Senate Bill 561, styled the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act," was prefiled in the Louisiana Senate by state senator Ben Nevers (D–District 12) on March 21, 2008, and provisionally assigned to the Senate Education Committee, of which Nevers is the chair. In name, the bill is similar to the so-called academic freedom bills in Florida, House Bill 1483 and Senate Bill 2692, which are evidently based on a string of similar bills in Alabama as well as on a model bill that the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, the institutional home of "intelligent design" creationism, recently began to promote. But in its content, Louisiana's SB 561 seems to be modeled instead on a controversial policy adopted by a local school board in 2006 with the backing of the Louisiana Family Forum.
The Ouachita Parish School Board's policy permits teachers to help students to understand "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught"; "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning" are the only topics specifically mentioned. A local paper editorially described it as "a policy that is so clear that one School Board member voted affirmatively while adding, 'but I don't know what I'm voting on'" (Monroe News-Star, 2006 Dec 3; see RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 : 8–11).
The controversy over the policy was renewed in September 2007, when Senator David Vitter (R–Louisiana) sought to earmark $100 000 of federal funds to the Louisiana Family Forum. The New Orleans Times-Picayune (2007 Sep 22) reported that the money was intended to "pay for a report suggesting 'improvements' in science education in Louisiana, the development and distribution of educational materials and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Ouachita Parish School Board's 2006 policy that opened the door to biblically inspired teachings in science classes." Thanks to pressure from NCSE and its allies, Vitter withdrew his proposal in the following month (see RNCSE 2007 Sep–Dec; 27 [5–6]: 9–12).
Now SB 561 echoes the central language of the Ouachita Parish School Board's policy. Contending that "the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects," the bill extends permission to Louisiana's teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught."
Unlike the policy, the bill contains directives aimed at state and local education administrators, who are instructed to "endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, to help students develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues" and to "endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." Administrators are also instructed not to "censor or suppress in any way any writing, document, record, or other content of any material which references" the listed topics.
Attempting to immunize itself against a likely challenge to its constitutionality, the bill also claims to protect only "the teaching of scientific information," adding that it "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion." The involvement of the Louisiana Family Forum — which seeks to "persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking" — managed, however, to provoke a careful scrutiny of the intent of the bill's backers.
Writing in the Times-Picayune (2008 Mar 30), the columnist James Gill observed that SB 561 is based on "the spurious premise that evolution is a matter of serious scientific debate and that both sides are entitled to a hearing. A lot of people have fallen for that line, including Gov Bobby Jindal, although, of course, scientists, save a few stray zealots, regard the evidence for evolution as overwhelming." He also drew attention to a particularly problematic provision of SB 561 directing administrators not to "censor or suppress in any way any writing, document, record, or other content of any material"referring to the topics covered by the bill, which he described as "a license for crackpots." Gill concluded, "The bill is of no conceivable benefit to anyone but Christian proselytizers. Besides, its genesis is plainly sectarian."
A day after the legislative session began on March 31, 2008, the sponsor of SB 561 was in the news, denying that the so-called academic freedom bill would pave the way for creationism to be taught in the state's public schools. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate (2008 Apr 1), Nevers said, "I believe that students should be exposed to both sides of scientific data and allow them to make their own decisions," adding, "I think the bill perfectly explains that it deals with any scientific subject matter which is taught in our public school system." The bill in fact specifically identifies "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as controversial subjects, and calls on state and local education administrators to "endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies."
Nevers acknowledged that he introduced SB 561 at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum. A religious right group with a long history of promoting creationism and attacking evolution education in the state, the LFF claims that it "promotes 'Teaching the Controversy' when it comes to matters such as biologicial [sic] evolution"; yet it elsewhere recommends a variety of young-earth and "intelligent design" websites, including the Institute for Creation Research, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, and Kent Hovind's Creation Science Evangelism, on its own website. Unsurprisingly, then, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Reverend Barry Lynn, told the Advocate, "This is all about God in biology class."
