What's in a name? For supporters of the theory of "intelligent design" (ID), a great deal. They argue that the complexity of our universe is best understood as the result of an intelligent cause rather than the undirected process of natural selection described by Charles Darwin, and they want to see this taught in public school science classes. ID is not religious, they argue; it is simply scientific. But critics of ID argue that it is merely a more sophisticated way of promoting "creation science," which rejects evolutionary theory in favor of a literal reading of the book of Genesis and therefore promotes the teaching of religion in public schools.
In 2004, when the Dover, Penn., school board voted to require biology classes to use a supplemental textbook that promoted the theory of intelligent design rather than evolution, the conflict that erupted was about far more than semantics. As Edward Humes describes in this lively and thoughtful book, Dover -- like Dayton, Tenn., during the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" -- became a proving ground for clashing beliefs about the origins of life and constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.
"The scientific community sees the creationist critics of evolution as yahoos, religious zealots, and scientifically suspect charlatans," writes Humes. "The creationists see the evolutionists as immoral and dishonest purveyors of a pseudoreligion called Darwinism that makes God superfluous." Each side is guilty of misrepresenting the other. In Dover, the people on each side believed those on the other were attempting to indoctrinate their children. And everyone soon realized that this local controversy had national implications.
Humes takes the title of his book, Monkey Girl, from the taunt leveled at a child whose mother objected to the new policy. Some parents, including teachers in the school district, viewed intelligent design as a stealth form of creation science. Although many of these parents were Christians (two even taught Sunday school), they felt that teaching ID in a public school classroom improperly injected religion into education. They brought their case, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, with the aid of the ACLU, the National Center for Science Education and lawyers from the Philadelphia firm Pepper Hamilton.
Defending the Dover school board was a Michigan-based public interest law firm, the Thomas More Law Center, and, initially, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a nonprofit research institute that has tried to make ID a palatable alternative to evolutionary theory. As Humes describes it, the Discovery Institute's "seductively reasonable" approach to evolution is "teach the controversy," implying that there is a scientific controversy about evolution, when in fact the controversy is a cultural one. Yet the strategy has proven effective for increasing public awareness about ID, and it has put supporters of evolutionary theory on the defensive.
Although he provides the necessary backstory to the Dover case, the most gripping portions of the book are Humes's descriptions of the trial itself, which began in the fall of 2005. "Kitzmiller became at root everything the original Scopes trial had started out to be but was not," Humes writes. "Back then, the leading scientists had been ready to testify, only to be ruled irrelevant by the creationist judge who presided in Dayton." In Harrisburg, however, scientific experts from both sides argued for 40 days in testimony that often included abstruse discussions of the properties of bacterial flagella.
According to Humes, proponents of intelligent design quickly realized that this would not be their triumphant hour. The experts called by the plaintiffs repeatedly and relentlessly challenged the claims of ID's supporters. The defense also succumbed to internal squabbling.
Although his own sympathies clearly are with the defenders of evolutionary theory, Humes makes a strenuous effort to be fair-minded. He offers a sympathetic portrait of Michael Behe, the Lehigh University biochemist well known for his work on ID and the defense's star expert witness. School board member Bill Buckingham, the driving force behind the ID policy, could easily have come across as an ignorant fundamentalist bully. In Humes's hands, he is a more complex and pitiable figure -- a stubborn, intolerant man who was also in chronic pain and struggling to overcome an addiction to OxyContin but who felt that what he was doing was good for the schoolchildren of Dover.
Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican, emerges as the hero in Humes's tale. In his eloquent ruling for the plaintiffs, which should be read by every student of law, he noted, "This case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy." Even before Jones issued his ruling, the citizens of Dover reached their own verdict: In the next school board election, "every one of the eight incumbents who favored intelligent design was ousted," Humes writes.
Given his talent for narrative and eye for detail, one wishes Humes had delved deeper into the culture that nurtures creationist beliefs. His story would have benefited from a more nuanced examination of Christian fundamentalism (and the ways in which it differs from evangelical Protestantism). For, as Humes himself notes, you need not be a fundamentalist to have sympathy for the scriptural story of creation. "Nearly half the citizenry accepts the idea that God created man in his present form, just as the Bible holds," he writes. "Only a third believes that there is valid scientific evidence to support the theory of evolution."
Given this fact, it is remarkable that we don't see more skirmishes such as the one that erupted in Dover. The Kitzmiller case was not quite the "battle for America's soul" that Humes suggests in his subtitle, but it was an important episode in the country's ongoing struggle to reconcile faith, science and culture. Humes's book is a compelling account of that struggle, and likely not the last salvo in the battle between evolution and intelligent design. ·
Evolution, Education, Religion, and The Battle for America's Soul
By Edward Humes
Ecco. 380 pp. $25.95