Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review: Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul

When I said I thought it would be kind of good to learn more about evolution, some other kids started calling me monkey girl. ‘Cause they said god made them, but that I must’ve come from chimps.” – 14-year-old from Dover, PA

This book recounts one of the major victories for science education in the United States. It is also a well researched and contemplative work focusing on the people who advocated for and against teaching evolution in biology class versus creation science and Intelligent Design.  Although, one would think the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial would have settled the legal argument, it appears that ignorance of science and theism continue rear their head. 

The story catapulted itself into the front line of America’s culture war. This war continues to pull America in opposite and sometimes equally strong directions. We may appear to be a schizophrenic nation, promoting both secular liberalism and individual freedom through the Constitution while at the same time being founded by Puritans whose religious and situational moral streak runs through our political psyche and policies even today.

Edward Humes' book, Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul, recounts the tumult, politics, media circus and eventual court decision in Dover, Pennsylvania. The judge’s decision legally refuted ID as theology and not science. The court found ID had no basis in fact, nor should it be taught alongside evolution in the science classroom.  The legal case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, stands today as a beacon for social justice and a bulwark against theistic ignorance in its attempt to remake secular education policy.

For readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with what transpired allow me to briefly explain. Basically, a small group of Christian fundamentalists, after being elected to their school board hijacked their community's long standing education curriculum. They attempted by fiat to remove evolution from the science curriculum by establishing and giving plausible standing to the theistic pseudo-science of Intelligent Design and creationism.

This meant that current science textbooks would be replaced books that offered ID as science, refuting Darwin and natural selection. It also appears that the publishers of the textbooks financially supported school board member’s campaigns. The board policy also required science teachers to state that evolution and natural selection were competing theories with other forms of creation theory, including special biblical creation.

On a personal note, I believe that it is hubris to think that we as a species are either special or central to the universe’s cause, health, and operation.  Galileo proved the Church wrong six hundred years ago, showing Earth was not the universe’s center and he paid this discovery with lifetime house arrest.

Today, there are those who cannot accept our place in a universe, a cosmic space which does not care about nor acknowledges our species viability or existence. The audacity of these individuals in Dover (or anywhere) to attempt to take secular education and remake it into theism is deplorable, moving from cognitive dissonance to evil. 

What made this case so special is that it drew national media attention. The case had the legal backing from fundamentalists groups. On one side you had folks who felt their specific community standards allowed for autonomy in designing educational curriculum which centered on divine creation.  On the other side were parents and a legal defense which saw this initiative as a clear violation of the separation clause of the Constitution. 

The court heard from both sides, including “experts” for ID and those who supported traditional non-theistic science.  With the media spotlight burning bright and with a community split, the court eventually decided the case in favor of the parents who sued the school board for attempting to place theism into the school’s secular science curriculum.  In addition, at the next school board election, all those who favored the inclusion of ID in the science curriculum were voted out of office.  This remains a total legal rebuff of ID and informs and confirms the separation clause of the Constitution.

To believe we as a species exist for some divine purpose or though some act of special creation is belief in a perpetual fallacy, a denial of science and a form of intellectual ignorance. Such lack of knowledge, whether met though overt or convert belief must be met with facts and an understanding of science and the scientific method.  We must, for the sake of our survival, teach our children to be excited by the natural universe and nature.

If science and history has shown us anything, it is that we are insignificant to the universe.  But this should ignite one’s imagination and not draw us towards sadness or theism. The natural processes which evolved our existence and that of all other species are accidental and without bias. The universe neither cares if we exist nor would notice if our species disappeared. Doesn’t that make our time, which is both limited and accidental, even more special?  I believe that it does.

Our problems are of our own making and are small, although at times painful.  They are met by a cold and uncaring universe for which we reside on an insignificant backwater (thanks’ Carl) of the cosmos.  And this is precisely why we must care. Our species must see past our tribalism, see past of inability to connect our philosophies, religious or otherwise, to create societies which develop our human potential.

Religion perpetuates dark ages, war and suffering.  In the western world, until the enlightenment, power and access to information was limited only to the church and its client aristocracy. It is also true that during this time, with organized religion, the dearth of human creativity related to science was not allowed to flourish. This is because then as now, science’s truth diminishes theism and remains at odds with religious teaching of supernatural cause and belief.

But back to the review, in Judge John E. Jones, III final ruling, he found that Intellegient Design is not science; that it could not be allowed in the science classroom, that ID in classroom violated the Separation Clause, that the school board members lied under oath, and that they sought to inject religion into the science classroom. He writes in his opinion:

The facts of this case make it abundantly clear that the Board's ID policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that is it’s not and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.


Isn’t that enough?  I’d certainly recommend the book if you are a concerned citizen, legal scholar, Constitutional or secularist advocate, a parent with children, or involved with education teaching or policy. But even if you just want to read a great non-fiction legal case, this will be a great journey for the reader.

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