Speaking later to the Hammond Daily Star (2008 Aprl 6), Nevers was less cautious in explaining the purpose of the bill. The newspaper reported, "The Louisiana Family Forum suggested the bill, Nevers said. 'They believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin's theory. This would allow the discussion of scientific facts,' Nevers said. 'I feel the students should know there are weaknesses and strengths in both scientific arguments.'" The article itself was headlined "Bill allows teaching creationism as science."
Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University who serves on NCSE's board of directors, told the Daily Star, "If the citizens and public officials of Louisiana are serious about improving both the state's image and public schools, we cannot afford to waste valuable time and resources on legislation like SB 561. Such battles consume the energies and attention of productive citizens who must take time from their jobs and personal affairs to counteract creationist attacks on their school systems."
Before the bill received a committee hearing, the Shreveport Times (2008 Apr 14) took a firm editorial stand against it, writing, "Even though it is presented with an attractive title and couched in the newest terms, Senate Bill 561 is not in the best interest of students, educators or religious leaders. It would open the door for high school science class curricula and discussions concerning matters best left to individual faith, families and religious institutions. The bill proposes bad law that has been tried before and has been struck down repeatedly by the courts," and concluding, "Religious doctrine and the science classroom must remain separate, and SB 561 should be ditched in committee."
But it was not to be. Renamed the "Louisiana Science Education Act," the bill passed the Louisiana Senate Education Committee on April 17, 2008, despite the testimony of what the Times-Picayune (2008 Apr 18) described as "a bank of witnesses" who "blasted the proposed Louisiana Science Education Act as a back-door attempt to inject the biblical story of creation into the classroom." The Advocate (2008 Apr 18) reported that William Hansel, a scientist at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, told the committee, "nearly all scientists oppose passage of this bill," adding that if enacted, the bill "will be seized upon as one more piece of evidence that Louisiana is a backward state by those who have popularized this image of our state."
Before its passage, the bill was not only renamed but also renumbered (as SB 733) and revised, with the removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language and the list of specific scientific topics. Even the sanitized version of the bill is likely to continue to spark controversy, owing to its creationist antecedents, from which its supporters may be unable to disentangle themselves. For example, David Tate, a supporter of the bill who serves on the Livingston Parish School Board, told the Times-Picayune, "I believe that both sides — the creationism side and the evolution side — should be presented and let students decide what they believe," and added that the bill is needed because "teachers are scared to talk about" creation.
The Advocate (2008 Apr 19) editorially agreed that the antecedents of the bill were problematic, writing, "it seems clear that the supporters of this legislation are seeking a way to get creationism — the story of creation as told in the biblical book of Genesis — into science classrooms." Acknowledging the revisions of the bill, the editorial commented, "At this point, the wording of the bill seems more symbol than substance. But its implication — that real science is somehow being stifled in Louisiana's classrooms — does not seem grounded in actual fact. This kind of rhetorical grandstanding is a needless distraction from the real problems the Legislature should be addressing."
Speaking to the Advocate (2008 Apr 20), the executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, Gene Mills, expressed disappointment at the revisions to the bill: "We want an explicit expression," he said. "We wanted to hang out a sign that said academic inquiries welcomed." He described his support of the revised bill as now only lukewarm, even though Nevers told the newspaper that the revisions "didn't change the intent of the bill." However, Barbara Forrest commented, "The bill itself is still a very problematic bill, a stealth creationism bill," explaining, "The strategy now is to sanitize the terminology, which is what they did with the original bill and which they are doing now."
Subsequently, however, the bill was partly unsanitized. As the Advocate (2008 Apr 29) reported, "In a key change, the Senate approved an amendment by Nevers that spells out examples of those theories, including evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning. That language was removed from the bill earlier this month at the request of critics before it was approved by the Senate Education Committee, which Nevers chairs." Also added was a provision requiring teachers to use the textbook provided by the local school system; it was apparently feared that otherwise teachers might use only the supplemental textbooks that the bill would, if enacted, allow them to use "to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." The language about "strengths and weaknesses" was not restored. The Senate passed the amended bill by a vote of 35 to 0.
