August 8, 2005

You Say You Want an Evolution

Well you know we all want a supernatural intervention to change the world. Gelf recommends some background reading to get up to speed on the debate over intelligent design.

Aaron Zamost

Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the argument over science and religion has re-emerged from the swamps of the American South. This should not come as a surprise to anyone—the world's origins have been debated since the beginning of time. (You know, for at least, like, 6,000 years or so.) Some recent examples:

•In 1999 the Kansas State Board of Education voted to eliminate from state science-education standards any references to biological macroevolution, the age of the Earth, or the origin and early development of the universe. Two years later, the board restored evolution as a central theory in science classes.

•In 2004, the Georgia school superintendent proposed replacing the word "evolution" in the state-science curriculum with the phrase "biological changes over time." The plan was rejected (CNN).

•And in May, Atlanta school officials placed stickers on science textbooks that stated, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things." The stickers were eventually removed (MSNBC).

President Bush lurched out of the primordial ooze this week to reignite the debate. When a Texas reporter asked the president to offer his personal views about evolution and intelligent design, Bush responded, "That decision should be made to local school districts, but I [feel] like both sides ought to be properly taught."

Intelligent design should not be taught in science classes; there is no room for the untestable in a discipline rooted in observable results and the scientific method. But if you're going to bring ID to the classroom, then teachers must also address the creation myths of Buddhism (an egg and the birth of the giant Pangu), Hinduism (Vishnu's navel and the growth of a magnificent lotus flower), and those of every major American Indian tribal group, including the Navajo, the Inuit, the Hopi, and the Iroquois (in which the world was formed on the back of a giant turtle). Why should a Hindu child be forced to learn about Christian creationism—of which intelligent design appears to be a thinly veiled replica—and not vice versa? If we're going to discuss in our classrooms the theory that God created the universe, then it is a violation of the Establishment clause if the Judeo-Christian God is the only one listed in the syllabus.

Gelf knows it's good to have some background knowledge of major issues, if for no other reason than to impress people with your lively cocktail-party banter. There are several ways to become more familiar with current events. For example:

To learn more about the secret conclave to select a successor to Pope John Paul II, many aspiring religious scholars read Horace Mann's papal history The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages.

Others, including some at Fox News, read Dan Brown's bestseller Angels and Demons.

As a service to our readers, Gelf's very own book nerd, Aaron Zamost, will present two books relevant to the evolution debate: one for people who enjoy reading Tom Robbins—and another for those who like Tony Robbins. It's a lot like the "What's Hot" fashion section of US Weekly, but without all that crap about Lindsay Lohan.


Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, by Edward Larson

The title of this book is somewhat misleading—not much of Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winner is about the "continuing" debate over science and religion. Summer for the Gods is instead almost entirely a detailed account of what really happened during the famous Scopes monkey trial in 1920s Tennessee, in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes was charged with illegally teaching evolution. It is an excellent companion piece to Inherit the Wind, especially since most people's knowledge of the trial comes entirely from having been forced to read the play in high school.

Larson's main purpose in this book is to de-romanticize both the trial and the motivations of those who brought it such publicity. For example, fundamentalism, Larson claims, formed as a response to "theological developments within the Protestant church rather than to political or educational developments within American society." The anti-evolution crusade was never the central philosophy of conservative Christians; teaching biblical fundamentals in divinity schools and churches was initially more important than opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools. Larson also downplays the legal implications of the trial, and rightly so: As it turns out, Scopes was pretty much just a patsy for the American Civil Liberties Union, since he was guilty by a mile and later convicted by the court. (Larson's best chapter, entitled. "Retelling the Tale," summarizes how the trial achieved a mythical status that seriously warped what actually happened, in both a legal and social sense.)

Larson's greatest strength is his objectivity. He refuses to frame the science/religion debate as Crazy Fundamentalists v. Compassionate Humanitarians, or as Values-Conscious Southerners v. Pagan Liberals. This mindfulness is most apparent in Larson's portrayal of prosecution witness William Jennings Bryan (Wikipedia) as a fantastic fusion of stubbornness and progressivism. Bryan is clearly the star of the book, and his rendering offers insight into—believe it or not—the kind of political moderation Thomas Frank is begging of conservatives in What's the Matter with Kansas? Larson's treatment of the principals (Bryan and defense attorney Clarence Darrow) creates a very real understanding of the personal motivations that drive both faith and anticlericalism. His ability to explain issues large and small makes Summer of the Gods one of the best books written about the evolution of the evolution debate.

Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boulle

Long before Dr. Zaius pried Linda Harrison from Charlton Heston's cold dead hands, Planet of the Apes was actually a book. Perhaps Senator Rick Santorum will require that it be read in public schools the next time he chooses to amend education-funding bills to include references to intelligent design (Wikipedia). In Planet of the Apes, astronauts on holiday in space discover a planet in the distant galaxy just like Earth. They realize rather quickly that after a supernatural designer finished intervening in the origin of earth life, He must have become seriously bored, because on this planet, He set in motion a mechanism for the directed, intelligent creation of ape-humans. And I don't mean the type of "ape" humans that may or not have come from apes. We're talking actual ape-humans.

Unlike in the film, the protagonist in the book's interstellar odyssey is named—surprise!—Ulysse. As you can guess, Boulle doesn't leave much to the imagination; he ditches the subtlety of missing links and chooses instead to beat readers over the head with a few obvious metaphors: The hero fights a conservative, dogmatic government of fat-headed apes; the apes subject caged humans to malicious, scientific experiments. Planet of the Apes is social criticism for those who thought Pleasantville was a thoughtful dialogue about race relations. [Man, I'm a jerk.]

Even so, Boulle is widely regarded as underrated. He won a screenplay Oscar for Bridge Over the River Kwai and many readers believe that Planet is his best book. Of course, many of those readers are damned dirty apes, but you get the point.

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Article by Aaron Zamost

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