who regularly voted on the details of Dover High School’s science curriculum (as well as its other subjects), added, “ I generally don’t read books cover to cover unless they are really good. And bio certainly wouldn’t be really good in my personal library.” (Page 227)
After another paragraph of similarly dopey comments, Humes remarks:
And this witness was just the start. There would be so much more that, in the end, [plaintiff's attorney] Rothschild and his colleagues wouldn’t even need to call Angie Yingling to the stand. (Page 227)
Here is another example, this time from board member William Buckingham:
The board members also insisted in their sworn depositions that they believed intelligent design was not in itself religious. Buckingham was adamant on this point, although he could provide no coherent explanation of what ID was. In trying to do so, he talked about molecules and amoebas, but his attempt to define ID ended up sounding more like a half-baked description of evolution. His attempt to describe evolution and common ancestry, in contrast, sounded a great deal like religion: “It can be what scientists considered two tiny amoebas way back zillions of years ago if you want it to be. It can be, for some people, it can be Buddha. For somebody else it can be Allah. For a Christian it can be a Christian God. Whatever.” This was his explanation not of intelligent design or creationism but of Darwin’s idea of descent with modification. (Page 219).
For me these excerpts pretty well summarize attempts to inject creationism or ID into science classes. I have heard so many statements precisely this ignorant from various lawmakers introducing anti-evolution legislation. People who introduce such laws are always and everywhere motivated by religious concerns. They are uniformly ignorant of any of the relevant scientific issues, and most could not even formulate a coherent sentence on the subject. Any claim to be interested in enhancing science education or in encouraging kids to think critically is a sham.
As much as I liked the book I do have two criticisms. Humes narration is excellent, but many of his descriptions of scientific issues are not quite right. Not really wrong, but suffciently imprecise to be a bit annoying. For example, in a section providing quick responses to creationist claims he writes:
… and the second law of thermodynamics has to do with the behavior of nonliving matter in a closed system – whereas life, far from a closed system, continually gains energy from the sun and Earth, providing ample opportunities for growth and new, more complex life-forms. Physicists and engineers who actually work with the principles of thermodynamics consider Hovind’s argument laughable and beneath even a first-year physics major, though to a receptive and scientifically unsphisticated audience of the faithful, such arguments are more than sufficiently convincing. (Page 33)
I like that second sentence. But it’s poor phrasing indeed to suggest that the second law does not apply to living organisms just as surely as it applied to other systems. The distinction between a system that receives energy from the outside and one that does not is important, but even here it is not really correct to say that the second law does not apply when energy is crossing the boundary of a system. Rather, we can say that the statement, “A spontaneous natural process can only cause entropy to increase” is only true for systems that are completely isolated from their surroundings.
Small scientific inaccuracies like this occur in a number of places in the book. There are other errors as well. For example, Bill O’Reilly is twice identified as a commentator for CNN, rather than for Fox News. These errors detract only slightly from the overall strength of the book, but they are annoying nonethelss.
Also annoying are the distressingly large number of typos (Bill of Bights (Page 184), anyone?) A little more proofreading would have been nice.
But rather than end on a negative note, let me provide one more excerpt. Referring to Bill O’Reilly he writes:
He likened the ACLU to the Taliban, “infringing on the rights of all American students” by trying to keep ID out of schools. And he told his national audience – much to the dismay of the Discovery Institute – that intelligent design was a scientific statement of what many Americans already believed: “There’s a deity and the deity formed the universe and things progressed from there.” Then he turned to a professor from the University of Colorado – who did not understand that, on this sort of show, he was supposed to serve as a prop and not an expert – and asked, “What’s wrong with that, professor?”
Before the guest could complete his answer – “What’s wrong with that is, it’s not science…” – O’Reilly had interrupted and exclaimed, “What if it turns out there is a God and he did create the universe and you die and then you figure that out? Aren’t you going to feel bad that you didn’t address that in your biology class?”
The professor was struck momentarily speechless by this (missing the chance to say, Why no, Bill, I won’t feel bad, I’ll be dead), and O’Reilly continued with one of the most remarkable displays of nationally televised scientific ignorance ever, matched only by the host’s utter certitude: “If I were a professor of biology … I would say, “Look, there are a ot of very brilliant scholars who believe the reason we have incomplete science on evolution is that there is a higher power involved in this and you should consider it as a scientist.” (Page 224-225)
I’m sure we’re all very happy Bill O’Reilly is not a professor of biology. Anyway, I heratily recommend the book. Go buy a copy!