SB 733 was sent to the House of Representatives on April 29, 2008, and referred to its Committee on Education. A version of the same bill, HB 1168, was previously introduced in the House on April 21, 2008, and referred to the same committee. Its sponsor, Frank A Hoffman (R–District 15) was formerly the assistant superintendent of the Ouachita Parish School System, which in 2006 adopted the controversial policy on which HB 1168 and SB 561/733 are based. The Advocate (2008 May 1) expressed editorial concern about the prospects of the legislation, writing, "The 35–0 vote on this issue suggests few senators have the inclination or will to stand up to the religious right in defense of sound science in the classroom. It's quite possible this bill also will be approved in the House and end up on [Governor Bobby] Jindal's desk."
The possibility of moving to Dallas surfaced when my brother, Dr Henry Morris III, discerned that a central location would be beneficial for ICR, with several possibilities for student services at nearby affiliated colleges. The many good churches and large numbers of ICR supporters living in North Texas made it a natural fit for the ministry. ... In 2006, ICR opened a distance education effort in Dallas, as well as the hub of ICR's internet ministries. ... As additional operational functions were assigned to the new Dallas office, the Board concluded that it was in ICR's best interests to move the entire ministry.When the ICR moved to Dallas, however, its graduate school entered a new regulatory environment. TRACS is not recognized by the state of Texas, forcing the ICR to seek temporary state certification for its graduate school while it applies for accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. As a first step toward certification, a committee of Texas educators appointed by the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board (THECB) visited the ICR's facilities in Dallas to evaluate whether the ICR meets the legal requirements for state certification. The committee's report (available on-line at http://www.texscience.org/reviews/ICR-Site-Visit-Report-and-ICR-Response.pdf) described the educational program as "plausible". (The committee members were a librarian, an educational administrator, and a mathematician; none was professionally trained in biology, geology, or physics.)
ICR is committed to advancing Young Earth Creationism, a literal view of the Bible that contends the earth is less than 10 000 years old. Young Earth Creationism has repeatedly been shown, legally and scientifically, to be a religious belief system and not a credible scientific explanation for the history of earth or the diversity of biological systems that have evolved on earth. ... It is unacceptable for the state to sanction the training of science educators committed to the practice of advancing their religious beliefs in a science classroom. ... The THECB will ill-serve science students if it certifies a science teacher education program based on a religious world-view rather than modern science.Subsequently, the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board, which Paredes chairs, decided to review the assessment and to request further documentation from the ICR, rescheduling its decision from January 24, 2008, to April 24, 2008. Paredes explained to Education Week (2008 Jan 2) that the preliminary assessment focused on whether the ICR's graduate school is a stable institution with adequate resources. Now, however, the THECB would consider the merits of the program itself. "Our primary objective in looking at this program is to make sure any master's degree in science education will prepare teachers who can get students in high school ready to do college-level work in science," he said. NCSE's Joshua Rosenau was dubious about whether the ICR's program qualified, telling Education Week that presenting a creationist perspective as a rival to evolution is "presenting nonscience".
Writing in the October 8, 2007, issue of The Nation, the philosopher Ian Hacking reviewed five books relevant to the creationism/evolution controversy: Philip Kitcher's Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, Michael Lienesch's In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement, Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Ronald L Numbers's The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, and A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter's Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, a collection of HL Mencken's contemporary reportage. (His essay is also available on-line at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071008/hacking.)
Hacking began by looking on the bright side: "The anti-Darwin movement has racked up one astounding achievement. It has made a significant proportion of American parents care about what their children are taught in school." However, he subsequently observed, "The debate about who decides what gets taught is fascinating, albeit excruciating for those who have to defend the schools against bunkum." With Kitcher, he prefers to classify creationist bunkum not as bad science or pseudoscience, but as dead science — or, borrowing a term from the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, "degenerate" science.
"Degenerate programs paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners, skirting problems they'd prefer not to face," Hacking explained. "They seldom or never have a new, positive explanation of anything. In short, they teach us nothing." In contrast, "evolutionary theory is a living, growing, vital organism ... a blooming, buzzing, confusing delight, finding out more about the world every day." He cited debates over the phylogeny of the primates and the extant of horizontal genetic transfer as cases of genuine scientific controversies within evolutionary biology.
