Pharyngula

Monkey Girl

Oh, but I am dragging this morning. Have you ever done that thing where you start reading a book and you don’t want to put it down, and eventually you realize it’s late and you need to get some sleep, so you go to bed but you can’t sleep anyway so you get up and finish the whole book? And then you get a couple hours of sleep before you have to get up again? And your whole day is like trudging through molasses afterwards? That’s me.

The book is Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) by Edward Humes, and from the title I think you can guess why I’d find it engrossing. But it’s more than just a copacetic subject, though: this book reads like a novel. Even though I knew how it would turn out, I had to keep going.

It begins with a few science teachers in Dover, Pennsylvania trying to get the school board to approve the purchase of new textbooks and ends with the community trying to resolve the aftermath of Judge Jones’ decision—it’s a retelling of the key events in the Kitzmiller, et al v. Dover School District, et al. court case, with a few brief digressions to visit places like Kansas. Seriously, it reads like a courtroom thriller, with a ‘crime’ at the beginning, the gradual build-up as events spiral out of everyone’s control, culminating in a courtroom drama complete with revelatory rhetoric, Perry Mason-like traps set in the cross-examination, and last-minute discoveries of crucial pieces of information…and then, finally, a resoundingly unambiguous resolution, a complete victory for the good guys. This could be a movie.

The story has ‘villains’, too, but they aren’t quite as black and evil as you’d expect in a work of fiction—writing an accurate account of a historical event, as Humes has done, usually doesn’t give you much choice in your bad guys. They’re all human and trying to do what they think is honestly right. Unfortunately for them, the overriding message is that the trouble-makers here, the various bad actors in this drama, may be piously sincere, but they’re also astoundingly ignorant. Buckingham, Bonsell, Geesey, Dembski, and most of all, Behe emerge as grossly uninformed clowns who stroll out onto the stage of the courtroom to do the most entertaining pratfalls. The book ought to be mandatory reading for schoolboards across the nation, as a cautionary tale: the bottom line is that the Dover school board members who launched their district on this expensive, damaging journey were completely unqualified to have any say at all in science education, and worse, were completely incurious about trying to find out anything about this theory of evolution they were critizing, or most damaging of all, even about this Intelligent Design idea they were trying to peddle. Like the stories in most crime dramas, what eventually trips up the bad guys is their stupid mistakes, and the clever sleuthing of the heroes.

Oh, yes, there are heroes: the most obvious are Barbara Forrest, who gave meticulous testimony that demolished the creationist case; Nick Matzke, the eager young rascal who dug up the most damning pieces of evidence; and Eric Rothschild, who eviscerated the witnesses for the creationists, exposing their dishonesty and foolishness on the stand. There is a huge amount of sympathy for the people of Dover, in particular the teachers and parents who were watching this farce consume their hometown in a feast of mockery and laughter and waste.

We also meet lots of other characters. The prologue opens with the Reverend Jim Grove, Burt Humburg and Kent Hovind pop up near the end, Irigonegaray and Calvert square off, and Bill O’Reilly and George W. Bush speak up. The blogs even make an appearance; Red State Rabble does a cameo, as does the Panda’s Thumb, and I even appear as a fierce and furious “one-man wrecking crew” offstage. (That was a bit discombobulating. Imagine reading fixedly through a John Grisham novel at 1am and unexpectedly encountering your name in an aside. Really, it broke my attention for a moment and gave me a weirdly meta sensation. You probably won’t have that problem.)

I knew there was a first-rate dramatic story in the Dover trial, and Edward Humes has written it. Now I’m just waiting for the movie.

Comments

  1. #1 David Livesay
    January 30, 2007

    Look, if you’re all insisting that “intent” implies some kind of consciousness, rather than mere determination, then I’m going to have to object to the original claim that design implies intent, because organisms clearly are well designed for their ecological niches. (And don’t tell me you have never used that term in that context.)

    Perhaps I should have insisted, as Dawkins did, that the watchmaker is blind, the designer has no intent in the teleological sense. I guess it all boils down to where you stop making anthropocentric assumptions. Does intent imply a conscious intender? Does design imply a conscious designer? Does selection imply a conscious selector? If you can have natural selection, why not natural design or natural intention (and don’t tell me you’ve never used the phrase “as nature intended”)?

  2. #2 llewelly
    January 30, 2007

    Perhaps I should have insisted, as Dawkins did, that the watchmaker is blind, the designer has no intent in the teleological sense. I guess it all boils down to where you stop making anthropocentric assumptions.

    There is a very good reason Dawkins is so careful to attach qualifiers like ‘blind’ and ‘blindly’ to words like ‘watchmaker’ and ‘programmed’ . It is vital that his reader not become confused about whether (or where) consciousness is present.

  3. #3 Joel
    January 30, 2007

    David Livesay seems to be making more an argument about how “intent” and “intelligence” should be understood than he is about whether “natural selection”. When he says,

    “Perhaps I should have insisted, as Dawkins did, that the watchmaker is blind, the designer has no intent in the teleological sense.”

    I read that as a clarification that, no, whatever else is implied by intent or intelligence, Livesay is not trying to imply a teleological connotation to intent, nor is he trying to suggest selection has anything to do with the involvement of some consciousness.

    So the point may be, if you remove the baggage of teleology and consciousness from “intent” and “intelligence”, do you not actually have a natural selection process?

    I, for one, am not convinced it is possible to engage the public with words like “intent” or “intelligence” — without conveying, at least in thier minds, exactly the teleological content we want to avoid.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    January 30, 2007

    If you want to insist that a process capable of producing intelligence is itself intelligent, okay, fine.

    Two words: Stupid Design.

    And no, I’ve never used any such phrase as “Nature intended”. I hate it when nature is personified into an 18th century Enlightenment goddess.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?
    January 30, 2007

    If you want to insist that a process capable of producing intelligence is itself intelligent, okay, fine.

    Two words: Stupid Design.

    And no, I’ve never used any such phrase as “Nature intended”. I hate it when nature is personified into an 18th century Enlightenment goddess.

  6. #6 Chinchillazilla
    January 30, 2007

    Ooh, cool. I zipped through all the Dawkins books I got for Christmas (including The God Delusion; my mom’s great) and have been keeping an eye out for something else on evolution versus religion.

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