Monkey Girl and teaching evolution in the US

I’ve just finished Monkey Girl by Edward Humes, an account of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case about the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design in biology lessons. I was slightly underwhelmed by the book—you can read my review here—but the subject is interesting. How do you manage science education in a country where so many believe that the mainstream scientific orthodoxy is not just false but offensive and morally suspect?

If you have to resort to the court system and the separation of church and state to keep evolution in the classroom, and creationism out, you’ve already lost. It seems clear that teaching religious beliefs in state-run schools is unconstitutional, and that principle is worth defending; but evolution should be taught in biology lessons not because it’s the secular option, but because it’s what working biologists believe to be true. Teaching anything else isn’t just a victory for religion over secularism, it represents a complete collapse of respect for education and scholarship.

And although keeping religion out of the classroom is vital, it sounds like the equally important battle to keep evolution being taught is nearly lost. Even in places where evolution is specified on the curriculum, it sounds like many or most biology teachers teach as little evolution as possible and glide over the most potentially controversial areas of speciation and human origins; not necessarily because they themselves doubt evolution but because they know it will create too much awkwardness with the parents.

Since I am occasionally fairly forceful about my atheism, I imagine this post might come across as part of that, but really it’s not. It’s as an enthusiast for natural history that I find this most troubling. Children should be exposed to the ideas of natural selection and evolution because they are beautiful, surprising and have enormous explanatory power even about the most directly observable life around you. Of all the great theories of science, natural selection is the most approachable by an interested amateur. It can be explained without reference to mathematics. The subject matter—birds, fish, people—can be seen without the aid of a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. Of course the study of modern biology gets you on to statistics, biochemistry, genetics, radiometric dating and other more technical disciplines, but an enormous amount of the study of evolution was done, and is still being done, by direct observation of easily approachable things: digging up fossils, dissecting animals, breeding pea-plants, watching finches.

Monkey Girl by Edward Humes

This book is about the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to put Intelligent Design into the biology curriculum and the ensuing trial that ruled it a breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

It’s interesting enough, but not particularly special. Perhaps they were keen to get to press quickly and the book is less finished than it could be. Specifically I think it lacks a clear focus or narrative; it spends too much time going over the history of legal conflicts over teaching creationism, and makes that background rather dry. It doesn’t really get any momentum until it gets on to the trial itself in the second half of the book, which is quite well done.

In terms of the balance these kinds of books have to strike between lively reporting and melodrama, I felt too often it was telling me things were dramatic rather than communicating what must have been the real human drama of the situation.

I also didn’t feel I was in the hands of someone who really had a bone-deep understanding of the issues at stake. Humes is clearly on the side of the scientists, although I think he tries to avoid being flamboyantly partisan, and I felt that some of the of the anti-ID arguments were being reproduced in a rather uncritical and undigested form. This is a trivial example of the kind of thing that sets off my alarm bells: Humes is taking Ann Coulter apart (not difficult) and says that in a three sentence, 69 word passage, there are ‘five lies and one ludicrous error’. He says this, about the phrase ‘Liberals’ creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution…’:

It is a lie to characterize the modern science of evolution as “Darwin’s theory,” as it now encompasses genetics, DNA analysis, microbiology, embryology, artificial life experiments, and a host of other findings, methods and scientific disciplines that Darwin (and apparently Coulter) never heard of.

It’s true, of course, that biology and the understanding of evolution has moved on a lot since Darwin’s time. Coulter’s phrasing is simplistic and reductive, and may well be calculated to create a misleading impression that the idea of natural selection is outmoded or based on a personality cult. But even so, as a five word description used in brief for the theoretical underpinnings of biology, ‘Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution’ is surely not outrageous. And it certainly isn’t a ‘lie’ in the sense I understand that word.

It’s not like you have to stretch very far to find Coulter talking crap—the next sentence is a doozy—and it doesn’t do his credibilty any good to be imprecise when he attacks her.

I’m about as naturally sympathetic an audience as this book could hope to find, so if I find myself feeling it could usefully be more even-handed, there might be a problem. It’s only nuances, though.

FSotW: Polaroids

Flickr set of the week is Polaroids, by anniebee. They’re polaroids (obviously)
mainly taken in New York. I really like these – do check out the whole set. Particularly, but not only, the glorious ones of Coney Island.

Soccer in the US

All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.

Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.

Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?