"Contrast that with pseudo-controversy," Hacking continued, "and take, for example, Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University who must be the most ingenious and prolific anti-Darwinian biologist at work today." Referring to Behe's first book, Darwin's Black Box, he wrote,"There is no give and take of explanation and counterexample, no new methodology, no new anything — just the same old question dressed up in slightly new clothes." With respect to Behe's latest book, The Edge of Evolution (reviewed by David E Levin in RNCSE 2007 Jan–Apr; 27 [1–2]: 38–40), he concluded," Once again,we get a recycled objection in slightly new packaging, and no new ideas. ... Can't they do better than that? Apparently not."
Hacking ended his essay on a theological note."Intelligent design is silly,"he remarked, despite its predecessors in the history of philosophy, and its central weakness is that "[i]t says nothing about the designer." Its silence about the nature of the designer, he argues, allows a number of variations on "the trite ad hominem observation" that the design in nature is imperfect: that the designer is evil, that the designer is insane ("obsessed with intricate details so long as they do not get too much in the way of other devices he concocts"), and — in what he described as a "more attractive thought" — that the designer chose to operate through chance and selection.
On its website, The Nation features web letters — "continually published replies we receive from real people, who sign their real names," it explains. Among them was mine, which was denoted with a star as an "editor's pick"; on the other hand, so was a letter from a self-described creationist, who praised Hacking "for showing the best that evolutionists can do is no threat to real science or to real faith in the living God: No intelligent creationist need fear the posturing glove puppet that is evolutionism." What follows is a lightly edited version of my letter (available on-line at http://www.thenation.com/bletters/20071008/hacking.)
In his generally astute review, Ian Hacking wrongly rejects the terms "anti-evolution" and "creationism" to describe those attempting to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In particular, Hacking contends, "the label 'anti-Darwin' seems the right umbrella term for creationism, anti-evolutionism — and Behe." Michael J Behe, a biochemist — not, as Hacking describes him, a biologist — is the author of The Edge of Evolution, one of the books under review. Neither of Hacking's reasons for his terminology is valid, and it is important for understanding the anti-evolution movement in the United States to understand why.
Hacking writes, "Behe says, in effect, 'Sure, I believe in evolution by natural selection — it just doesn't do all it is supposed to.'"But the late Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research, and his fellow young-earth creationists also accept evolution by natural selection, if only within limits of the Biblical "kinds" (for instance, Genesis 1:25 [KJV]:"God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind.") Ironically,as Ronald L Numbers has observed, young-earth creationists have taken to invoking extraordinarily rapid natural selection to explain the vast amount of diversification they are forced to assume to have occurred in the 4000 years since Noah's Flood.
Hacking also writes that Behe "does not officially argue for special acts of creation." But "irreducible complexity" is clearly intended to indicate where God miraculously intervened in the biological world. Although Behe believes that the designer is God, it is true that he and his "intelligent design" colleagues generally refrain from claiming scientific warrant for that conclusion. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that their reticence is dictated not so much by a recognition of the limitations of their arguments as by their desire to skirt the First Amendment's ban on the advocacy of religion in public school science classrooms (see the Supreme Court's decision in the 1987 case Edwards v Aguillard).
"Antievolution" in the phrase "anti-evolution movement" is a metonymy; it is not evolution per se that creationists are fighting against but evolution education. Since Behe has actively participated in efforts to compromise the quality of evolution education, from the notorious "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People onward, he is unquestionably a member of the anti-evolution movement.
Famously, Behe testified for the losing side in Kitzmiller et al v Dover School Area School District et al, where he humiliated himself by admitting that "intelligent design"is just as scientific as astrology. Less famously but more revealingly, he is serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in ACSI et al v Stearns et al, arguing that biology classes in fundamentalist Christian schools that use youngearth creationist biology textbooks are just as good as classes in public schools that use biology textbooks presenting mainstream biology.
Hacking's preferred label "anti-Darwin" is misleading in its own right. Evolutionary theory, as he acknowledges, is not confined to Darwin's work alone, and creationists — whether of the young-earth, old-earth, or intelligent design variety — are not attacking just Darwin but anything in the entire edifice of evolutionary science that happens to offend their various religious predilections. Hacking cites the title of Behe's first book, Darwin's Black Box, to make his point that Behe is best described as anti-Darwinian. He should have looked further, to its subtitle: The Biochemical Case Against Evolution.
