Monday, November 16, 2009

Mission Accomplished

November 16 2009


This USA tour has recently provided me with some great reminders of why the Rap Guide to Evolution is a worthy project, even if I do sometimes get accused of being an "evangelical" for Darwin or a "scientific fundamentalist" etc. Last weekend at the Concert for Darwin my performance got a standing ovation from the evolution-defenders who fought the Dover Intelligent Design trial back in 2004. I include this detail not to self-aggrandize (a doubtful disclaimer, admittedly), but to make the general point that out of more than fifty performances of the Rap Guide in the UK this summer I didn't get this response once. The last time I got a standing O was in March in central California. I attribute the difference not to British reserve, but to their acceptance of Darwin's theory as common knowledge, an open-and-shut case. In many areas of the States, on the other hand, Darwin is either the subject of outright hostility or defensive apologetic support, but rarely of exuberant celebration.

Speaking of exuberant celebration, I got the most amazing response yesterday
from a teacher in Binghamton, NY. Carolyn Wilczynski teaches a group of "at risk" 9th and 10th graders at Binghamton High School, students who were put into the program because of behavioural problems or poor academic performance. She affectionately calls them her "stray cats" and at first they were not invited to the performance at the High School on Friday afternoon, a short 30 minutes "sampler" of the Rap Guide, but she lobbied to have them included on promises of good behaviour (they were fine). The most remarkable outcome was that one of her students, a 15 year old African American girl named Kadeidra, was the only one to come to the full performance at the University that evening of her own accord, even though I pitched it to the hundred or so regular students in attendance. They were a tough-looking bunch of kids too, so I was happy just to win them over, but having one of Carolyn's bunch attend out of sheer interest felt a bit like a breakthrough.

Below is the email I just got from Carolyn, which provides me with more
steam than any ovation from any audience, standing or otherwise. Read it and try not to weep.

on 11/13/09 7:14 PM, Carolyn Wilczynski at wrote:

Hi Baba

I really enjoyed your performances today, and was especially glad
that I was able to take some of my stray cats. When I saw the math teacher that I work with right after you left, he said "I heard that the performance was great". The kids told him. He said that they were all talking about it. But that you inspired Kadeidra to want to go to the University performance is something extraordinary. She is a stray cat in the true sense of the word - she's not bad to the bone, but has never bought into school. I have struggled with getting her motivated and until recently, haven't meet very much success. But she wanted to go to the university - and so I offered to take her.

But the most amazing thing is what she told me on the way home. She
told me how much she enjoyed both performances and that she learned something too. That part is perhaps not all something that you haven't heard before. But THE most amazing part is that she said "I see science in a whole new way now - it's actually kinda fun". You accomplished that in an hour! I've been working at it for months! I wish I could buy you a beer!


Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Devil in Dover

November 6 2009

Science Fans,

Greetings from York Haven, Pennsylvania (about six miles from Dover). The title of this message is also the title of a book by Lauri Lebo, the journalist who reported on the Dover Intelligent Design Trial for the local papers back in 2004. I'm writing from her living room sofa right now as she prepares food for a party, the annual reunion of the plaintiffs, lawyers, and expert witnesses who joined forces to block the teaching of "intelligent design" as an alternative to Darwin's theory of natural selection in local high school science classes. For those of you unfamiliar with intelligent design as a concept, it's basically a fancy name for the biblical creation myth (tempered by some strategic deception), and likewise it has no scientific basis.

This is a remarkable story, and Lauri's book tells it better than I ever could, but here's an overview. In 2004 a group of fundamentalist Christians on the Dover school board began arguing at public meetings that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes in the district. However, teaching "creation science" had already been banned by the US Supreme Court as a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibiting the state establishment of religion, so under the advice of their lawyers the school board members changed their strategy (and their story) and began advocating instead for the teaching of intelligent design. They also claimed that they had never said "creationism" even though over 100 witnesses heard them and one of them was filmed by Fox News saying it. They ordered the Biology teachers to read out a statement to students that evolution is a theory and not a fact, while encouraging students to look into intelligent design as an alternative "explanation of the origins of life", so a group of parents sued the school board.

During the trial the school board continued to claim under oath that they had never said "creationism", and that their advocacy of intelligent design was motivated by scientific rigor and not religion. Evolutionary Biologists testified at the trial, outlining the evidence for Darwin's theory, and one biochemistry professor, Michael Behe, testified in support of intelligent design. However, to justify the inclusion of intelligent design within the category of "science", Behe also advocated changing the definition of science so that it would include astrology, and under cross-examination he conceded that intelligent design actually offers no alternative explanations. If you want to learn more about Behe, here's Richard Dawkins' very sharp NY Times review of his latest book (his whole career really) click here

At the end of the trial, the Bush-appointed Republican federal judge ruled that the school board had acted with "breathtaking inanity" (translation: they were total morons) and called their claims of secular purpose "disingenuous" (translation: they were lying for Jesus). Intelligent design was banned from the classroom. It was a grand slam.

So what does this have to do with me? Very little, except that one beautiful outcome of the trial was that the parents, biologists, journalists, and lawyers involved in defending evolution from this cynical religious assault all became fast friends, and they now hold an annual reunion celebrating their win. I met Lauri Lebo and Cyndi Sneath (one of the parents) in England on our Darwin Day tour back in February, and they invited me to perform at the reunion, which is now beingi re-imagined as a Darwin-themed concert featuring readings, lectures, songs, and of course the Rap Guide. The story of how these people came together is truly inspiring to me, so it's a real privilege to be part of the celebration.

This is officially stop number four on my twelve-city USA tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, and the next two weeks will see me traveling all over NY, MA, PA, and CA bringing Darwin to the American masses (who, according to recent surveys, badly need it). However, you'll note that my stops are mostly in "Darwin-friendly" states (central PA being a possible exception), which is something I regret, but of course I can only go where I'm invited. So when do I get to perform "The Rap Guide to Evolution" in the American South? I repeat, all I need is an invitation...

All the best from god's country,