Tender American sensibilities

Via bookofjoe; the OED and BBC are repeating their exercise of inviting the public to try and find earlier citations for various words. It’s a somewhat interesting idea but, having seen some of the last series: the results don’t make for riveting television.

What I found interesting was a couple of things from the Washington Post article on the subject. Firstly there’s this weirdly obsequious paragraph about the English:

The English have a special relationship with the language named for their land. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens, this country has given the world some of its most memorable literature. The spoken word is also revered here, and English debaters articulate even the most mundane ideas with remarkable music and vocabulary. Americans puzzle over Britons keeping their spare “tyre” in the “boot” of their car, but most admit that they sound clever doing it.

The spoken word is ‘revered’ in England? You what? And what do simple regional variations like boot/trunk have to do with anything?

The other thing that I found odd was this:

Before 1976, “marital aids” were known by less genteel names, and using them, along with other more sexually adventurous behavior, became “kinky” in 1959. Some terms on the list are too naughty to be printed here. But the Oxford editors are as interested in their X-rated beginnings as they are in “identity theft,” “spiv” (a sharply dressed hustler), “mucky pup” (a messy child) and “prat” (a fool or a jerk).

I was surprised that the BBC would pick unprintable words for a TV show about word origins, so I checked out the list. The only possibilities seem to be ‘dog’s bollocks’ and ‘tosser’. Or ‘dogging’, I suppose. Can it really be true that an apparently grown-up newspaper like the Washington Post has such tender, innocent readers that they would be offended by seeing the word ‘bollocks’ in print?

I suppose it might be. I remember seeing some footage of Emma Thompson on Leno where she starts telling an anecdote about doing some filming with a horse which, hilariously, had an erection, and Leno having to cut her off because the e word was apparently just too strong for a late-night chat show. Perhaps that’s what our ‘special relationship with the language’ consists of: knob jokes.

I could have told them that.

“A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Treasury Department is violating the law by failing to design and issue currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired people.”

Speaking as a fully-sighted person, when I was in Ecuador (where they use US dollars) I found the near-identical designs of different denominations really annoying; it must be a nightmare for the blind.

American oenophilia

Travelling in the Galapagos and Ecuador, obviously a large proportion of my shipmates and lodgemates were from the US. While I’m on the subject of transAtlantic foodiness: when did Americans all become such wine-buffs? I appreciate that the section of American society that turns up on Galapagos cruises and in Ecuadorian ecolodges is a fairly narrow one, but I still found it rather striking. None of them were capable of just quickly ordering a bottle of something; I haven’t heard so many discussions about grape varieties for years. And when the wine did come, they all had to express opinions about what it tasted like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of a nice glass of wine. I’d just rather drink it than talk about it.

British food

I’m always somewhat irritated when someone from The Land of Industrial Food is rude about British cooking. If it comes from one of the great foody cultures (the Italians, the French, the Indians, the Japanese…) I’m willing to admit they’re talking from a position of strength. But the country of processed cheese, marshmallow fluff, and beer brewed with rice? Not so much.

That gripe aside, the blog is worth reading.

Militant Atheism

I’ve just finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I enjoyed more than I expected, since generally I prefer Dawkins when he’s writing about biology. I might blog about the book later, but for now it got me thinking about religion.

My own opinions are uncompromising: I don’t believe there is anything beyond the material universe, so that means no gods, no fairies, no ghosts. I think that theism and deism are just about intellectually defensible, but the details of particular religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Scientology or whatever, are about as plausible as crystal healing; only their cultural importance gives them a spurious sense of reasonableness.

I used to enjoy arguing with believers for the sake of it, but I largely stopped that at university when I came to the conclusion that I was just upsetting them for no good purpose. And on the whole, despite the occasional internet argument, I’ve stuck to that. I tend to think of religion in much the same way as I think of the monarchy. The status of the royal family is undemocratic, anachronistic and generally intellectually indefensible, but as long as they don’t seem to be doing any harm, and as long as they keep out of politics, trying to get rid of them doesn’t seem like a battle worth having; there’s very little popular support of it, the process of working out a system to replace the status quo would be interminable and painful, and in the end I don’t think we’d have gained much.

