Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dover “Monkey Trial”

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

CONTENT: Original Reviews

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

Reviews of:

Humes, Edward (2008) Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul. Harper Perennial, New York, NY, ISBN #0060885491 ($15.95, paperback), 400 pages. Available for $10.85 from Amazon.com.

Judge John E. Jones, III, presiding judge for the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in the case of Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover School District, et al. (2005) Memorandum and Order, 138 pages. Available online.

Lebo, Lauri (2008) The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America. The New Press, New York, NY, ISBN #1595582088 ($24.95, hardcover), 256 pages. Available for $16.47 from Amazon.com.

NOVA (2007) Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. WGBH, Boston, MA, ISBN #9781593757199 ($19.95, DVD). Available from WGBH.

In 2004 the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to require that the following statement be read to students taking biology in the Dover Area School District:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

Thus began the most recent battle in what historian and philosopher Michael Ruse has called “the evolution wars”. This particular battle climaxed in a civil case brought in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Judge John E. Jones, III, presiding, begun in September of 2005 and ending with Judge Jones’ decision in the case, issued on December 20, 2005. Entitled “Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover School District, et al.”, the trial is often referred to as the “Dover Monkey Trial”, in reference to the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennesee, as chronicled by H. L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun and dramatized in the award-winning play, movie, and television drama, Inherit the Wind.

The title of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee’s play about the Scopes “monkey trial” comes from the King James version of the Bible:

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind
and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.
- Proverbs 11:29

In many ways, that quotation would be even more fitting to the outcome of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trail. As chronicled in two new books and a new NOVA video, the Dover trial not only set a new standard for the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in the public schools, it also set neighbor against neighbor in a little town in Pennsylvania where the most common source of conflict was local sports rivalries. As one of the participants in the trial, Casey Brown (a witness for the plaintiffs) commented,
“I was afraid Dover would never be the same [after the trial], and I was right”.

The title of Edward Humes’ book about the Dover trial, Monkey Girl, comes from a taunt that was hurled at the daughter of the chief plaintiff in the trial, Tammy Kitzmiller. Humes analyzes the Dover trail from both an historical and legal perspective, and provides many vignettes that illustrate the truth of Casey Brown’s concern. The Dover trial divided the citizens of Dover along political and religious lines in much the same way that the Scopes “monkey trial” divided the nation in 1925.

Humes’ book not only follows the legal arguments in the case, it also chronicles the personal and social costs of the trial, to members of both sides of the dispute. In particular, he analyzes the political and religious views of the members of the school board who voted for the reading of the statement recounted above, and the reactions by the science faculty at the Dover schools to the requirement that it be read to their classes.

It becomes clear on reading Humes’ account that there was much more at stake in this dispute than the wording of what appears to be a fairly harmless statement to be read to biology students. Underlying this action was (and is) an ongoing dispute about the moral effects of science education in general, and the teaching of evolutionary theory in particular. One side – represented in the Dover case by the members of the school board who voted for the reading of the statement – believed that the teaching of evolution is causally linked to what they perceive as the “rising tide of atheism and social disintegration in America”.

The other side – represented by the plaintiffs and their supporters among the Dover science faculty – believed that the intrusion of “intelligent design” into the public school curriculum was not only detrimental to the understanding of science, it was also part of a covert program of religious indoctrination and intolerance. It was these views, and not the simple wording of the statement to be read to students, that generated the heat in the courtroom, and the bitter controversy that divided the Dover community during and after the trial.

Lauri Lebo was a newspaper reporter covering the Dover trial, and also a long-time resident of the Dover area. She knew most of the participants on both sides of the dispute in the trial personally, and experienced first hand what some of the people on both sides of the issue suffered as a result of the political process that led up to the vote approving the reading of the statement, and the subsequent trial. Her account in The Devil in Dover is less focused on the legal issues, and more concerned with the effects of the trial on the personal lives of the people involved. It becomes clear from her account that there were no “winners” in this dispute, at least not insofar as individuals on one side or the other emerged from the trial unscathed. In her opinion (and in Humes’), science was the winner in the Dover trial, but at a significant cost to the participants on both sides of the dispute.

The NOVA video, Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, focuses primarily on the political and scientific issues in play in the Dover trial. As is the case in most Federal courts, photography and video recording of the trial were not allowed. Therefore, the producers of Judgement Day used dramatizations of key testimony in the trial to illustrate not only the content of the testimony, but to also give a flavor of how the testimony was presented and received.

