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Earl Doherty

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The Banality of Ignorance
Comments on a Harper's magazine account of the "Dover Monkey Trial"
(February 6, 2006)


    During the century and a half since the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, we have witnessed the waging of a great struggle between history and myth, between knowledge and superstition. In recent decades it has come to focus on a pitched battle between creationism and evolution, and what should be taught in the schools. There have been many attempts by Christian fundamentalists in the United States to introduce the teaching of creationism into the science classroom; most have failed, or succeeded only temporarily.  But in their relentless determination and never-ending inventiveness, creationists have lately come up with "Intelligent Design." Never mind that ID amounts to nothing more than claiming flaws or gaps in evolutionary theory and then introducing ID as the default victor, with no evidentiary support or scientific basis of its own. The same tired old strategy is being repeated yet again. Get fundamentalist supporters onto school boards, force ID and its 'textbooks' onto the curriculum, and proceed to undermine the scientific education of the nation.
     Fortunately, at each such sally onto the battlefield by fundamentalist forces, it is met by an equally determined force of concerned citizens and organizations like the ACLU. The latest battle lines were drawn inside a courtroom in Dover, Pennsylvania, where a lawsuit was brought against the Dover Area School District before a judge by eleven Dover parents represented by the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
     The latest issue of Harper's, February 2006, contains an entertaining account of the proceedings ("God or Gorilla: A Darwin descendant at the Dover monkey trial," by Matthew Chapman, whose great-great-grandfather was none other than Charles Darwin himself). By way of background, accompanied by a bit of tongue-in-cheek, Chapman provides some disturbing data:

     According to a recent U.S. poll, 54 percent of American adults now dispute that man developed from earlier species, which is a 10 percent increase since the last poll, in 1994. Scientists must bear some responsibility for this: they just don't seem able to provide entertainment the way the other side can. When did you last hear a scientist come up with anything as fun or contentious as man of God Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez? Why haven't we seen a man of science on TV asking Bush to explain why God, being such a great pal, gave him such lousy intelligence on the WMDs, or demanding an explanation for all the gaps and contradictions in the biblical record?

     The main 'heavy' in the Dover school board affair was Bill Buckingham, chair of the curriculum committee, an "ex-cop and corrections officer," who at a board meeting in 2004, rejected purchase of a textbook on biology because it was "laced with Darwinism," and "it's inexcusable to teach from a book that says man descended from apes and monkeys." He wanted to substitute an intelligent design tome called Of Pandas and People. Even though voted down, various bullying tactics were used to make sure the ninth-grade students got to hear about the latter, which was made available in school libraries. Discrediting comments, over the protests of teachers, were delivered to students about the "theory" of evolution.
    At the hearing which took place in late 2005, after witnesses for evolution had their say, defenders of Intelligent Design gave testimony and underwent cross-examination. Before I was finished Chapman's account of such testimony, I was struck by a comparison with another, quite different trial. When the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1961 and brought him to Israel to stand trial for his role in the murder of millions of Jews during the Second World War, Hannah Arendt, covering that trial, coined the now-famous phrase: "the banality of evil." As it happens, I recently saw a documentary on the Eichmann trial, and I could see her point. The chief architect of the Holocaust, the organizer of its transport and the designer of its death camps, came across as nothing so much as a cipher, an overblown bureaucrat. He was no fiery demagogue like Hitler, nor seemingly filled with great hatred and zealotry against the Jews. His bland demeanor and lack of sophistication was numbing. Indeed, he claimed to be doing nothing so much as following orders, working to the best of his bureaucratic abilities in the spirit of obedience to his superiors. (This was greeted with skepticism, and certain evidence in his own words recorded during the War compromised the picture he sought to convey; but such a picture may not have been that far wrong, prompting Arendt's evaluation. It did not, however, prevent him from being sent to the gallows the following year.)
     Now, I would never rush to equate creationists with Nazis (though Eichmann in more of his own words recorded during the War said that when confronted with the unpleasantries of his task, he would distract his mind by reciting lines from a Christian creed, and U.S. Dominionists have stated that if they were to gain power they would institute biblical law, such as the stoning of adulterers and blasphemers). Yet a comparison of sorts did strike me as I read some of the defendants' testimony. Take, for example, that of Heather Geesey, a Dover school board member who supported Buckingham and the teaching of ID. Chapman quoted this exchange from the hearing:

     [ACLU lawyer Vic Walczak] asked Geesey if she supported the teaching of intelligent design. "Yes." "Because it gave a balanced view of evolution?" "Yes." "It presented an alternative theory?" "Yes." "And the policy talks about gaps and problems with evolution?" "Yes." "You don't know what those gaps and problems refer to, do you?" "No." "But it's good to teach about those gaps and problems?" "That's our mission statement, yes." "But you have no idea what they are?" "It's not my job, no." "Is it fair to say that you didn't know much about intelligent design in October of 2004?" "Yes." "And you didn't know much about the book Of Pandas and People either, did you?" "Correct." "So you had never participated in any discussions of the book?" "No." "And you made no effort independently to find out about the book?" "No."..."And no one ever explained to you what intelligent design was about." "No." This went on for quite a while, Geesey grinning throughout as if her ignorance was just the cutest thing, until finally, still smiling happily, she stated that she had relied on the curriculum committeeBill Buckingham and Alan Bonsellto make the decision. "And do you know whether Mr. Buckingham has a background in science?" "No, I do not." "Do you know that in fact he doesn't have a background in science?" "I don't know. He's law enforcement, so I would assume he had to take something along the way."
     So this was the genesis of the whole thing: an auto repairman appointed an OxyContin-addicted biblical literalist without a shred of knowledge to decide which books the kids should learn from, and a woman who had no curiosity about anything, even her own most deeply held beliefs, seconded the whole idea.

