Cue the judge

BeheCoverA busy time of travel prevented me from seeing "Darwin in the Dock," Margaret Talbot's crackling New Yorker narrative of the intelligent-design debates in the courtroom of federal judge John E. Jones III. Talbot's essay, which appeared in the December 5 issue, has not appeared online, though The New Yorker did offer this Q&A with the author. Her reporting is impressive in its breadth, though there are a few clunkers in the narrative.

For one, she sounds smitten with the judge:

During the trial, which did not have a jury, Jones sometimes joked, in his appealingly growly baritone, about all the science he and everyone else in the courtroom were contending with. One morning, he deadpanned that stopping for an early lunch break would allow for a "nice, long afternoon of expert testimony." . . . Jones has the rugged charm of a nineteen-forties movie star; he sounded and looked like a cross between Robert Mitchum and William Holden. (According to a local paper, the Judge's wife thinks that Tom Hanks should play him -- a not entirely idle bit of speculative casting, since a representative from Paramount Pictures sat through the whole trial, filing dispatches to a potential screenwriter.)

At another point, her report sounds like one of those breathless Supreme Court back-and-forths that Nina Totenberg rat-a-tat-tats her way through on National Public Radio. Here she describes an exchange between the plaintiffs' attorney and biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University:

When [Eric] Rothschild added "the entire human body" to his list, saying, "Now that's an amazing biological structure," Behe gazed upward dreamily and joked, "I'm thinking of examples."

"Hopefully, not mine!" Rothschild responded.

"Rest assured," came the reply.

Oh, the hilarity!

Then there is this paragraph, which reads more like a parody of a New Yorker writer wandering into flyover country and living to write about it:

At the diner on route 74, where I stopped for a milkshake one night, a rack of books for sale featured Christian marriage manuals and Tim LaHaye novels. At a revival meeting at the Mt. Royal Full Gospel Church, I saw a woman, white hair coiled atop her head, speak in tongues and recall an episode when God had dangled her over Hell. At the same time, many of the town's residents shared [biologist] Kenneth Miller's definition of science and the Supreme Court's current understanding of the separation of church and state.

Nevertheless, Talbot understands the cultural stakes in this debate, and she delivers an especially damning paragraph about the Discovery Institute's confusing stance toward teaching I.D. in public schools:

If intelligent design is defeated in the Dover case, its backers will undoubtedly find subtler ways of promoting it. The Discovery Institute, a pro-intelligent-design think tank based in Seattle, has distanced itself from the Dover case, saying that it prefers a "teach the controversy" approach to the blunt advertisement for intelligent design that Dover adopted. Indeed, during a public forum at the American Enterprise Institute last month, Mark Ryland, the director of the Discovery Institute's Washington, D.C., office, said that his organization had "never set out to have school boards or schools get involved in this issue. We've never encouraged people to do it . . . We have unfortunately gotten sucked into it because we have a lot of experts in this issue that people are interested in. When asked for our opinion we always tell people, Don't teach intelligent design. There's no curriculum developed for it. Your teachers are likely to be hostile towards it. . . . If you want to do anything, you should teach the evidence against Darwin's theory. Teach it dialectically." Ryland was being disingenuous: Two Discovery Institute fellows, David DeWolf and Stephen Meyer, are co-authors of a book called "Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula," which concludes, "School boards have the authority to permit, and even encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution -- and this includes the use of textbooks such as 'Of Pandas and People.'"

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