Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Review: 40 Days and 40 Nights

Thanks to HarperCollins Firstlook program, I was granted a proof copy of Matthew Chapman’s (brilliant, if biased) new book, 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities On Trial In Pennsylvania. The book chronicles the events of the Kitzmiller v Dover trial in 2005, in which parents sued their local school board in order to keep Intelligent Design–what Chapman calls Creationism’s “college-educated offspring”–out of public school science classes.

I has no idea this book would be as funny as it was; I was expecting a dull recounting of the trial in the manner of an old Law&Order episode. That was hardly the case. Chapman–himself the great-great-grandson of the Charles Darwin–writes with the intellectual curiosity of an outsider looking in and wondering, “What the hell is going on?”–and then he finds out. More than a simple retelling of a court case, 40 Days and 40 Nights tells a fuller tale of all the players involved; from the background leading to the schoolboard’s decision to mandate teaching of Intelligent Design, to the personal lives and beliefs of the teachers, parents, and boardmembers–even revealing the apathy of the students who would be most affected by the outcome of the trial.

One might be surprised, as I was, to find that the major witnesses, lawyers, etc, on both sides, were predominantly self-professed “religious” people. Many of the witnesses and attorneys on both sides were Catholic. The judge himself was a George W. Bush appointee. And yet science itself was the winner in the trial. The Kitzmiller trial was portrayed in the media in one of two ways: as a major battle in the quest for scientific integrity in our schools, or as a social battleground between religion and reason. Chapman paints the characters in a more personal manner, revealing a diversity of opinion, background, and reasoning that was never fully divulged in newspaper accounts. The revelations are fascinating indeed. Indeed, more than one teacher had no objection to ID being taught in a comparative religion or philosophy class, it was ID’s proponents’ insistence that it is science that was the sticking point. And as is typical, it was the zealots who could not see reason. Chapman’s one-on-one interviews with the plaintiffs and defendants gives real insight into the motivation behind the drive to teach ID as science, and the outrageous behavior of a petulant schoolboard who put their own religious beliefs ahead of their students’ educational needs. And their replacement by a truly bipartisan schoolboard was a sign of the triumph of reason–this time.

Perhaps more disturbing than the apparent ease with which creationists captured the school board was the fact that when asked to define ID, most board members could not. Including Bill Buckingham, board president and local driving force for ID:

He knew nothing about evolution or intelligent design, and when asked to give a
definition of the latter he gave a pretty fair definition of the former.

And including another witless witness for the defense, once referred to as Jane Cleaver, once as June Cleaver. (I’m unsure if that was a typo or intentional humor):

Jane, the former owner of a five-and-dime, seemed like a nice old dear, but she
did not even know the name of the theory she supported, constantly referring to
intelligent design as intelligence design.

I’ll say no more.

All in all I found this to be a highly enjoyable book–a quick read with humor, science, wit and charm. While obviously written with some disdain for the easily led, Chapman shows us a part of America we might be unconsciously avoiding–at our own peril.

1 comment:

scripto said...

Yeah, Chapman's very good. I liked it better than Slack's book about the trial and I'm looking forward to reading Lebo's. I live a couple of hills over from Dover and read a lot of her stuff during the trial in the York paper. You might want to check out Mike Argento's skewering of the local yokels. He pretty much nails it.

I don't think the Dover voters threw out the incumbents in the interest of good science education. It was more the embarrassment of Bonsell and Buckingham coming across as a pair of lying ass clowns during the trial and the million dollars the board wasted defending an indefensible policy.