I didn't expect to be surprised by Edward Humes' "Monkey Girl." In many ways, I'd already lived it. My teenage years were spent in a relatively rural area of East Texas, where a God of a decidedly fundamentalist stripe held sway. A pastor's view seemed behind nearly everything my peers said and about half of what they did. Although I wasn't particularly religious, religion was not something I could escape. To date that pretty girl, I had to go a few rounds at her father's Baptist church. When a good friend of mine -- the first to get me drunk -- found Jesus, he expected me to come along for the ride.
So I know the pervasive power of religious fundamentalism in America. Or at least I thought I did. Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has opened my eyes. I only wish I could close them again.
"Monkey Girl" is the story of the Dover, Pa., school board's attempt in 2004 to "balance" the well-tested scientific theory of evolution with a faith-based version of human origins. The board's headlong plunge into an expensive legal battle for the souls of Dover's young people makes for an explosive and colorful read. The contest pitted a pregnant Sunday-school teacher, who knew religion when she saw it and didn't want it in science class, against a former cop steeped in creationism and OxyContin. His withdrawal from the drug would be blamed for some of the less-than-Christian treatment of his evolutionarily inclined opponents, who were verbally and profanely bludgeoned for trying to keep Dover's science classrooms religion-free.
Although Humes attempts to keep an even keel in reporting on this maelstrom, he clearly has a hard time finding much good to say about some of evolution's opponents, expressing amazement at the "near-total incuriosity and ignorance" of a board member who admitted "chirpily" on the stand that she was opposed to a science she didn't understand and was helping to ram through a creationist textbook she had never actually read. Such displays, he adds, shocked even the presiding judge, a conservative jurist and devout Christian -- and, indeed, he ended by ruling against the school board.
Humes is a good storyteller, and "Monkey Girl" (the title refers to the epithet schoolmates hurled at the daughter of one of the board's opponents) is full of vivid descriptions and interesting facts. Were you aware, for instance, that the 1925 Scopes trial, a litmus test for a Tennessee law that criminalized the teaching of evolution, was ginned up at a Dayton, Tenn., drugstore by town leaders who wanted to revive Dayton's moribund economy with a show trial? John T. Scopes, the high school football coach and a part-time science teacher, agreed to help, Humes writes, because "it sounded like great fun."
Where Humes especially shines is in his careful explication of the history of this larger fight over how human beings arose and what God's role -- if any -- was in their creation. The Dover case was more than simply a reflection of the poor state of the U.S. educational system or an illumination of how religion and science might collide in one small town. Instead, Humes explains, it was the latest salvo in a long-standing war on evolutionary thought that can be traced back to 1859 and Charles Darwin's seminal work on the subject, "The Origin of Species" -- a book that, in the eyes of most believers, threatened to turn God's masterpiece into "nothing more than a happy accident ... no better (or worse) than a marsupial or mollusk."
Though it's easy to see why Darwin's theory continues to agitate those inclined toward biblical literalism, Humes points out that many faiths -- Roman Catholicism, for example -- have come to terms with evolution. Those who don't accept Darwin's premise often mischaracterize it; for instance, Darwin never said that human beings were descended from monkeys, despite this favored refrain of the creationists. Humes also notes that those who embrace the Bible's account of human origins might find more contradictions or gaps there than they would like. Though the Bible's moral lessons are timeless, Genesis, if taken literally, soon becomes contradictory, claiming at one point that man and woman were created simultaneously and at another that Eve was made sometime later, from Adam's rib.