Book Review: 40 Days and 40 Nights. by Matthew Chapman

Actually the full title of Chapman’s book is 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, and it has to be one of the most uniquely interesting and engrossing books I have read in a long time. I actually read the whole thing cover to cover over this weekend, I simply could not bring myself to put it down – in fact calling it engrossing simply doesn’t do it justice. click for details

The book is about Kitzmiller vs Dover, the 2005 federal trial of a public school board’s attempt at getting Intelligent Design into the high school science curriculum as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution. In the end the plaintiff’s, comprised of concerned parents of students at the school successfully argued that Intelligent Design was a form of creationism, and the school boards policy thus violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

There’s two things that make this book so interesting. The first is that Matthew Chapman, the author, is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin and I find this quite fascinating. It’s almost as though he is uniquely place to offer a perspective no-one else could, even though Chapman is not a scientist but a film director. The second is that although the book covers the trial and does discuss the scientific arguments presenting during the trial, the book isn’t about the science, but more about the people involved.

What Chapman offers through his in depth encounters with the people involved on both sides of the issue is at times a frightening, but also amusing, and above all a very moving story of ordinary people doing battle in America over the place of religion in science and modern life.

Chapman has also written an earlier book called Trials of Monkeys: An Accidental Memoir, that provided an account of the famous Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1925 where school teacher John Thomas Scopes was prosecuted for breaking a recently passed law which forbade the teaching, in any state funded school, of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals”. Chapman often contrasts the Kitzmiller trial with the earlier Scopes trial – in which all the expert witnesses for the defence ( scientists ) were not allowed to testify by the judge.

Fortunatly the Kitzmiller trial the expert witnesses from both side were allowed to testify and it’s fascinating to see how the Creationist arguments on the so-called theory Intelligent Design were torn to shreds under cross examination.

However fascinating the scientific arguments were what captivates the most are Chapman’s descriptions of the people involved – the Christian Fundamentalists on the school board who bullishly forced through their policies; the faculty members who opposed the board even in the face of intimidation; the parents of children who protested and eventually sued the board; and the two legal teams their respective expert witnesses.

It’s hard not to be disturbed by the description of how the school board went about installing ID into the curriculum. In effect they polarised the community into those who believed in God and Creation and branded everyone else atheist – even though many of the Plaintiff’s and teachers at the school were Christians. The threats of violence and intimidation against the plaintiffs and their families were frightening. Chapman’s descriptions of the families his accounts of conversations with them and the depth of their concerns is captivating. As is their willingness to stand up and fight this even if it meant they were ostracised by the very community they lived in. To get a feel for what I mean, during one Board meeting when concerned parents pointed out that teaching creationism could land the school into serious legal trouble one of the pro-intelligent design Board members stood up and shouted –

“2000 years ago someone died on a cross, can’t someone stand up for him now?”

One of the most amusing bit’s in the book is when Chapman describes the cross examination of Michael Behe the star witness for the defence – a fastidious proponent of Intelligent Design and author of Darwin’s Black Box and the man who coined the phrase “irreducible complexity”. In fact in a recent interview with New Scientist Chapman describes why this moment stood out:

The most disturbing element was how the intelligent-design crowd, many of whom I liked, would intellectually and morally contort themselves to cling to ideas one felt even they did not quite believe. The scientists among them seemed to have taken hold of small shards of the scientific whole that no one fully understands yet, and created a shield against reality. They were smart people, and at times it was painful to watch them. There was a moment when one intelligent-design scientist [Behe] was literally walled into the witness box by books and articles detailing an evolutionary process he said had not been described. And though they had had months to prepare, the school board members who advocated intelligent design still knew almost nothing about it. When asked to define intelligent design, one of them defined evolution.

You can read the book for the actual narrative, but the image of this ID Scientist who is arguing that no-one has ever been able to prove or been able to document how the Immune System in vertebrates could have possibly evolved through natural selection, a corner stone of his argument for Intelligent Design, being systematically walled into the witness box as the prosecuting lawyer literally buries him in papers, books, articles all discussing and describing precisely that evolutionary process … was as I said amusing … but at the same time deeply deeply worrying.

Behe also went on to admit that he had considered a possible test that would falsify intelligent design, when pressed on whether he had carried out the test he replied that he hadn’t and neither had anyone in the Intelligent Design movement. Here was a scientist arguing for his theory to be taught in schools and yet he could not be be bothered to test it. Or as Chapman puts it:

Wasn’t that the first thing you would do? Wasn’t this, in fact, exactly what science was?

Anyway I feel like I’m ranting, but it’s been a long time since a book really captivated me like this and opened my eyes to a number of truths, particularly about the creationist movement in America. For a while Rob and I have been discussing the whole Evolution vs Creationism phenomenon. In fact we’ve both done a fair bit of research into it and I was genuinely surprised whilst reading this book to find that many of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves about why it is the scientific community hasn’t been able to convince the Creationist’s that evolution is a real theory are actually answered – well in part.
If there’s one book you read this summer … read this one!

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