The same applies to religion. As long as religions keep themselves to themselves and don’t obviously do much harm to others, I’m generally willing to live and let live. And in the UK, it’s pretty easy to take that attitude. Growing up as a middle-class Londoner, agnosticism was the default position, and if there was any social pressure it was that Christianity was desperately unfashionable. In that environment, rejecting belief is easy, socially and intellectually. And while London is probably exceptionally godless, especially outside the various immigrant communities, the same is broadly true of the UK as a whole. Although 72% of people identify themselves as ‘Christian’ on the census, when asked the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ only 44% of people actually say ‘yes’, with another 21% not being sure. Presumably that leaves another 7% who describe themselves as ‘Christian’ while definitely not believing in God. And even among the believers, only 10% go to church ‘in most weeks’. Fortunately, the Church of England is so theologically open-minded that it’s hardly necessary to believe in God to be a member.

Even more important, perhaps, is that enthusiastic religion is not really very socially acceptable. Certainly for politicians, being overtly religious is more likely to attract mockery than support. So there’s no prospect of anything like the American ‘religious right’ appearing any time soon over here (or indeed, the CofE being what it is, a ‘religious left’).

And yet, recently (and even before reading the Dawkins) I’ve been feeling more militant about my atheism, and less willing to be tolerant of people’s religious beliefs. Partially that’s because of the growth of extremist Islam. Not just the terrorism, which is an unwelcome development but is in the end a fairly minor threat. It’s the intrusion of Islam into politics; the prominence of Islamic organisations as a part of the anti-war movement, the protesting and flag-burning at any perceived slur, the election of George Galloway, the issue of faith schools. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of the politics; I’m not a big fan of the war, for example. But I don’t like to see politics infected by religion.

There’s also the increasingly religionised nature of US politics. As I say, I can’t see the same thing happening here; but the prospect of religious zealots in control of the world’s largest ecomony and military isn’t exactly reassuring either. And as worrying as both Islam and the religious right are individually, the most worrying thing of all is the idea of them validating and motivating each other. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that people who talk about a ‘clash of civilisations’ don’t mean a clash between aggressive religion and post-Enlightenment secular democracy, but between two competing religions. I’m troubled by the possibility that, in wishing to define Britishness in opposition to Islamism, people will increasingly talk about the UK as ‘a Christian country’, and Christianity will once again start to seem like a defining part of what makes Britain British. Personally, I can’t see how British history is any kind of advertisement for Christian virtues, since from the Reformation right up to the current situation in Northern Ireland, Britain has repeatedly been torn apart by violent clashes between competing Christian sects; but I know some people see it differently.

Where does this increased militancy lead me? I don’t know, really. It’s not like there has ever been a period in my lifetime when religion wasn’t a source of oppression or conflict somewhere in the world, but somehow at the moment the damage done by religious belief seems particularly vivid. It makes me less inclined to show any respect to someone’s faith just because it’s well-meaning and sincere.

And as irritating as I tend to find militant atheism in others, I have an uncomfortable feeling that I should proselytise, that it’s important to assert that religious beliefs are not simply false but harmful. Even the anaemic Christianity of the CofE represents the victory of superstition and inertia over evidence and logic, and if it does little harm it’s only because it is generally ineffectual. Forceful religion, impassioned religion, campaigning religion: these are Bad Things. Perhaps it needs to be said more often.

Ten books to explain America

A really interesting question at the cassandra pages: ‘If you were recommending, say, five to ten books you most felt would “explain America” to a foreign person who had never been here in person, what would they be?’ You can read people’s answers there.

I’m not about to try and pick ten books about America, for obvious reasons. I suppose that, as a foreigner, I’m in a position to name books that I felt gave me an insight. But I’m not going to do that. I might try to come up with ten books for the UK. It’s difficult, though; for a start, how much historical background do you need to touch on? I don’t see much need to go too far back ino the Middle Ages, but the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the Empire, the loss of the Empire, the growth of unionism and the Labour party, the Suffrage movement, and the two World Wars are all to some extent relevant to what Britain is now and what British people are like. Oh, and I almost forgot the battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the Irish Question*, the Easter Rising, partition and the Troubles.

But if anything, people’s perceptions of Britain seem to be mired in the past – Americans always seem to be convinced that we’re still obsessing about the loss of empire, for example, which I really don’t think is true. So perhaps the history should be downplayed and more emphasis placed on the past 30 or 40 years. And for the curious visitor who wants to get inside the head of the British, is lots of historical background better than one really insightful novel anyway?

Anyway, I’ll try to think of some interesting choices.

* according to 1066 And All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.’

Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

During the American War of Independence, the British promised freedom and land to any slaves who left their masters and served with the British. Many thousands did so, and after the war they were taken first to Nova Scotia and then settled in a colony in Sierra Leone. This book tells that story.

Among the slaves who decided that their best hope of freedom was with the British were some who had belonged to George Washington. At times I got the feeling that Schama, as a British historian working in the US, got a degree of mischievous pleasure from writing about the War of Independence from an angle that shows the British as the defenders of liberty and equality in the face of American tyranny.

It’s not that simple of course. The original decision to offer freedom was pragmatic rather than a principled, and in practice the implementation of it was consistently undermined by the greed, paternalism and piety of British administrators. The book does include some genuinely heroic British figures, but there are no shortage of complete shits as well.

It’s an interesting story and a moving book.

Big Chief Elizabeth

I just read Big Chief Elizabeth – How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World, by Giles Milton. As the title suggests, it’s an account of the earliest attempts to set up an English settlement in America. As the title also suggests, the general tone of the thing is ‘rollicking yarn’ rather than ‘nuanced and careful investigation into the ethics of colonisation and colonialism’.

That’s fine by me. I refuse to feel any ancestral guilt over anything countrymen of mine did over four centuries ago. Or indeed feel any ancestral outrage over things done to them, since there seems to have been plenty of brutality on all sides.

I was slightly startled to realise how little I knew about the subject. In a curious way it’s become part of American history rather than British. Not that gaps in my historical knowledge are so unusual they need a special explanation.

Odd how hard it is to shift the idea of the Elizabethan period as glamorous. I mean, the clothes were pretty fab, and there was Shakespeare of course, and pirates and gold and stuff, but Elizabeth was just another capricious despot in a string of despots.

Sir Walter Ralegh features heavily, of course. Which seems as good a reason as any to post a favourite poem.

As you came from the holy land
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came ?

How shall I know your true love,
That have met many one,
As I went to the holy land,
That have come, that have gone ?

She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair ;
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or the air.

Such a one did I meet, good sir,
Such an angel-like face,
Who like a queen, like a nymph, did appear,
By her gait, by her grace.

She hath left me here all alone,
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometimes did me lead with herself,
And me loved as her own.

What’s the cause that she leaves you alone,
And a new way doth take,
Who loved you once as her own,
And her joy did you make ?

I have loved her all my youth,
But now old, as you see,
Love likes not the falling fruit
From the withered tree.

Know that Love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past ;
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.

His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy ;
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.

Of womankind such indeed is the love,
Or the word love abusèd,
Under which many childish desires
And conceits are excusèd.

But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The NY Times ‘sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”‘. You can see the list of works that got more than one vote here. I’ve read embarrassingly few of them; one that I have read is the most recent, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I read in Spain.

Considering the glowing reviews I read, I thought it was completely ordinary. The historical aspect of it – the speculation of how the US could have wandered into fascism under a Lindbergh presidency – was quite interesting and convincingly done. But as a literary work it did nothing for me. It felt like it could have been written by a journalist or a historian to make a historical point. I was reading it directly after some Pynchon, which probably made the style seem a bit flat in comparison, but still, the characterisation and dialogue seemed unremarkable to me. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood for it, and I’m pretty sure that if it had been set in, say, Surrey instead of Newark it would have been more immediate for me, but I still wonder how it would have been received if it didn’t have Roth’s name attached to it.

The Pynchon, on the other hand (Gravity’s Rainbow), clearly was a remarkable bit of writing, but I’m not sure it was more than the sum of its parts. I think that’s generally a problem, though, with these sprawling, disjointed modernist novels going right back to Joyce and indeed Sterne – can the diversions and oddities justify themselves.

Anyway, I’m now rambling. I think it’s probably a mistake trying to talk coherently about literature and listen to the cricket at the same time. Jayawardene and Maharoof are doing a good job at the moment settling down the Sri Lankans but

And at that moment Hoggard took Maharoof’s wicket, caught and bowled. Leaving Sri Lanka on 129/7 in reply to 551/6 declared, which, in translation for my American readers, means they’re almost certainly going to get thrashed.