The aforementioned Alan Bonsell, auto repairman and president of the Dover school board, had this to say:

     "Did I ever think about it? I think about a lot of things." He admitted that his own personal views about the universe were based on the first two chapters of Genesis but said that at no time had he tried to get creationism into the science class. He believed evolution should be taught, but "when they don't include, you know, problems with it or gaps in a theory, I mean, and you teach it, it almost sounds like they're teaching it as fact."
     When asked to come up with an example, he said he'd "seen things on different subjects of how bears turn into whales, you know, this was a natural scientific theory, which I just thought was absurd. There's also statistical things that I've read about how the statistical probability of life happening by itself was basically impossible."

As for Bill Buckingham, Chapman recounted his appearance before the court:

     Buckingham, a 1973 graduate of the Penn State Police Academy, had attended the FBI criminal investigation school. Before he retired, he was a supervisor at York County Prison.
     He testified in a low, mildly surly voice, a whine of self-pity always present underneath. He was unashamedly ignorant and utterly devoid of curiosity. He believed, he stated, in a literal reading of the Book of Genesis. He knew almost nothing about evolution except that "it's happenstance, it just happened," and soon revealed an equal ignorance of intelligent design. "I just know that it's another scientific theory that we thought would be good to have presented to the students."
     Worse even than his ignorance were his lies. The most important part of his testimony, and the source of one of the most dramatic moments in court, was his contention that neither he nor board president Alan Bonsell had ever used the word "creationism" in the afore-mentioned school board meetings. They had been fixed on the scientific theory of intelligent design from the start. Their intent had never been religious. The reporters had lied....
     Harvey [the cross-examining attorney] asked him if he'd mind looking at exhibit P-145. The Wizard of Oz tapped a few buttons and there was Buckingham being interviewed by a local TV news reporter outside a school board meeting at which the current biology book had just been discussed.
     "The book that was presented to me," Buckingham said on the video, "was laced with Darwinism from beginning to end. It's okay to teach Darwin, but you have to balance it with something else, such as creationism."...
     During this testimony, if you looked to the back of the court you could see Bonsell, president of the school board, grinning as Buckingham screwed things up. It hardly seemed to matter to him. Their case could not be damaged. God was on their side.

     Another blatant lie that Buckingham and Bonsell were caught in concerned the sixty copies of Of Pandas and People which were "anonymously donated" to the Dover High School library. Under oath at his deposition, Bonsell had declared that he did not know who the donor was. It turned out, and was revealed during the trial, that Buckingham had solicited donations at his church, which were turned over to Bonsell's father, who had bought the books and given them to the school. Other lies in the various testimonies were evident, and this was one of the reasons why Judge John E. Jones III, on December 20, 2005, found in favor of the plaintiffs and

ruled that the defendants' intelligent design policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a withering 139-page opinion, he found that the goal of the intelligent design movement is religious in nature, that intelligent design is not science and cannot be taught in Dover schools, and that the board's claimed reason for including intelligent design in the curriculumsolely because it was good sciencewas a "sham." In referring to board members, he used such words as "striking ignorance" and "breathtaking inanity." Additionally, he wrote that Buckingham and Bonsell "had either testified inconsistently, or lied outright under oath on several occasions," and that "It is ironic that several of these individuals who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy."

Chapman also treated us to an account of one evening's visit to a show put on at the Dover firehouse by a local preacher named Reverend Groves

that consisted of him showing a DVD entitled "More Reasons Evolution Is Stupid." The producer and star of the DVD is a man named Kent Hovind, an ex-science teacher, a.k.a. Doctor Dino, who owns a creationist theme park down in Pensacola, Florida. Hovind would throw up an aspect of evolution (that apes and man share a common ancestor, say), with the addition of enough complex-sounding science to make himself seem well-informed, and then dismiss it with the line "That's stupid!" or "I'm sorry, boys and girls, but that's not common sense, that's just stupid!"...
     A few days later I interviewed Reverend Groves for a documentary film I was shooting.... By this time, it was public knowledge that I was an offspring of Darwin, and in the course of the interview it became apparent to me, really for the first time, how hated the poor old codger is. People such as Groves believe that Darwin marks a point in history from which materialism sprang, bringing with it Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, pot, sex, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, and everything else nasty in the world....
     As Groves had shown no restraint in taking a whack at my ancestor, I felt no compunction in whacking back and asked him some of the questions [Clarence] Darrow asked [William Jennings] Bryan at the end of the Scopes trial [in 1925]. Was Jonah really swallowed by a whale? Yes. How did Joshua "command the sun to stand still" when we know that the earth goes around the sun and that stopping it would be disastrous? That's what a miracle is. Were the six days of creation literal days, and how old is the earth? Bryan, when pushed, conceded that perhaps the six days could have been symbolic, and on the subject of the age of the earth pleaded a pathetic ignorance. "I have been so well satisfied with the Christian religion," Bryan said, "That I have spent no time trying to find argument against it." But Groves was made of sterner stuff. He was unashamed of a literal reading of Genesis and an earth that was only 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Carbon dating was nonsense. And that was that.   

