Monday, July 13, 2009

Murder and intelligent design

Over the weekend I was delighted to pick up at the library the twenty-fourth Gregor Demarkian murder mystery by Jane Haddam, Living Witness (Minotaur Books, 391 pages, $25.95). *

Living Witness, in which a small town in Pennsylvania is in an uproar over a lawsuit against the school board’s attempt to introduce intelligent design, is evidently inspired by the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District lawsuit in 2005, which resulted in a federal judge’s ruling that intelligent design was not a scientific theory but an attempt to introduce religion into the classroom.

Ms. Haddam has invested considerable time and attention to the debate over intelligent design, and she includes in the novel citations of the major books and Web sites that readers can consult for further information.

Her characters reflect the tensions entwined in this debate: the feeling among some evangelical Protestants that their faith is under attack by a hostile secular society, the apprehension of secularists that they are going to be subjected to theocratic rule, the often-unspoken class conflicts (small-town America against the influx of college-educated suburbanites), and everyone’s willingness to carry the fight into the courts.**

Unfortunately, she appears to have taken the intelligent design debate a little too much to heart. The vehement — indeed, strident — internal monologues of the paranoid Christians and secularists go on at some length and are repeated needlessly throughout the novel. It is only near the end that it seems to occur to her that there is a murder mystery to wrap up, which she does quite satisfactorily. While Living Witness has a great deal of good material in it, it cannot be said to be one of her more successful efforts.

I also note, with professional regret, the numerous typographical errors throughout the book, many of which have been corrected by a previous library patron. Apparently I am not alone in finding them irritating.

*For the uninitiated, Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI agent, lives on Cavanaugh Street, a small Armenian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and consults with law enforcement agencies on baffling crimes. A running subplot through the series is his involvement with Bennis Hannaford, a member of a Main Line family and author of a series of best-selling fantasy novels.

**Let this stand for a personal comment on the issue, which you should feel free to skip.

I’ve read aloud the account of Creation from the opening of Genesis at Easter Vigil services for more than a quarter-century, but I do not believe that the earth is a flat disk or that there is water above the dome of the sky. Treating Genesis as science serves neither science nor religion well.

Christianity had to accommodate itself to a heliocentric solar system — it took time, and the prosecution of Galileo was ugly, but at least we don’t have lawsuits in federal courts arguing that the Copernican system is “only a theory.” The evidence for evolution has grown steadily more overwhelming for more than a century and a half, and in time believers will have to come to grips with that, too.

Science operates by consensus, subject to change. There was a long-dominant consensus on the Ptolemaic solar system, and the Copernican theory displaced it by argument from evidence. There is a broad scientific consensus on evolution, though there are disagreements about details of the process. If scientists are mistaken, the mistakes get worked out through argument from evidence. Attempts to impose a consensus through lawsuits or other governmental action are good for neither science nor law.