Of these dramatizations, perhaps the most effective is that of intelligent design theorist Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University. Behe’s own evaluation of his testimony immediately after he presented it was that it would decisively carry the day for intelligent design, not only in the Dover case, but in American society in general. However, it is clear while watching the dramatization that exactly the opposite was the case: Behe’s testimony was devastating, not only to his own credibility as an expert witness, but also to the reputation of intelligent design as a science.

Taken together, these two books and video present both the essential facts and the personal and social impact of the Dover “monkey trial”. In my opinion, they are probably as close to an unbiased account as has appeared in the popular press since Judge Jones issued his historic decision in December, 2005. Readers who are interested in the legal details can read Judge Jones’ 138 page decision online here and consult the transcripts of the trial, available online here. Readers who are interested in how such a trial affects the participants would do well to read Humes’ and Lebo’s accounts, both of which are sympathetic to participants on both sides of the controversy.

There is one very important difference between the outcome of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” and the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover “intelligent design” trial: in 1925, John T. Scopes was convicted of having violated the Butler Act, which made the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Tennessee illegal. In 2005, the Dover Area School Board’s requirement that the statement at the beginning of this review be read was ruled unconstitutional, along with any inclusion of “intelligent design theory” in biology classes in the public schools of the Middle District of the Federal Circuit Court of Pennsylvania.

This difference marks a tectonic shift in the legal status of evolutionary theory versus creationism in the United States. What the two books and the video reviewed here also illustrate is how such shifts also involve personal and social costs (not to mention the huge monetary cost of pursing such complex legal cases) in the communities in which such court cases are tried. If history is any guide, the Dover trial will not be the last battle in the “evolution wars”. However, it does mark the “high tide” to date of science versus religion in American public education.

Judge Jones’ decision should be required reading for anyone concerned about science education in America. The NOVA video, Judgement Day, provides an excellent dramatization of the core of the legal dispute in the Dover case. Humes’ and Lebo’s books should be read by anyone concerned about the effects of injecting religion into science classes, both on the students, the teachers, and the communities in which all of them live. I recommend them all with the highest possible praise.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 8/03/2008 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Ferran Sancho said...

I lived one year in Tennessee and when the lesson of evolution of Darwin came, the teacher said that to teach that lesson was not legal in that state so he skiped to the next lesson.

Was he right?

I live in Spain, and here everybody believes in Darwinism

At 8/03/2008 12:14:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

It was indeed illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Tennessee from 1925 until 1967. The Butler Act was a 1925 Tennessee law forbidding public school teachers to deny the literal Biblical account of man’s origin and to teach in its place the evolution of man from lower orders of animals. However, the Butler Act did not prohibit the teaching of any evolutionary theory of any other species of plant or animal. It was repealed by the Tennessee legislature in 1967, in response to a lawsuit brought by a public school science teacher who disagreed with the prohibition mandated by the law.

At 8/03/2008 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

By the way, it was the Butler Act that resulted in John T. Scopes being arrested and charged with teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. This led to the famous "Scopes monkey trial", at the conclusion of which Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. His conviction was the desired outcome by the ACLU (they wanted to appeal his conviction to the United States Supreme Court), but ironically it was overturned on a technicality, and so the Butler Act remained on the books unchallenged until 1967.

At 8/06/2008 12:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What bothers me in these cases is not so much the insistance an the inclusion of ID in science class (because it's such an absurb notion that I can't take it seriously), but rather the persistent misunderstanding of the term "theory." Would anyone insist on a disclaimer for Earth Science teachers when teaching plate tectonics? After all, that, too, is "just" a theory. Maybe I'm just impatient - maybe plate tectonics will be the next target after this pesky evolution business is dealt with.

At 2/11/2009 03:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, believe it or not, I've even heard arguments against plate tectonics by creationists. I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of it. It just amazes me what some people will deny because of religious beliefs.

At 1/30/2010 02:25:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I an an evolutionist who is concerned about a few aspects of the Dover ID case - (a) I would suggest that ID proponents are 99% in favour of Darwin's evolution, excepting that man came from apes. Miller beautifully puts that argument to bed re his discussion on 24 chromosomes fusing to 23. I believe they would agree with Darwin if that wasn't a part of the theory as this is counter to creationism. But this cannot be done. (b) the total lack of understanding by the general non-scientific world of what a 'theory' in science is. Facts support or don't support a theory. The average person thinks facts are more important. In science, this is not true. We need educating on this and (c) Pat Robertson's (evangelist) comments regarding Dover rejecting god, when the ID people at trial were trying to prove that it was not religious.


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