In Dover, Pa., shortly after the 2004 election, the school board adopted a policy, over the vehement objections of its science...

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“Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul”
by Edward Humes
Ecco, 380 pp., $25.95

In Dover, Pa., shortly after the 2004 election, the school board adopted a policy, over the vehement objections of its science teachers, requiring that students be told that evolution is “just a theory” and that alternative scientific explanations exist, including “intelligent design,” a thinly veiled version of creationism. Predictably, the decision was enormously controversial and led to the filing of a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the policy. Far from being dismayed by the litigation, the school board welcomed it and, with volunteer lawyers from a fundamentalist Christian law firm, saw it as an opportunity to validate the teaching of creationism.

Fortunately for the teaching of science, and the separation of church and state, it didn’t turn out that way.

In “Monkey Girl,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes tells the riveting story of how a sleepy Pennsylvania town became the focus for the biggest fight over the teaching of evolution in the public schools since the Scopes Monkey Trial itself. Humes does a terrific job of evenhandedly laying out the history of creationism in America and the 150-year history of intense hostility from Biblical literalists to Darwin’s theory of evolution, virtually the entire field of modern biology, and even the scientific method itself. (Many Christians, of course, find no such inconsistency between Christianity and evolution).

Dover’s embrace of “intelligent design” was encouraged by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group that pugnaciously defends the teaching of creationism. The institute crafted an ingenious political “wedge strategy” by boldly asserting that a legitimate controversy exists over evolution, then demanding that schools “teach the controversy” by presenting “both sides” of the debate. What could be wrong with that? Of course, there is no legitimate scientific debate over the basic premise of evolution — it is the very foundation of modern biology, paleontology, and genetics and is amply supported by more than 150 years of scientific research. But the call for including “both sides” was alluring for school board members utterly unfamiliar with either biology or “intelligent design.”

The trial lasted six weeks and was an utter rout of the school board and its ill-conceived policy. Although the board denied their obvious religious motivation, or even using the word “creationism,” the record dramatically undercut them. School board member Bill Buckingham, for example, during board deliberations responded to objections about injecting religion into the classroom by declaring: “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand now?” Later he commented that “This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.” Though he denied making the statements during the trial, other board members and reporters all confirmed his comments.

By the trial’s end it was clear that “intelligent design” had no foundation in science. Even one of the board’s experts was forced to admit that “intelligent design” could be considered “science” only if one redefined science to include astrology, magic and other supernatural beliefs.

The judge — a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush — was unconvinced by the board’s effort to defend the policy. In fact, he was outraged by the charade, rejecting the board’s policy as unconstitutional and finding that two of the board members had lied under oath. He called the board’s effort “breathtaking inanity.”

Nor were the board members any more successful with the public: The entire pro-“intelligent design” school board was voted out of office.

Humes carefully steps through both the science at the core of the debate and the legal machinations, without getting lost in the detail on either front. His writing is vivid, memorable and engaging, and a welcome breath of common sense in an area dominated by zealots and table pounding.