Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for Americas Soul by Edward Humes

Citizens in more than two dozen states agitate to introduce the supernatural in public school science classes. Legislators introduce bills in support. The U.S. president and more than a few U.S. senators and governors call it a good idea.

School boards demand that Bible-based creationism or its latest iteration, intelligent design, be taught alongside evolution. Lawsuits are filed. Neighbors challenge the religiosity of neighbors. Children brand classmates as descendents of monkeys. Scientists are reviled as agents of Satan and peddlers of atheism.

It may sound like the plot of a science-fiction novel, but it is real. All of it happened in the United States in 2005, and it continues to happen today.

Why Americans continue to pit religion against science in a fruitless struggle most other developed nations abandoned long ago is the question at the heart of Edward Humes’ compelling Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul.

As the conflict has heated up around the country in recent years, numerous books have been published about it. Most recently they include The God Delusion, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spell, by philosopher Daniel Dennett, and Letter to a Christian Nation, by neuroscientist Sam Harris.

But Humes, a prolific non-fiction author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, may be the most successful so far in making a complicated issue accessible and in putting human faces on both sides of the evolution divide.

Clearly based on exhaustive reporting that takes the reader from the hard benches of a Harrisburg, Pa., federal district courtroom to the kitchen tables of Dover families whose children were taunted as “monkey girls,” Humes’ fast-moving, richly detailed book reads like a suspense novel.

Humes achieves this by anchoring his narrative to key characters in the bitter but colorful 2005 case of Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District, which tore a rural Pennsylvania community apart and mounted the first legal challenge to the concept of intelligent design.

In 2004, 11 parents of Dover Area School District students sued the district and the school board over a requirement that 9th-grade biology classes be informed of intelligent design as a scientific alternative to evolution and be referred to an intelligent-design textbook, Of Pandas and People. The trial, which began in September 2005, took 40 days and included eye-glazing scientific testimony and exchanges.

The parents, who contended that intelligent design was thinly veiled creationism, charged that the requirement was religiously motivated and thus unconstitutional. They were represented pro bono by lawyers supplied by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton.

The school board, which contended it was just trying to improve science education, stoutly denied any religious motivation. It was represented pro bono by the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.; its Web site identified its mission as being “to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square.” It was, Humes notes, just one of the ironic elements in a frail defense case that had religious fingerprints all over it.

Intelligent design, which some deride as “creationism lite,” is presented as a scientific theory positing that some aspects of life are so complicated they must have been designed. It avoids any mention of religion or the divine, although most adherents readily identify the designer as God.

The greatest advocate of intelligent design has been the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Wary of crossing the constitutional line, the institute does not suggest that schools teach intelligent design but rather urges them to point out flaws in Charles Darwin’s theory and “teach the controversy.” The science community says there is no credible controversy over evolution.

The concept emerged after the U.S. Supreme Court banned creationism from public school science classrooms in 1987, ruling that it was religious in nature and thus violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. That clause prohibits the government from establishing or advancing religion. Although interpreted as the separation of church and state, the clause does not use those specific words — a fact the religious right often brandishes as proof that no such wall between church and state is meant to exist.

Alone among industrialized nations, America not only is steeped in religious faith but remains deeply suspicious of science. This is particularly true in the case of Darwin’s nearly 150-year-old theory of evolution, which holds that all life on Earth shares common ancestors and developed through random mutation and natural selection over some 4 billion years.

Scientists, who are limited by the scientific method to natural explanations for natural phenomena, consider evolution the foundation of modern biology. Many conservative Christians, who hold the Bible as the inerrant word of God, consider evolution an abomination because they believe it demotes man from divine creation to amoral animal.

In fact, in a country in which about 98 percent of the people profess a religious faith, it is not only the religious right that clings to the story of creation in Genesis. About half of all Americans prefer the creationist view that they were created by God, much in their present form, some 10,000 years ago. The number of Americans asserting this belief has not dipped below 44 percent in the two decades since the Gallup Poll began asking the question.

Moreover, a majority of the public, including President Bush, says evolution and creationism (or intelligent design), should be taught in public-school science classes.

This is the so-called balanced or equal-time approach to science that the U.S. Supreme Court most recently rejected in 1987. But opponents of evolution still try to employ it, partly because, in a nation with low scientific literacy, it appeals to Americans’ sense of fair play and desire to hear both sides of a story. Despite the protest of scientists, the religious right continues to insist that there are two sides of the story, and most Americans agree.

As a result, the word “evolution” has been deliberately avoided in everything from state science standards to grant applications, museum exhibits and even public school classrooms. Humes writes:

“In March, 2005, a new survey by the National Science Teachers Association found that nearly a third of those who responded felt pressure by students and parents to include creationism, intelligent design or other alternatives to evolution in their science classrooms. Thirty percent of science teachers felt they were being pushed to soft-pedal and steer away from teaching evolution.”

The battle over evolution in the United States, as old as the infamous Scopes monkey trial in 1925, has re-emerged as a signature skirmish in the culture wars. These wars, waged primarily by conservative Christians, are fought over everything from demanding that retailers “Put the Christ back in Christmas” to preserving stone replicas of the 10 Commandments in courthouses.

But as Humes points out, the stakes in the evolution war are much higher. For the religious right, he notes:

“It’s not about disagreements over science or philosophy, and it’s certainly no gentleman’s conflict in which the two sides can agree to disagree. This is a battle for the souls of children, nothing less.”

For science educators, it is a battle for the minds of children who will have to compete in a world where a sound understanding of science will be the price of admission to a universe of new technologies.

On Dec. 20, 2005, Judge John E. Jones III delivered a landmark verdict in the Kitzmiller case: He not only ruled the school board had violated the Constitution but that “intelligent design was a religious proposition, and not science.” The ruling is binding only on the federal district that includes Dover, but it is seen as influential on school boards around the country.

That’s not to say the battle over evolution is over. A new term, emergence theory, has been bandied about as a possible successor to intelligent design. And just last month, a member of the Mississippi House introduced a bill requiring school districts that teach evolution to include creationism or intelligent design in the curriculum to insure “a comprehensive education in science.”