From the IHT, via Londonist:

School officials in a Florida county said they were concerned about terrorism when they decided to keep a high school band from marching in a London parade, and now British officials are telling travelers that Fort Myers is no safe haven, either.
Local officials fear that the dispute could cost Lee County, where Fort Myers is situated, millions in lost tourism dollars.
The Fort Myers High School band was invited to march in London’s 2007 New Year’s Day parade, but district administrators rejected the trip, citing the threat of terrorism in Europe.
“Perhaps the superintendent is being overly cautious in this regard,” said Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush.
Parade officials in London planned to issue a statement to the media warning British travelers about Fort Myers’s crime and homicide rates, Lee County’s record number of traffic deaths in 2005 and the danger of “catastrophic hurricanes.”

more atheism

I think I’ll move this out of the comments into its own post:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

from here via Metafilter. I have to admit, as a white middle-class straight man, I never expected to see myself appearing at the bottom of a list like that.

It’s a whole different world.

This article about atheists in Texas (via Pharyngula) is just mind-bogglingly odd to me. I grew up in secular, middle-class London where the default position was a casual agnosticism, so the image of atheists as a secretive minority, afraid to give their name in a newspaper interview, seems surreal. The flipside of that is the presentation of atheists as fiercely rationalist and potentially campaigning ideologues, who go to atheist meetings. What do you do at an atheist meeting? All sit in a room together not believing? It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Just like Christians, most of the non-believers I know are that way because they were brought up like that. I’m wary of attempts to make atheism into either an alternate belief system or a political cause. I mean, I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.

Of course, I can see that if I lived in America, it might seem more important, both because of the overwhelmingly religious culture and because the constitutional separation of church and state makes it into a political issue. There’s an irony in the fact that in the UK, which has a constitutional intertwining of church and state, we tend to be suspicious of overt religiosity in our politicians, while American politics practically demands it.

I remember a few years ago reading an article in the Economist which argued, in the context of abortion, that the US Constitution actually tended to inflame political debates, because the insistence on absolute and inalienable rights makes both sides inflexible and removes the chance of compromise. Specifically, it means that, whereas in Europe, the focus of the debate tends to move quite rapidly onto specifics which can be farmed off onto technical committees – the maximum age of a fetus that can be aborted, whether a woman has to see a doctor before getting an abortion – in the States, there’s always this central totemic Supreme Court decision that hangs over the whole subject, and the possibility of the decision being overturned. Once the sides have branded themselves in the rhetoric of absolute rights – the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’ – it becomes all-or-nothing. Similarly with obscenity and hate-speech laws vs. free speech, or the right to bear arms.

I don’t know whether the separation of church and state has played an important part in shaping American religious culture; the French, who have the same constitutional separation, seem to be pretty Godless. It certainly politicises the debate on teaching evolution in schools and prevents the obvious compromise of teaching Genesis in religious education classes and Darwin in biology, though. And although I completely agree that natural selection is the only origin theory children should be taught in biology, the debate shouldn’t be about constitutionality. It should be about teaching the overwhelming scientific consensus.


One of the things that seems odd to me about Ron Silliman’s legendary (post)Avant/SoQ dichotomy is that trying to claim ownership of a country’s cultural heritage, trying to shape a national canon, feels like an essentially conservative impulse. The idea of a national tradition of radical poetics seems self-contradictory, like the Maoist idea of continuous revolution. I don’t think there’s actually a logical contradiction, but there does seem to be some conceptual tension.

I was going to use this observation as the starting point for a whole post about America’s relationship with its cultural heritage, but on balance I think that’s an exercise best left to the reader.

Bob Denver & Americana

Bob Denver, the star of Gilligan’s Island, has died. Gilligan’s Island is one of those bits of Americana which feel familiar but I actually know entirely via hearsay. It’s one of the most frequently used pop culture references in other US pop culture – they mentioned it on House just last night – but I’ve never actually seen an episode because I don’t think it’s been shown on British TV in my lifetime (ever?).

Similarly, when I went to the US I felt it was very important to eat a Twinkie, to try and find out what it was about this confectionary that made it iconic. Answer – well, it’s certainly different. Bizarrely artificial and liable to send you into diabetic shock. The O. J. Simpson trial was odd, too. The whole thing was covered in detail in the UK news, partially because they tend to follow big US news stories anyway, and partially because the moment he was chased down the freeway on TV, it was a great story. But somehow, the whole point of the thing was missing; the premise of the story was that a Very Famous Man was accused of murdering his wife – but in a country where few people care about American football, he wasn’t actually famous before the trial. He’s famous now, but famous for being accused of murder.


“Sometimes entire animals such as the stormy petrel and the candlefish of the Pacific Northwest were threaded with a wick and burned as candles.”

from here.

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