Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania (2007).

"[B]ut he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes".
--Frank Sinatra, "High Hopes"

I had high hopes for 2007's 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania by Matthew Chapman.

The book purported to cover a collision of origin-of-life issues (such as Intelligent Design v. Darwinism), religion and law in a modern-day Scopes trial—a case called Kitzmiller v. Dover, which was tried before a Pennsylvania federal district court judge for six weeks in 2005.

Unfortunately, the hopes were never realized for two primary reasons.

First, the bias permeating the text was oppressive, distracting and eventually comical. The author, Matthew Chapman, admits his bias upfront as the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. (p. 3.) However, even that admission didn’t prepare me for the abject prejudices that followed. For example, like he customarily does for people he agrees with, he portrays the lawyers representing the plaintiffs (those challenging an Intelligent Design policy in a Pennsylvania school district) as geniuses at their craft, phenomenal family people, and (for the most part) like GQ models. “Katzkee, a tall handsome man, soft spoken, and civilized, was the scholar in the crowd, an expert on constitutional law, and the lawyer who would contribute the constitutional arguments in the final document briefing the judge on the plaintiffs’ case. He also looked as if he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ.” (p. 53; emphasis supplied.)

By contrast, when describing the intellectual father of the Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, Chapman refers to him dismissively as “a retired law professor from San Francisco.” (p. 142.) Chapman fails to mention that Johnson clerked at the US Supreme Court, authored one of the most influential criminal law casebooks, and was a tenured professor at UC Berkeley’s law school (Boalt Hall). Likewise, Chapman sneers: “If the plaintiffs’ legal team was a well-oiled collegial machine, the defense was a dysfunctional family with a frequently absent father.” (p. 54.) How’s that for objective reporting?

Second, because Chapman was ill-equipped to report the legal issues (he states he has no legal training, as “a high school dropout” [p. 84]), he never properly frames the legal questions before the court. Chapman writes: “Kitzmiller v. Dover had two distinct legal themes. One was the story of neighbors in conflict in Dover, the other the clash of opposing scientific and philosophical views on the origin and development of life.” (p. 38.) Similarly, he fails to provide adequate references to the record, instead furnishing snippets too narrow and too isolated to give the reader full understanding of the trial. As a result, this book stands far from a work of legal reportage as I hoped.

It’s a shame.