I had the privilege of attending a gathering last evening billed as celebrating the double anniversaries of Darwin’s birthday (200) and the first publication of On The Origin of Species (150). For those who are not aware of recent events in the evolution vs. intelligent design pseudo-controversy, Harrisburg PA was the focal point of this brouhaha back in 2005 when the trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover took place in Federal Court here.
Some of the local participants in the trial put together this little event as an anniversary celebration, and as a celebration of the outcome of the trial, roughly four years ago. It was sponsored in part by the local chapter of the ACLU and PA Nonbelievers. It was held at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, a wonderful little venue that was an old movie theater, refurbished and recently opened in downtown Harrisburg. The ambiance for a concert like this was perfect, as you sit in the store, facing the stage, surrounded by stacks and stacks of books. It’s almost like being in a library, with the added advantage of being able to buy the books you like.
The mistress of ceremonies was Lauri Lebo, who, as a reporter for the York Daily Record, wrote about the trial as it was happening. She also wrote a book about the trial which I reviewed in a previous post. The show started with a scripture reading. OK, that was a little humor for all you theists out there. Actually, Eugenie Scott, from the National Center For Science Education, read a passage from the end of Origins to get everyone in the mood.
The first act was someone I was previously unfamiliar with, but no longer. Jefferson Pepper (who also happens to be married to the mistress of ceremonies) is a singer/songwriter of considerable talent. His songs are in the alt-country or alt-folk genre of music, and he brought with him a very tight complement of musicians to back him up. I was pleasantly surprised, because that’s my kind of music, and I was expecting only a rap artist, Baba Brinkman who came on later. Anyway, he performed a few songs solo, then brought on his band, and they kicked ass. Songs Like “Open Up The Window (and let reality in)”, “Dover Darlin'” and “Armageddon For Sale” fit the mood of the evening perfectly. Even Ken Miller was bopping along (although he struck me as someone who felt right at home, for a college professor). Pepper then broke it up with a song about Paris Hilton (“Famous for Being Famous”).
Next up was the aforementioned Kenneth R. Miller, he of expert witness and mouse trap tie clip fame at the Dover trial. He gave a “non-lecture” lecture, backed up with a PowerPoint presentation, about the Dover trial. For someone unfamiliar with the trial, he set out a nice little synopsis of the issues raised, the history of the “controversy”, the trial itself, and its importance in the greater scheme of education. Of particular interest to me, a lawyer and history buff, was the communications he shared with Susan Epperson, of Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court case that did away with the laws outlawing the teaching of evolution in the various states that still had them on the books at the time. At one point after the Dover trial, he asked for a signed autograph from her, and she sent him a picture of herself with John Scopes, then an old man.
Miller ended his lecture with a rumination on what the future holds. Winning the Dover case doesn’t mean much when more people in the US believe in intelligent design creationism than evolution, even though the latter is a fact, and the former is speculation (read fantasy) at it’s finest. He surmised that one of the problems is that creationism has a certain simplicity and elegance to it, as a story, that leads people to embrace it, while science seems like something arcane, complex, and difficult to understand to most people. Yet, if evolution is properly understood, it has the ability to engender far more awe and wonder than creationism, and has far more explanatory power to boot. It’s just a matter of education, according to Miller.
The night ended with a rap performance by Baba Brinkman. Now, I’m not a rap aficionado, and Brinkman knew that his audience wasn’t pre-conditioned to accept his music (a relatively older crowd, it was), but he did a wonderful job of winning us over, in my opinion. He had previously established his rap credentials by setting the Canterbury Tales to rap, and performing it in England. There, someone suggested he do the same thing for Darwin, so he did. The result is a tour de force of poetical imagery that delved into an analysis, along with the nuances, of Darwins’s theory, while interweaving it with the concept of rap music itself. It was informative, serious, enlightening and humorous all at the same time. You can download it if you’d like to hear it.
It was an appropriate celebration of Darwin. A good crowd, including some of the Dover Plaintiffs, along with Eric Rothschild, the lead attorney for the case. We were enthusiastic, but it wasn’t hard to be so. The setting was perfect (how can you not enjoy a show about science when you are surrounded by so many books – but maybe that’s just me.)
I even ended up with a T-shirt with the “Darwin Rocks” logo from the poster on it.
Thanks Lauri, for inviting me.