     And these are the sort of people, with this sort of education, with this sort of argument to back themselves up, who have managed to turn science education in the United States (and to some extent in Canada) upside down, to have the very word "evolution" become virtually extinct in biology and science textbooks, who infiltrate school boards to interfere with curriculums, who complain to school principals when teachers dare to speak a range of forbidden words and concepts to their students, who achieve election to legislatures and attempt to pass laws and govern society according to their faith-driven convictions. For the most part, their ignorance is staggering, their closed-mindedness frightening, their naive and unquestioning confidence in their holy scripture impenetrable. The lies in evidence during the Dover hearing were only the tip of the iceberg in this field, for creationists of all stripes are notorious for their misrepresentation not only of their own position, but that of evolutionary science and scientists. Both the title and the content of a hard-hitting expose on the matter says it all: "Telling Lies For God" by Ian Plimer (Random House Australia, 1994), a book I would highly recommend.
     Recently, while browsing through another excellent book on the subject, "Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism" by Philip Kitcher (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1982), it suddenly struck me, when reading a particular argument against an aspect of the creationist case, that the author, and so many others like him, are simply wasting their breath, so far as creationists and their like-minded supporters are concerned. The latter's actual knowledge is so limited, has been so compromised by religious dogma, that they are impervious to any argument, evidence, or science. Kitcher and others are essentially writing to the converted, demonstrating to us that we are right and that creationism is wrong. This is not to say that such writings are not valuable and necessary, if only to wake up
and enlistthose of the general population who have retained the capacity to think for themselves. So much of the intellectual vigor and integrity of our society has been waylaid by a widespread ignorance that is truly banal, and it is time that we recognized the full extent of the disaster that threatens to overtake us.

Addendum: In the interests of fairness, it should be noted that one of the witnesses for the defense was the well-known exponent of Intelligent Design (in some respects, its originator, although ID is essentially the latest reworking of a creationism argument that goes back two centuries), Michael Behe. As a biochemist and professor of biology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Behe can hardly be labeled "ignorant," and yet his argument of "irreducible complexity" has been answered many times by evolutionary biologists. About Behe's appearance at the hearing, Chapman had these remarks:

     Although the concept of irreducible complexity is sold as "brand new," it is in fact more "like new." It began with religious philosopher William Paley's 1802 argument about someone finding a watch and inferring that there had to be a watchmaker. The argument now also includes reaching the same conclusion while looking at Mount Rushmore or seeing "John Loves Mary" written in the sand.... [E.D.: The "watch" argument is also somewhat guilty of begging the question. We know that watches and Mount Rushmore are human constructions; there is no possibility within our experience that they could be naturally evolving phenomena, and thus our minds are influenced accordingly when considering this analogy. On the other hand, whether the universe and life are constructions or natural phenomena is the issue under debate; we do not know a priori that they are one or the other, but must decide on the evidence. The watch and Mount Rushmore comparison is thus misleading.]
     My second thought was that if you looked back at the history of science, you could point to any number of things that, given our knowledge at the time, seemed possible only through the intervention of God but that later turned out to have natural explanations even Behe accepted. I missed the point, he told meand told Rothschild later during cross: the bacterial flagellum is not only complex, it is irreducibly complex. In other words, if you removed one element of it, none of the others had function, and so the whole could not have developed by natural selection but must have been abruptly created with all its parts in place. In this context, the mousetrap was often cited. [E.D.: This argument has been answered by evolutionists many times, and in many ways. One very interesting answer appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer, November / December 2005, "Does Irreducible Complexity Imply Intelligent Design?" Author Mark Perakh argues: "In fact, such a conclusion lacks a logical foundation. Irreducible complexity can even more reasonably be construed as an argument against Intelligent Design."]
     On the stand, Behe sat forward in his chair, earnest and concentrated. Only once did I see him lose his composure. This was when Rothschild revealed that Behe's own department at Lehigh had issued a statement saying it fully supported evolutionary theory and that

The sole dissenter from this position, Professor Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of intelligent design. While we respect Professor Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

Behe put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, smiling defiantly. He looked like a naughty child who had told his mother he'd seen a ghost and wouldn't budge from the story no matter what. I couldn't help wondering what Behe would be without intelligent design. The scientific community may despise him, but he is beloved on the other side. He gets invited to talk all over the country, and he has sold a lot of books.


Earl Doherty



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