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Science Books

October 12, 2006

A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter's Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial
H.L. Mencken (2006)
ISBN: 1933633174

In light of recent attempts to have Intelligent Design included in school science curriculums, this collection of Mencken's humorous and scathing coverage of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial couldn't be any timelier. Writing from the turn of the century until the late 40s, Mencken was one of America's most respected journalists. He was most notable for a trenchant wit that cut through trends, politicking and ideologues, prompting celebrated British-American journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke to refer to Mencken as: "The native American Voltaire, the enemy of all puritans, the heretic in the Sunday school, the one-man demolition crew of the genteel tradition." In 1925, Mencken drew the nation's attentions to a trial taking place in Dayton, Tennessee that would test the boundaries of a new law (the Butler Act) that prohibited the teaching of: "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." One enterprising individual - looking to put Dayton on the map - set about testing the law by asking a local teacher (a friend sympathetic with the cause) to teach Darwin's theory of evolution. That teacher was 24-year-old John T. Scopes. Mencken considered such a transparent attempt at keeping evolution from being taught in schools contemptible, and Scopes' ensuing trial allowed him ample opportunity to ridicule the "yokels" and "buffoons" who believed that man is not a mammal. But Mencken left his most scathing criticisms for those representing the prosecution, especially Democratic presidential candidate and fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan. Despite having put the "monkey" in the Scopes Monkey Trial, and his writings inspiring both a Broadway musical and a hit movie, Mencken's commentaries have surprisingly never been presented in a single volume. This is the most intelligent and witty collection of trial reportage that you are ever likely to read. Highly recommended.

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution
Sean B. Carroll (2006)
ISBN: 0393061639

We've all seen crime shows where forensic scientists use DNA to solve a particularly baffling case, but now scientists are using DNA to prove a whole lot more besides: evolution. Sean B. Carroll, Professor of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, explains how DNA is not only a blue print for all life forms, but how it also happens to represent a detailed chronological record of evolution. This ultimately means that scientists can meticulously pick through these DNA records and discover how and when specific animal lineages adapted to our planet's changing, volatile environment. In this awe-inspiring and engrossing narrative, Carroll introduces the reader to the 3-billion-year-old DNA evolutionary record, which is tipped to topple all other related theories - religious or otherwise - from their perch. The Making Of The Fittest includes fascinating and detailed descriptions of fossil genes, genes battle scarred after conflicts with devastating diseases, and even immortal genes. In each case, Carroll demonstrates how natural selection ignores damaging changes in favor of beneficial ones, and that these changes leave an indelible mark upon a species' DNA coding. Even the staunchest of critics will find Carroll's evidence in favor of a genetic basis for evolution compelling, and not easily dismissed. Dawkins may have begun the quest to prove the case for evolution, but with Carroll, the defense rests.

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