- Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul
- Publisher: Ecco
- Year: 2007
- Pages: 400
I was a little hesitant to read Edward Humes’ Monkey Girl, not because I believed it would be a bad book, but rather because I was already relatively familiar with the story of the 2005 Intelligent Design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. Not only had I seen the Nova documentary about it, but my recent read, Bill of Wrongs, included a significant portion about the trial. I hoped that I would not simply be reading about something I already knew.
In fact, Edward Humes’ treatment of the controversial trial was incredibly detailed, so much so that I felt sorry for ever doubting him. In fact, the Dover trial was only a frame narrative that comprised the central thrust of the book. Its meat, both in terms of narrative and philosophy, was comprised (at least 1/3 of the book) of tangents which covered historical or contemporary court cases of a similar mettle: the (in)famous Snopes Monkey Trial served well to introduce the historical conflict between literal creationism and scientific evolution; as well, the ongoing cultural conflict in Kansas provided proof that Dover was not merely a fluke, but in fact a microcosm for the American nation at large1.
For those of you unaware, the city of Dover, PA, made national headlines in 2005 when concerned parents, represented by the ACLU and the Pepper Hamilton law firm, sued the Dover school board over its mangling of science standards to denigrate evolution as an accepted theory and offer Intelligent Design (i.e., certain parts of nature are so complex as to necessitate a Designer-with-a-capital-D to achieve their modern form, as-is) in its place. That’s an enormous simplification, since the story of the trial and its rising action passed through a number of stages wherein the fundamental argument seemed to have changed. In any case, the trial—presided over by Judge Jones, a George W. Bush appointee, ended with the total dismissal of Intelligent Design as a pseudoscience, and the proponent members of the board is dissembling and dishonest frauds. None of this is really news: you should have heard of it 18 months ago.
What Humes does—extraordinarily well, whether you agree with the eventual outcomes of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District or not—is provide historical context to the case, as well as detailed biographical information about many of the players involved. Humes takes extra care, I notice, to portray even the most villainized board members in a sympathetic light2; that is, they are simple people pursuing what they perceive as good policy, however misguided their actions might ultimately be. It is easy to revile them, and it is true that many appeared fundamentally dishonest when all was said and done, but Humes reminds his readers on many occasions that the pro-ID board members actions were not necessarily out of line with the general opinion of many Dover resident, who are traditionally religious conservatives.
What is most interesting about the case is how often the lines of contention were redrawn. Is it religion v. disbelief? Science v. pseudoscience? Natural empiricism v. supernatural empiricism? Religious idealism v. secular pragmatism? The case ends up being not two monolithic sets of opinion pitted against each other in federal court, but a veritable circus of slightly differing beliefs that aligned only vaguely into two camps aligned only by the “end,” so to speak, and not the “means.”
It’s clear from the get-go what side Edward Hume falls on (he clearly sides with the plaintiffs, against the mandate of teaching Intelligent Design in science class), but I think his treatment of the subject was ultimately pretty good. Naturally, though, if you’re still bitter about the decision—or think that Judge Jones suddenly and without warning turned from a good God-fearing right-leaning judge into a gay hippie atheist liberal pinko activist judge for no particular reason—you’ll probably think that Humes is a raving leftist. In that case, though there’s probably no help for you, and you probably should just read the latest Anne Coulter screed so you can feel secure in your misconceptions.
The context and implications of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District are a whole series of blog posts in and of themselves (indeed, they’re a whole book, as this very entry proves), and it would be too tangential to get into them here. In any case, if you’re interested in learning more about this controversial trial, your choices are basically this book, a lot of scattered blog postings, or a few bitterly disappointed Discovery Institute press releases. Read Monkey Girl: it’s an excellent primer not only on the Dover case specifically, but the historical conflict generally, and its worthwhile reading for anybody.