The Indianapolis Monkey Trial
by Peter Davenport, Editor
As the thunderstorm rumbled into Indianapolis from the corn and soybean sea, a different kind of storm was brewing in my grandparents’ apartment. It was mid-July 1982, and my cousins and I had been forced inside by the approaching wind and rain. Corralled in the den so the adults could talk in the living room, we boys gathered around the TV screen. Flipping dully through the static-filled channels, bickering over the choices, we settled on a nature program. The subject was Jane Goodall and chimpanzees.
The show struck a chord with me. I had learned about evolution in sixth grade that year, specifically about humanity’s close genetic ties to the Great Apes. I was also twelve and a know-it-all. Goodall and her Gombe chimps presented a fresh opportunity to shine.
“You know,” I said breezily, “we’re related to chimpanzees.”
The older of my cousins looked at me, amused and curious. “Huh? We’re not related to monkeys, Peter.”
“Yes we are. They’re our closes relatives in nature. They’re the cousins of humans, like you and me.”
My explanations of evolution made my cousin angry, and the angrier he grew, the more delighted I became. Finally, he got up and left the room, saying he was going to go tell grandpa and his father.
Go and tell, I thought. What’s to argue?
My younger cousin, who’d been quiet during the argument, looked up from Legos.
“You’re in trouble,” he said.
In hindsight, the warning signs were glaring. My parents had sent me alone from Connecticut to Indiana to spend a week with my grandfather, a kind, quiet, and deeply religious man. In the mornings I spied on him as he read his Bible, scouring the Scriptures with his one good eye. His other eye was removed after a painful stroke. My grandfather said God took the eye because his faith was not strong enough.
A few days into my visit, my grandfather took me aside and asked the name of my best friend. I offered the name of Niel Bulger, my next-door neighbor.
My grandfather pondered my answer. “I asked your cousin the same question. Do you know what he said?”
“No,” I said.
“He said that his best friend is Jesus Christ. Choose your friends carefully, Peter.”
When my uncle’s frame filled the doorway to the den the evening of the storm, I wished I had chosen my words more carefully. Powerfully built and deep-voiced, my uncle scared me in the best of times. Now his face was crimson with rage. He walked swiftly to me, stooped and lifted me to my feet. I was terrified.
More than a quarter-century later, his words, spoken through clenched teeth, ring in my mind: “Don’t you ever tell my boys we’re related to monkeys again. Do you understand?”
My knees buckled. My uncle held me tight. “Do you understand?”
I nodded. He let me go and walked out of the den, the stricken family in tow. My grandfather remained behind. Choking back tears, I looked to him for comfort and explanation.
“I’m disappointed with you,” he said.
This year marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Despite the theory’s wide acceptance by the scientific community and a majority of Westerners, it remains a revolutionary notion to many Americans, particularly Christian literalists. The chasm between people of deep faith and science is no mere matter of personal preference. In this country, the rift undermines political attempts to slow global warming and biodiversity losses. It also raises questions. How should secular environmentalists and scientists speak to people of faith? Could environmentalists benefit from listening to evangelicals? Should we bother?
Jonathan Merritt, a devout Christian and environmental revolutionary, offers hope for a better relationship between religion and science as he discusses the “creation care” movement. A former right-wing “enemy of the environment,” Merritt describes his conversion, explores American evangelical thinking about ecological issues, and offers guidance for fostering cooperation to bridge the divide.
Lynn Margulis, the renowned evolutionist, sees cooperation as the driving force behind evolution. In her essay “The Evolution Revolution: How Do Species Originate Anyway?,” Margulis challenges the prevailing view of evolution. Evolution, she reasons, is not driven by the gradual accumulation of mutations in species over time, but by long-term symbioses between organisms. For too long, Margulis argues in an essay written with me, certain biologists have been corrupting Darwin’s theory. “It is time,” she writes, “to set our history straight.”
