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Book Review

Book Review: Alex Tolkin, Class of 2009

By Denebola
Published: December 2007

The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything by Gordy Slack certainly has lofty ambitions.

It hopes, in a two- hundred-page volume, to use a recent sensational court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, to make a broader point about the fundamental divisions in belief among Americans and citizens of the larger world. It hopes to clarify the issues that seem to separate religion and science, and would like to reaffirm the importance of reason in an increasingly unreasonable world, and to increase the average American’s skepticism when one or another American claims to have found Truth. The book only partially succeeds. While its depictions of the actual trial are exciting and well written, the broader message does not come across nearly as well.

Slack is a writer for Salon magazine who was assigned to cover what became the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case in Pennsylvania. The school board in Dover began the controversy by mandating teaching “Intelligent Design,” or ID, in science classes. (A version of the spiritually-healthy alternative.) This scientifically and socially controversial idea, heavily publicized by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and not a few Evangelical Christians, claims that evolution is an incomplete understanding, life must have been “designed.”

Unsurprisingly, many scientists have branded Intelligent Design, or “ID” as Creationism in disguise. Since the Supreme Court ruled the teaching of Creationism in public schools unconstitutional, parents in Dover sued the school board. Slack examines the resulting legal battle extensively, and his comments on the trial and to some extent its aftermath, comprise the bulk of the book.

Slack tries to emulate the plotting and writing of Inherit the Wind and that play’s depiction of an earlier evolution trial almost a century ago. The passages on the trial are fun to read, in a goofily intense way, as lawyers trade rhetorical barbs and the audience/reader tries to follow the real argument as it’s presented to the judge.

Slack does an excellent job exploring the (very) human aspects of the characters in this courtroom and societal drama, although at times there is a bit too much exposition.

Nevertheless, a reader will learn a bit about evolutionary biology while being entertained at the same time, no easy feat. The writing is engaging and, detailed in a way that advances understanding rather than bogging one down in what could be unconnected asides.

Chapters are laid out in a logical fashion as well, focusing on one key issue or theme of the book. This makes coming to grips with the serious, complex legal and social policy issues simple, and greatly adds to the value of the book’€for these issues are not likely to just go away.

Where Slack’s account truly excels is its examination of the different sides of the debate, not simple Religion vs Science, or Constitutional vs Unconstitutional but individuals and groups arguing for their understanding of how schools and society’€America, and by extension, the world’€should be organized.

Slack’s analysis of the “independent” (but in fact very conservative) Discovery Institute and its more mixed bag of supporters, in and out of religious groups, is fascinating, as are his comments on the many dimensions of the liberal American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU and the by no means uniform scientific community in general.

Slack concludes that ID’s support is incessantly split between semi-legitimate scientists and fundamentalist Creationists, while the ACLU and other groups can usually present a united front. In the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case, in the end the Discovery Institute gave no help to the defendants because of fundamental “philosophical differences.” This essentially means that the forces fighting for Intelligent Design’€and parallel conservative issues’€will never, and can never, win, removing much of the drama from the book although not from American society.

Here’s where Slack runs into problems.

Since his well-analyzed conclusions are boring, Slack tries to jack up tension by pontificating on the nature of religion itself. Simultaneously, Slack makes every moment as bombastic as possible, right up to the preposterously overblown title. Slack tries to portray Kitzmiller vs. Dover as the front line in a battle over two views of the world: One of “evidence” and one of “faith.” One senses other issues are everywhere present for Slack, though nowhere obvious to the reader.

Slack paints an apocalyptic vision of “theocracy” and “Armageddon” which never comes across as particularly convincing. Since he has already made the inevitable winner clear, the supposed terror just isn’t that terrifying. At times, it seems the point is to turn the book into a paean to the glories of science. Slack, though, is a biased narrator: an atheist writer with a Creationist father. Actually, his father is Ivy League scientist who was born again and became a Creationist.

While this provides Slack a unique and interestingly questionable perspective, it also makes the narration quite biased. When Slack drifts from the facts of the trial to his own personal opinions, the bias becomes downright infuriating sapping the strength of the narrative.

Slack views the differences between religion and science as irreconcilable, and feels that it is impossible for the two sides to even communicate. In his formulation, it’s War; the only way to emerge victorious is through incessant battles like Kitzmiller vs. Dover. What a bleak and not particularly compelling view of the world. This colors the whole book’s perspective, a shame, because several elements are truly memorable.

For example, Slack meets an Italian journalist, Guilio, who is also reporting on the case. Guilio does not believe in Intelligent Design but hopes it will be taught anywayÀ“to inspire more faith and better values in America’s youth. Guilio views the decline of religious influence in Italy as a loss of morality, and sees America as an oasis ( ! ) of relative purity. This intriguing character is unfortunately largely dismissed to make a broader and more boring point on the nature of religion in America.

Like much of the book, Slack’s portrayal of our generous Italian is heavily biased, paying extensive attention to radical fundamentalists, and far less attention to moderates. Simple people who want to believe whatever they want to believe are largely ignored in favor of bigger, more exciting characters who insist on their own (more serious) viewpoints. Of course, since the town is in the middle of a huge legal controversy, lots of people will be heavily opinionated. However, it is questionable whether Dover is at all representative of ordinary America, as the book implies.

Indeed, the nature of religion in Dover is a divisive one, perhaps more illustrative and important than the trial in its midst. “New” Dover is a moderate; growing community while “old” Dover is a static ultraconservative throwback to a different age. Slack implies that this is the case all across America, but as his own experience with his father shows, that is not always the case.

The book attempts too much. It succeeds spectacularly as a depiction of a landmark US court case. It fails at assessing the implications of that victory. Slack views religion and science as irreconcilable but if that is true, science is in terrible shape. Almost twice as many Americans believe in Creationism than evolution, and Mike Huckabee, a Creationist Republican candidate, has surged recently in polls. If science cannot come to terms with religion the populace will simply ignore science.

Americans are fully open to some sort of reconciliation. A quarter of the population believes animals evolved and were also created in their present state. While that view contradicts itself, it nevertheless shows that the American people want science to accept or at least acknowledge religion. Writers such as Gordy Slack only further the divide.

The Bush-appointed judge hands down a vitriolic denunciation of Intelligent Design, one which Gordy predicts will destroy the Discovery Institute’s push. In fact, the institute is still, over a year later, writing legal papers denouncing the decision and “judicial activism.” These pathetic legal briefs (the hilarious title of one of them: “being wrong does not imply being unscientific”) are signs of desperation.

Slack assumes that if scientists win enough court cases, the issue will be dead. Perhaps. Yet a protracted campaign might lead to further “debate” and potential legitimizing of Intelligent Design. And American sentiment turning even further from science?

Many Americans have already grown sick of this “battle.” As one high school girl points out: “Kids I know don’t really care much. What’s the difference? Nobody’s really listening anyway.”

The incessant clamor of the book ironically produces the same reaction in the reader, along with a worry that intolerance on both sides will continue to create more explosive situations in the future.

Slack’s clearly a journalist more than an author, as his punchy prose has the air of a sharp newspaper editorial. Important contemporary issues have been well staged but the reader is likely to leave the theatre feeling slightly dismayed, worried about the future.

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