In this book targeted at a general audience, Francisco Ayala brings both his theological and biological expertise to bear on the challenge of contemporary "intelligent design" creationism. Trained in a Catholic seminary in Spain and now a distinguished evolutionary biologist, Ayala sees no conflict between religion and science. Indeed, he argues that evolutionary biology provides an important solution to the theological problem of evil.
The problem of evil is a classic theological conundrum that faces Christians who believe that God is simultaneously all powerful and all good. How could such a deity allow evil to exist in the world? Ayala's solution is "Darwin's gift" of evolutionary biology. Translated into evolutionary terms, the problem of evil becomes the problem of why numerous imperfections could be allowed in a wide range of organisms if in fact they were created by an all powerful and all good deity (p 159). Why would God design human eyes with a blind spot, Ayala asks, and squid eyes without? "Did the Designer have greater love for squids than for humans and, thus, exhibit greater care in designing their eyes than ours?" (p 154). Evolution by natural selection provides the answer for these imperfections. Evolution is a tinkerer, working with what is available to make what it can, imperfections and all. To ascribe the "dysfunctions, oddities, cruelties, and sadism that pervade the world of life"to the direct agency of the Creator, according to Ayala, "amounts to blasphemy" (p 160). Ayala's advice to religious persons is to accept that evolution by natural selection saves them from this blasphemy. At the same time, Ayala counsels that science has its limits and does not exclude religion or religious understanding. For Ayala, science provides sound understanding of the natural world, while religion speaks to questions of meaning and value that simply lie beyond the domain of any scientific investigation.
Ayala's explanation of evolutionary biology in Darwin's Gift is masterful. He effortlessly explains the conceptual foundations of evolution in sections on natural selection, adaptation, and speciation. With characteristic clarity, Ayala also includes recent results from genomics and molecular biology. The result is a rich portrait of evolutionary biology that is accessible to a wide range of readers. Chapters 3 to 7 in Darwin's Gift are dedicated to a careful explanation of the basic processes of evolution and natural selection, their application to human evolution, and the relevance of new understanding drawn from the study of molecular sequences of DNA and proteins. The incorporation of results from molecular biology is especially valuable to a general audience that rarely sees the intersection of genomics, bioinformatics, and evolutionary biology.
Ayala also includes a final chapter on the history and philosophy of science. While he acknowledges that it is not necessary for the arguments he makes earlier in his book, it is a welcome introduction to ideas of evidence, inference, and change in biology.
Darwin's Gift is an masterful addition to the popular literature on evolutionary biology. Ayala does not present an exhaustive survey of now familiar creationists' objections, nor should he. Instead, he offers in clear and lucid prose an interesting and incisive critique of design based on his rich understanding of both evolutionary biology and Christian theology. Although Darwin's Gift has few imperfections itself, its advice to embrace nature's imperfections and understand them through evolutionary biology is extremely compelling.
In this book, science writer Carl Zimmer sets out to give a brief overview of human evolution that is timely, accessible, and suitable for the intelligent general reader. This is a task many writers have attempted, but few have succeeded as well as Zimmer does. He strikes a superb balance between a highly readable style and a sophisticated scientific content, judging precisely when to stop and explain basic concepts essential to the larger points he is making.
Much of what will appeal to readers is the clear, jargon-free prose. Zimmer does an excellent job of writing directly and summarizing the high points of theories without "dumbing down" the content. He manages to review the history of Darwin's development of evolutionary theory in the absence of any genetic information and switches back and forth between fossil discoveries and living primates with ease.
Zimmer also provides an excellent, brief explanation of DNA and its uses in establishing the relationships among living forms as well as what DNA can and cannot say about extinct species. These can be daunting subjects, but Zimmer shows how straightforward and understandable genetics can be when properly explained.
The author emphasizes the abundant evidence that modern humans and apes shared a common ancestor while pointing out the fallacy of thinking that modern humans are descended from living apes, when in fact, both have evolved for millions of years since their divergence from a common ancestor. Since creationists and "intelligent design" advocates are still confused by this subtlety, it is heart-warming to see a book that clearly explains the difference between having a common ancestor and being descended from one another.