The words revolution, evolution, and volution all share a common Latin root: volvere, “to turn.” This volume explores these types of turning, from the overthrow of systems and thinking to the change over time in ideas and species. External events, such as the run-in with my uncle and grandfather, can cause radical and lingering inner changes. In “Waves of Stillness,” John Crockett explores how an encounter in the Bay of Fundy altered his thinking and changed the course of his life. Crockett offers hope for a new relationship between humanity and creation in his articulation of radical stillness.
Philip Camill takes us to two ecosystems where life as he has known it is unraveling due to human reliance on fossil fuels. One is the boreal biome, the vast spruce and sphagnum system of the North, which is thawing. The other is the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system, which is dying. Camill, chairman of the Environmental Studies Department at Bowdoin College, shows us the ecological overthrow in each, and articulates the changes they presage for humanity.
Our reliance on fossil fuels begs a different sort of question: How will humans power our world after coal and petroleum reserves are tapped out? Historian Twyla Dell takes us on a personal journey as she examines the interplay of fuel and technology in her essay “The Next Fuel Transition.” Looking at patterns that began with the Industrial Revolution, Dell suggests civilization is “technology rich and fuel poor.” Finding a new energy source, Dell predicts, will require nothing less than another revolution.
The technological dependence Dell outlines is explored more fully in Hannah Alpert-Abrams’s essay “Into the iWilderness.” Alpert-Abrams’s desire to escape the bonds of modern technology leads her to a wilderness canoeing course for educators, where her attempt to reconnect with nature leads to a different kind of connection.
In “Revolution: beauty and the coming-apart of beauty, becoming beauty again,” Janisse Ray offers a vision for humanity after “the great white switch” that powers our world is turned off. It is a world where humans are the dominant machines, where nature, not the iPod, provides the music, and where the very word “revolution” transcends its time-honored definition.
Donald Strauss straps on his bike helmet and infiltrates the crowded freeways of Los Angeles in his essay “Night Ridazz.” Strauss, who is founding Antioch University Los Angeles’ Masters of Arts in Urban Sustainability Program, examines the role edge cultures such as the radical bike movement play in undermining the automobile-based urban ecosystem.
In his essay “Finding Our Voice on a Singing Planet,” acoustic ecologist Jim Cummings explores a resonant natural world whose song is being subsumed by the human one. “What is our responsibility in this great song to our all-species partners, many of whom rely far more than we do on listening closely to their habitat and communicating with their kind at distances near the edge of audibility?” Cummings asks. His answer is simple and radical.
My grandfather taught me about the power of faith. Samantha Tibbetts’s grandfather taught her the power of personal responsibility. Tibbetts, an Ithaca College student and winner of this year’s New Terrain Award for emerging writers, introduces us to her grandfather to examine whether people and the planet might be better off if we were more like him.
This volume of Whole Terrain is ultimately about change: the role of change, the need for change, and the transformative power of change in ourselves, our lives, our ways. It is reflected not only in the essays, but in the artwork by Roger Peet and Briony Morrow-Cribbs. Peet’s prints look at evolution’s end-point, extinction, and serve as a sobering slap to humanity. By contrast, Morrow-Cribbs’s etchings suggest that life finds a way, sometimes with the help of human imagination.
Imagination—the ability to see the world as it might be for better or worse, to envision problems and innovative solutions—is the seed of change. Lafe Metz’s “Copernicus and the Boogeyman” drives home this point in the form of a playful and profound bed-time story.
Looking back to that summer evening in Indianapolis, I often wonder how life might have been had a thunderstorm not sent us scurrying indoors. Would evolution have lost its luster, like so much childhood learning? Would I have discovered empathy, after a great deal of anger and searching? Would I have felt called to edit this volume? A life can be changed by a few well-chosen words or images. This volume, I hope, offers many of both.
Peter Davenport is finishing his master’s degree in environmental studies at Antioch University New England where he has focused on environmental education. He is interested in the history of conservation movement and the depolitization of environmental issues. He spends spare time walking in the forests of southwestern New Hampshire.