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Debating Darwin: Two new books take a look

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``Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial'' by Marvin Olasky and John Perry; Broadman & Holman ($24.99)

``The Evolution-Creation Struggle'' by Michael Ruse; Harvard University ($25.95)


A few years ago, a young neighbor confronted me as I was mowing the yard. Evidently, I'd been portrayed to him as the local skeptic. "You know," he announced, "evolution is just a theory."

He had me there. Evolution is indeed a theory. But then, Albert Einstein's relativity is, too. So I explained that he shouldn't stick a finger into a wall socket to test whether the Comanche Peak nuclear plant really worked or not.

Many of us still take "theory" to mean "hunch," when in science, it is closer to "a system of well-founded assumptions." That basic misunderstanding characterizes much of our oldest culture war, the still-fractious firefight between creationism and evolution. Witness two new, very different histories that trace the trenches of this battlefield right up to the present.

Marvin Olasky and John Perry's ``Monkey Business'' assumes most of us don't know what really happened at the 1925 "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tenn. The same could be said about much of our history, but this ignorance has shaped the popular image of creationists' "countrified imbecility" vs. the wise evolutionists. In fact, the trial was hardly a defeat for creationism. The Darwinians won the image battle among the educated, but several states and school boards quickly ditched Darwin.

And the public relations victory was not due to evolution's validity, either, the authors argue. Biased journalists such as H.L. Mencken got the Dayton story wrong, plus there was the influential play-turned-film, ``Inherit the Wind.''

So Monkey Business'' sets out to expose, as its subtitle says,The True Story of the Scopes Trial'' - with the implication that the news will be revelatory.

But little of it is news to anyone who has paid attention. To cite a small, typical example, the Scopes trial was a "media event," concocted by the tourism-hungry town leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union, out to challenge the state's anti-evolution law. John Scopes may never have even taught Darwin. ``Monkey Business'' is dryly outraged by of all this, yet it was uncovered decades ago. Authors such as Garry Wills and Stephen Jay Gould have discussed it. A History Channel program dealt with it, as well.

To their credit, Perry and Olasky, the Texas journalism professor best known as the Bush adviser behind "compassionate conservatism," provide an accurate account of the trial, once we discount their efforts at spin.

But the "true story" of Monkey Business'' is that the monkey trial is mostly a pretext for the book's advocacy of biblical literalism. Olasky has promoted "faith-based initiatives," and this counts as one.Monkey Business'' makes much of Darwin's Anglican anxiety, his desire to separate God from a natural world that Darwin saw as driven by brutal competition. Why would a benevolent deity devise such a dog-eat-dog existence?

This implies, though, that evolution has a theological component, the authors note. And at the very least, evolution does presuppose a "hands off" deity. But this would mean that evolution has no special standing in science class. It, too, is a "faith-based initiative."

The catch here is that all science presupposes a "hands off" deity. No miracles are allowed to monkey up the lab results. What ``Monkey Business'' actually underscores is not religion but politics. A scientific-religious issue is being argued in courts and school boards, as if they ever could settle one's faith in God or what hominid line led to homo sapiens. Which is why Americans are still fighting about this while the rest of the scientific world has moved on.

In this political struggle, Darwinians have relied on the courts to bar the unconstitutional use of tax money to teach religion. But in doing so, they have fueled widespread (and often Southern, regional) resentments against "elitist experts" and "activist judges."

Creationists, meanwhile, tend to appeal to school boards and the public, knowing they can sway a popular vote. Science isn't based on votes, but political careers are. The well-funded conservative push to teach both intelligent design and evolution is the latest such popular appeal.

In all this, Olasky and Perry approvingly cite Michael Ruse, a philosophy professor who made the "evolution-religion" argument above. What's more, Ruse's new book, ``The Evolution-Creation Struggle,'' charges many evolutionists with being their own worst enemies, alienating devout supporters with an acidic atheism.

So the surprise is that The Evolution-Creation Struggle'' is a rich, thoughtful overview, far wiser than the stacked deck ofMonkey Business.'' A Quaker, Ruse is sympathetic to people's efforts to reconcile religion and reason, but he's also well-versed in science. ``Struggle'' is a succinct but nuanced history of ideas, tacking back and forth between the origins of biblical inerrancy and Darwinism.

Ultimately, he faces the question of whether intelligent design is a science. Because it makes no reference to God or Genesis, should it be taught with evolution?

Consider evolution first. Darwin developed it 150 years ago, before Mendelian genetics, DNA testing and plate tectonics. These involve whole areas of science unknown to Darwin, yet they confirmed and expanded his theory.

ID, in contrast, is an odd science in that it leads nowhere. It has generated no useful experiments. With DNA, we have an amazing creation, supposedly too complex for random mutation to shape. So why is it a mess? What designer came up with all of these redundancies and old, useless bits? ID doesn't just fail to offer answers; it doesn't even provide avenues of research.

Ruse concludes with a sweeping rejection: "We find no empirical or conceptual reason whatsoever to think of intelligent design theory as genuine science."

What we have in creationism vs. evolution is a metaphysical argument, he writes, "a struggle for the hearts and souls of people." Which is why it has become a political campaign to wedge the Bible back into public schools. And this is why, justifiably, many scientists and teachers have been up in arms.

Rather like someone had just jammed their fingers into a socket.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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