Zimmer recounts some of the history of fossil hominin discoveries and the evolution of different species of hominins. In one section, he discusses the seemingly contradictory anatomical evidence that early hominins were both bipedal and tree-climbing. Without attempting to force a false resolution, Zimmer presents several different lines of research. He brings in information about when living primates that are predominantly quadrupedal resort to bipedality; he considers ecological reconstructions of the landscape in which bipedalism evolved; and he presents computerized studies of the advantages and disadvantages of being bipedal with different stances and types of anatomy.
The book touches on many important developments that occurred during human evolution: tool-making, the origin of language, the appearance of art and ornaments, the origin of modern humans and our spread around the globe. The reader is given just enough fascinating information to be hungry for more.
My favorite section is the discussion of a classic experiment with Kanzi, a bonobo who was encouraged to make stone tools. A banana was placed in a box that was tied shut with a rope. Kanzi was shown how to strike a sharp-edged flake from a pebble by archaeologist and expert knapper Nicholas Toth. Kanzi was also shown how to use the flake to cut the rope and get the banana. Kanzi watched Toth with intense interest, yet was unable to remove a single flake in the fashion Toth had shown him though he tried repeatedly. Eventually, Kanzi created his own successful toolmaking technique. He hurled the stone against the floor until it smashed into sharp fragments, which he immediately snatched up to cut the rope and get the banana.
At the outset, this experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that modern apes do not make flaked stone tools because they have not been taught how to; the banana provided the motivation. Like all truly elegant experiments, the results not only answered the original question but also revealed the flaws in the experimental design. Kanzi the tool-maker showed that our interpretations of the past are hampered by the limits of our experience.
Was it a failure that Kanzi could not make flaked tools — or was it a creative success that Kanzi invented a new way to obtain sharp stone pieces to cut the rope? Clearly there is more than one way to get the banana. Chimps are not early hominins and early hominins are not simply hairy humans lacking modern technology.
A significant part of what will attract readers is the book itself. It is a good size (larger pages than a standard text but fewer than 200 of them) and it has many wellplaced color illustrations. The book looks interesting and is. I found no dead spots where general readers would roll their eyes in boredom and put the whole thing down.
The biggest failing of the book, sadly, is also in the illustrations. For example, in a section on methods of dating rocks, there is a photograph of foraminifera (very tiny water-living creatures that make shells used to date rocks about 500 million years old) and a drawing or painting of a reconstruction of a conodont (one of the most primitive vertebrates, used to date geological strata of 500 to 250 million years ago). Neither conodonts nor foraminifera are very pertinent to dating the human evolutionary record, which goes back only about 7 million years.
Troublingly, some of the illustrations do not show what they purport to show. The "gorilla skull at Down House, Charles Darwin's residence" is a female baboon skull and the "drawing of Java Man, a Homo erectus fossil" is a photograph of a chimpanzee skull. Both of these erroneously labeled illustrations came from the same photo library, which ought to be a warning to future science writers. The intelligent reader is likely to wonder why these illustrations do not jibe with information in the text.
Sadly, the illustrations are in a sense wasted space. They look lively and interesting but they do not further the readers' understanding of the subject. For example, one image shows a chimp skull and a human skull, which could be used to demonstrate the anatomical differences that make apes apes and humans humans. The caption says, "A chimpanzee skull, left, compared to a human skull." This illustration is merely wallpaper, not a means of conveying information.
Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to general readers who want to gain a greater understanding of the broad outline of human evolution and how researchers are attempting to unravel it. Zimmer has done a fine job of hitting on the main points, explaining the underlying concepts, and inserting just enough detail about new techniques or controversies to engage the reader's attention.
Ever since Darwin's Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has been the subject of parodies. In particular the descent of humans from apes has been humorously treated in cartoons, verse, and literary sketches. An early classic of evolution parody was Charles Kingsley's description of the clash between Richard Owen and TH Huxley over the proximity between apes and humans, which clash centered on a brain structure called "hippocampus minor."In reaction to the Huxley–Owen "tournament" Kingsley wrote "a little squib for circulation among his friends," entitled "speech of Lord Dundreary ...on the great hippocampus question" in which the noble lord,who had been to Eton where he had been switched for getting his Latin wrong, "accurately" expresses the general sense of the issue by confusing a hippocampus with a hippopotamus. Some of the same material went into The Water Babies in which Kingsley created an amalgam of Owen and Huxley in the character of "Professor Ptthmllnsprts" (Putthem- all-in-spirits).
