Notes on an Important Book: A Review of “Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul”

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. By Edward Humes. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

What does Pennsylvania heartland, fossils, and urban think tanks have in common? The answer is one of the most titanic struggles over evolution in the early twenty-first century. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul by investigative journalist Edward Humes tells the engaging and sometimes bizarre story of how the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board dealt a powerful blow to the cause of Intelligent Design, the most recent creationist counter to evolution, through its ham-handed attempt to inject the Biblical account of Genesis into American science classes.

The story began in October 2004 when the Dover Area School District changed its curriculum in biology to require that intelligent design be introduced as a counter to the scientific theory of evolution and mandated that the book, Of Pandas and People, be available for use in the school as a reference. In response, eleven parents of students in the school filed a lawsuit and argued that intelligent design was essentially a form of creationism, and that in insisting on its inclusion in the curriculum the school board had violated the establishment clause of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), Pepper Hamilton LLP, and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) supported the plaintiffs and the conservative Thomas More Center represented the board, with the Discovery Institute involved as well. Brought before the court of Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative appointee to the bench in 2002 by George W. Bush, the trial turned into a showcase for the evolution/creationism debate that has existed since the Scopes trial of the 1920s.

The trial took place between September 26 and November 4, 2005. In the end, Judge Jones issued a 139 page ruling in favor of the plaintiffs declaring that the plaintiffs were correct in their position that intelligent design is not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” Accordingly, he found that it violated the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution. As the judge declared in his opinion, issued on December 20, 2005: “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

As this was underway, the entire school board was turned out of office in the election of November 2005 and replaced with new board members who opposed the teaching of intelligent design in a science class. Accordingly, the new board decided not to appeal the court’s ruling. It did not, therefore, become a test case, ultimately before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Monkey Girl—a title chosen to reflect one the insults hurled at the daughter of Tammy Kitzmiller, the chief plaintiff in the case—is a fine work of investigative journalism. It is not a work of scholarly history, but it is a well-researched and written account of one the most important episodes in the longstanding running fight of the forces of science and religion over the nature of life. Edward Humes, a well-published and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, has contributed a fascinating portrait of a critically important aspect of the debate over evolution. He does an excellent job drawing out portraits of actors on both sides, setting scenes, and narrating arcs in to the conduct of the story.

The decision to add intelligent design to the science curriculum in Dover was really the result of efforts by board members William Buckingham and Alan Bonsell, assisted by other members who were supportive of the effort. Three members refused to go along with the decision—Noel Wenrich, Carol Brown, and Jeff Brown—and all resigned in protest. Buckingham, who is credited with leading the effort, believed that the U.S. was declining in part because it had turned away from God. Evolution being taught in the schools was part of that process. He viewed this effort as one step in opposition to that drift. But he was also a medically-retired policeman who was addicted to painkillers and had a hair-trigger temper. He definitely intimidated those who disagreed with him to get his way on this issue.

A moment at the trial, played for all it was worth by the author, summarized the comedy of errors that the Dover school board embraced in its decision to pursue intelligent design.

Heather Geesey, a board member who went along with Buckingham, testified toward the end of the proceedings. She admitted that she only supported this to help Buckingham and Bonsall, that she had not read Of Pandas and People, that she had not looked up any information on intelligent design, and she demonstrated a singular disinterest in any aspect of what she was mandating that the school district teach to students. After several frustrating responses to questions of Geesey by the prosecution, the examining attorney pursued a final question, whereupon Judge Jones told counsel not to bother by saying, “I don’t know what you could possibly hope to achieve.”

One might use this comment in responding to the entire episode. What was the Dover school board seeking to accomplish by forcing intelligent design into the science classrooms? What was the proponents of intelligent design seeking to accomplish by advocating something they insist is not a religious position on human origins, but rather an alternative scientific theory? It seems that one of Judge Jones’s final statements in his ruling is apropos here: “ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”

This is an important and fascinating book, well worth the time and energy it takes to read and ponder it.

This entry was posted in Evolution, History, Personal, Politics, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Notes on an Important Book: A Review of “Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul”

  1. Pingback: Notes on an Important Book: A Review of ?Monkey Girl: Evolution … | emmysevern

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