Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: 40 Days and 40 Nights

40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania
Matthew Chapman
New York: Collins, 2007. 272 pages
Reviewed by
Lauri Lebo
One of the most interesting aspects of the "intelligent design" battle that waged in the now famous community of Dover, Pennsylvania, was watching the national media at work. For when journalists descend on a small town, the local press tends to view the impending deluge of coverage cautiously and with trepidation.

In covering stories over the years that have drawn wide media attention, my fellow journalists and I have witnessed the routine. Prominent reporter flies into town, spends a few hours observing us as if we are rare and exotic zoo animals. Reporter jumps back on plane, tapping away on laptop a collection of anecdotes, using smug shorthand that all too often passes for insight. With sweeping generalizations, everyone in the town becomes the same. We locals have collected our favorites of such stereotypical assertions. The one I most enjoy is from a 2001 Time story about York, a town only a few miles from Dover. The writer referred to the city as "a hard-knock river town" — even though the closest river, the Susquehanna, is twelve miles away.

So when the national and international spotlight shone on Dover, those of us reporters who had been covering the story from the beginning were wary. In the end, we need not have been. For the most part, I found the national coverage to be thankfully free of such broad-brush stereotypes that plague this kind of parachute journalism.

Perhaps the best evidence of this is the trio of recently released books about the trial. Edward Humes, the author of Monkey Girl (New York: Ecco, 2007), and Gordy Slack, who penned The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), have written competent accounts. The third book, 40 Days and 40 Nights, was written by Matthew Chapman, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. The title is a reference to the trial's span of time, as well as ... well, you already know ... the number of days God had it rain on the world to cause the Noachian Flood.

Readers of RNCSE know well the details of the first, and likely only, constitutional challenge of "intelligent design". The Dover Area School Board, in the fall of 2004, required that 9th-grade biology students hear a four-paragraph statement that said evolution "was just a theory" and that "intelligent design" is "an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view." Students were also referred to the pro-"intelligent design" textbook, published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Of Pandas and People. Eleven parents, who viewed the statement as an assault on the First Amendment's prohibition of governmental advocacy of religion, sued the district.

The resulting six-week trial was a gripping interplay of fascinating scientific testimony, intelligent design exposed as fraud, and moving accounts by parents, teachers and yes, reporters, who described the divisiveness that the school board's actions inflicted on the community.

Judge John E Jones III, in a thoughtful and precise 139-page opinion, not only chided the "breathtaking inanity" of the school board members who lied under oath, but ruled that "intelligent design" was a religiously based concept and was not science.

As I covered the trial, I had taken the view of an insider looking out and wondered how we are perceived. Chapman, as a native Briton, is the consummate outsider looking in, wondering who we are and what motivates us.

Kevin Padian, president of NCSE's board of directors and one of the trial's expert witnesses, wrote in his review in Nature (2007; 448: 253-4) of the Dover books, "Is the American tradition one of philosophical and political idealists, or of persecuted pilgrims who then turn around and ostracize anyone who doesn't agree with them?"

It is a great question and Chapman explores it quite effectively. In a chapter recounting the trial testimony of Georgetown University theologian John Haught, Chapman writes of the joining of forces between conservative Protestants and Catholics. "Fundamentalists of all kinds have taken the idea of God and whittled it down into an ecumenical baseball bat which all can use to crack the heads of those they fear or hate. In the war against materialism, all allies are welcome" (p 117).

Perhaps the national media was so drawn to the story because what took place in Dover seems to serve as a reflection of what is playing out in Washington DC and across the country. Chapman frequently references this parallel. As he writes about Dover's school board president Alan Bonsell, "He reminded me of President Bush in some ways. His faith seemed to have given him a confidence unwarranted by the facts" (p 25).

Chapman genuinely seems to want to understand the issues that played out in Dover and that led to the "intelligent design" showdown. At the beginning, he makes it clear that he develops a real affection for the characters that have made this story both so endearing and so compelling. He also seems to grasp, as evidenced in his account, that to take one person out of the story no doubt would have changed the story remarkably. In Chapman's mind, everyone seems to have played a significant part, even Matthew McElvenny, the trial's technology specialist, who delivered the graphics and exhibits each day onto a courtroom screen with nonplussed precision. Chapman calls McElvenny "the Wizard of Oz".

In his interviews, Chapman manages to uncover enticing tidbits of information. In his most delightful chapter, "Marilyn Monroe is alive and well," he writes about Angie Yingling, one of the school board members who, at first, supported the ID policy. The interview careens about like a roller coaster, and Chapman just holds on tight and enjoys the ride.

Chapman can also deliver an amusing turn of phrase and apt descriptions of the players. His summation of Nick Matzke, one of the plaintiffs' NCSE advisors, is dead-on and funny — although his description of plaintiffs' attorney Eric Rothschild, in comparing him to a defense attorney with nine children, as "the more sperm-conservative Jew" is a bit … hmm, how to describe … icky?

Still, Chapman's strength is that he grasps that perhaps the truth is more complicated and messy than the either/or proposition that Padian suggests — that the American tradition is neither solely one of persecuted and self-righteous pilgrims, nor one of tolerant idealists. For within every small town, there are both.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.