Almost a century later appeared what surely must be the all-time classic of evolution parody, Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia (1957), published pseudonymously by Harald Stümpke.The booklet was translated into several languages, including English as The Snouters (1967; 1982). Its author, the Karlsruhe University zoologist Gerolf Steiner, invented the Rhinogradentia or "nose walkers," an order of mammals, discovered on a group of islands in the South Pacific, the Hi-Iay Islands. The animals are characterized by highly specialized nasal organs, used mainly for locomotion, but also for food gathering and other purposes. The spoof made light of certain iconic elements in the narrative tradition of Darwinism.
Half a century on, The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lu Shinn more comprehensively takes aim at evolution theory in the form of a capricious history of evolutionary theory from Darwin till today. Concepts such as evolution and natural selection appear as real people (or gods and goddesses), disguised in word play alterations. For those who do not recognize which concept or historical person is hidden behind the name, a cast of characters at the end explains all. Few readers will have difficulty identifying Nat Selleck, Eva Lou Shinn, and Randy Verry A Shinn, nor will they be mystified by Charles Durwen, Chuck Loyall, Terrible Tom Huxtable, and Ernie Heckler. Less obvious is Lorenzo the Magnificent (Konrad Lorenz), included in the story for his promulgation of Aryan race ideology.
As the story develops, the spoof increasingly changes into an instrument of criticism of Darwin-related theories, especially when the narrative arrives at contemporary figures such as Will Edson (Edward Wilson) and Dick Dockins (Richard Dawkins) who turned to the goddess Cultura for help in the distressing situation of Homer Sapp (Homo sapiens) merely being a temporary vehicle for Selfish Gene's journey into the future. From Cultura's
ample skirts issued forth a miasma of memes ready to infect Homer Sapp's brain ... Truth to say, Homer Sapp was in parlous condition, enslaved in body and mind by imperious genes and memes. But his case was not hopeless, said Dockins. Enlightened and encouraged by Scienza, he could throw off the shackles locked on by Selfish Gene, disinfect his brain of religious fantasies and metaphysical moonbeams, and learn to behave like an English gentleman, cooperating generously and unselfishly for the common good. (p 59–60)
What is the purpose of this spoof, apart from humorous entertainment? Parodies, we know, have often functioned as means of subtle criticism. Kingsley, in his rendition of the Owen–Huxley fight over the relation of humans to apes, indicated that more than scientific disagreement was involved and that personal rivalry added much fuel to the fire. Both sides in the controversy were doused with a bucket full of irony.A similar intent seems present in The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lu Shinn. Water gets poured over the combatants, the winners and the losers, the great and the small, the atheistic and the religious, the liberal and the conservative — although Dick Dockins and allied evolutionary psychologists get an extra dousing. The story ends with the Darwin year 2009, when a voice from heaven inquires "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ..." (Job 38:4). Keep an open mind — the author seems to indicate — for there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the certainties of entrenched positions.
Yet in order more precisely to understand this booklet's portent, it will be helpful to know who its author, A Nonimous, is. The reader may want to learn that he belongs to the generation of historians of science who professionalized the subject after World War II and is the author of many books, including a seminal study in the history of evolutionary biology, The Death of Adam (1959): John C Greene. Greene's importance for the subject as well as his particular approach and stance were celebrated with a festschrift in his honor, History, Humanity and Evolution (1989), edited by James Moore, who pointed out that a perennial concern in Greene's work has been the problem of constructing an evolutionary world view that does not cede the realm of human values to scientific expertise. This explains why the sarcasm of the parody is particularly biting when it treats of evolutionary psychology and Dockins's memes. The booklet is a cherry on the cake of Greene's impressive oeuvre and a welcome addition to the literary genre of scientific spoofs.
[The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lou Shinn in Sci Fi Land is available from its publisher, Paige Press, a division of The Regina Group, PO Box 280, Claremont CA 91711, online at www.reginabooks.com.]