Review of Monkey Girl by Edward Humes

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Edward Humes is an extraordinary book, allowing the reader to participate in the full details of the Dover Pennsylvania trial concerning Intelligent Design in a way that it seems likely that few even of those actually present would have been able to. The wealth of detail is impressive, and yet the narrative keeps the reader’s interest as well as any great suspense novel – and this even though you know how the story ends! The characters in the story come alive and even the most flawed and stubborn individuals are not treated without sympathy and fairness.

Humes provides historical context for the controveries over evolution, noting both that Darwin’s theories were simply the “last straw” in a growing encroachment of science onto the claims of the Bible, literally interpreted. Yet not everyone either then or now has found their religious faith and Darwin’s explanation of biological evolution in terms of natural selection incompatible. In fact, while roughly the same number of Republicans and Democrats claim to believe in God, the number of Democrats that accept evolution is double that of the Republicans (p.346, where Humes analyses a three-sentence statement by Ann Coulter and finds it contains 5 lies and one serious error). I wonder whether this is a result of teachers avoiding evolution in areas where Conservatives predominate. What becomes incredibly clear over the course of the book is that the Americans who reject evolution do so without understanding it p.29). A classic moment in the book is a dialogue between a scientist and a couple of individuals talking about the problems with evolution. “Name some problems with it”, the scientist challenges, and no actual problems that have any relevance to evolution are named. This matches with another clear statistical correlation: as education increases, so does acceptance of evolution (p.28). In many of the areas most strongly opposed to evolution, mandatory high school education hasn’t been a reality in those communities for all that long. Nonetheless, throughout the book it becomes clear that, as one student is quoted as saying on the last page, “Facts have nothing to do with it” (p.351; see also p.250). People oppose evolution for a variety of reasons, but it is clear that they have nothing genuinely to do with the scientific evidence. Scientists keep answering so-called objections, and the same ones keep getting repeated over and over in spite of this.

What I found most remarkable about the book was how dishonest the supporters of Intelligent Design were. I knew from my past contact with Terry Mortenson here on campus that some ID proponents are at least not entirely up-front, but now I am inclined to simply say that the movement, like young-earth creationism before it, is characterized by dishonesty (pp.325-6), although there are exceptions. The impression that I once had, that ID deserves to be distinguished from creationism, has been largely undermined (although once again there are exceptions). The court subpoenaed earlier drafts and published copies of the ID textbook Of Pandas and People, and it was clear that after the 1987 court ruling that creationism could not be taught in schools, the publishers had simply gone through the book and replaced “creation” with “design” throughout the book, leaving everthing else exactly the same. Yet they consistently claim that they are not merely a rehash of creationism, and that their enterprise can be separated from religious questions (p.200).

The problematic mindset of fundamentalism is heard on the lips of school board dictator Bill Buckingham, who says of the Bible “It’s either all truth or it’s all lies. There’s no in-between….And I know it’s truth.” If one was forced to make this decision then one really would have to choose between one’s heart and the experience of the divine, and one’s mind which, if it looks at the evidence seriously, cannot claim that the Bible is all true in the sense of all scientifically and historically factual. But of course, this is a false antithesis, and precisely the rhetoric that drives people of faith to abandon their faith when they learn what science, history and other disciplines have to say and all the evidence they can muster in favor of their conclusions. To use an example I have used before, if I tell you about my own personal experience of God, I do not have to be infallible or even completely trustworthy for what I tell you to be important, significant, meaningful and true. All I have to do is be honest about that point. Then you can go and test it for yourself.

Interesting ironies of the creation-evolution culture war are highlighted in the book. Dover, Pennsylvania as well as Kansas provide some of the strongest paleontological evidence for evolution available (see e.g. pp.16-17). There is a fairly easy test that could help prove or disprove the ID argument about irreducible complexity, yet the proponents of ID, who claim they are doing scientific research, have not done it and have no interest in doing it; and even more ironically, one of Behe’s own papers actually shows evolution to be plausible as an explanation of the paper’s subject matter (pp.304-306). The school board in Dover, rather than listen to the science teachers, to the scientific community, to existing science standards, decided to push their own agenda, yet they didn’t read the ID books either (pp.226-227). And yet they have the audacity after all is said and done to accuse the Republican judge of the case of being yet another ‘activist judge’ – Humes rightly calls this response the rant of “sore losers” (p.344). The Discovery Institute has been active in misrepresenting the case (pp.343-344), while the school board members were shown to have lied under oath (pp.325-326). And (perhaps most amusingly) Behe admitted that, if the proposed ID definition of science were accepted, astrology would then be a science too (p.301).

In contrast, rather than redefining science as the proponents of ID would like, the theory of evolution makes predictions and they are consistently confirmed (see examples on pp.268-269, 341). There are, as in all areas of scientific inquiry, gaps in our knowledge, and new information sometimes demands that earlier assumptions and ideas be revised. The vast scientific literature on evolution shows evidence of all this. The biologists (with rare exceptions, in which the dishonesty is exposed not by creationist rhetoric, but by other scientists’ further investigations) play by the rules, and their results are scientifically sound. Evolutionary biology is not about democracy, it is not about faith, it is about evidence and a wider theoretical framework to explain that evidence. That is why it works, why it fits the data, and why scientists continue to support it despite the ranting and raving of America’s key proponents of pseudo-science.

Let me conclude by recommending once again the testimony of paleontologist Kevin Padian, whose presentation has been made available by the NCSE. It is too wonderful not to mention it again. The address is http://www.sciohost.org/ncse/kvd/Padian/Padian_transcript.html

I’ve discussed more the substantive content of the book, but more than anything else Humes tells a story about real life that is a page-turner, and that may help those of us trying to play our part in promoting science education and a constructive interaction between science and religion to understand why there seem to be so many who adamantly oppose us and continue to do so even when shown that they don’t have a good reason for doing so!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00276860017599044287 Cobalt

    This looks really awesome.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04581876323110725024 Robert Cornwall

    James,I too found this a most revealing book. Your reposting the review suggests I might do the same!thanks