|Wesley R. Elsberry
Joined: May 2002
Troubled House, a play by Daniel Schwabauer
Reviewed by Wesley R. Elsberry
People like playing "what-if" games. Hypotheticals appear in arguments regularly to test the boundaries of application. Daniel Schwabauer tries his hand at a "what-if" game in his three-act play, "Troubled House" (http://www.troubledhouse.com/TH.SCRIPT.final.pdf, last accessed 2003/01/09). It is useful to enumerate the conjunction of "what-if" conditions that this play comprises:
What if an agnostic biology professor doubted the suffiency of evolutionary theory to account for the diversity and history of life on earth?
What if that agnostic professor were enamored of antievolutionary literature?
What if journalists goaded students into falsely claiming that the professor's doubts were religious in nature and that he was attempting to bring religion into the science classroom?
What if an academic inquisition were launched to accuse the professor of blasphemy against science and decline to renew his teaching contract?
What if those persecuting the professor had no answer whatever to classic antievolutionary chestnuts like "natural selection has never been observed and cannot be measured", "there are no clearly transitional fossils", "genetic information cannot increase by evolutionary processes", and "evolution has no mechanism of change"?
What if the professor's old mentor turned out to be the most clueless of dogmatic, atheistic Darwinists around?
What if the student body were interested in "evidence against evolution" to the extent of attending hearings and starting a riot concerning the issue?
What if the professor's moral sense leads him to repudiate a "statement of faith" in Darwinism rather than recant his doubts and hang onto his job?
What if the professor's love interest, otherwise on the brink of marrying him, decided that she could not stand to leave her own academic position to go with him?
This very special set of hypothetical circumstances gives rise to Schwabauer's script. Schwabauer's script is obviously patterned as an inverse of Lawrence and Lee's "Inherit the Wind". The allusions of "Inherit the Wind" are overt enough as an indictment of the McCarthy era, but this aspect of the original work does not seem to have been taken into account in Schwabauer's derivation.
The result is a predictable morality play based on some of the fears common to conservative fundamentalist Christianity. The venue is an "ivy-league university". Journalists, represented here by students writing for the campus newspaper, are conniving manipulators who make William Randolph Hearst look like a saint. The campus atmosphere is depicted as crushingly anti-religious. The protagonist is a quietly stalwart agnostic, and examples of Christians whose intellectualism and cowardice dilute their faith are thrown into the mix.
"Troubled House" as a set piece borrows much from the earlier one-act play by Schwabauer and intelligent design advocate John Calvert, "The Rule" (http://www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org/TheRule.PDF, last accessed 2003/01/09). Act two of "Troubled House" is a re-worked version of "The Rule". While in "The Rule", the protagonist explicitly mentions "intelligent design" and espouses easily recognizable assertions from the ID literature, "Troubled House" avoids having its protagonist even say the word "design". All explicit mention of "intelligent design" instead comes from the inquisitors -- and I use the term advisedly, since "inquisition" is what Schwabauer prominently features on his home page for this play.
The inquisitorial nature of the "hearing" on possible misconduct by the protagonist is premised upon a general acceptance of philosophical naturalism by the administration. The panel consists of the humorless dean of the university (it says she is humorless right there in the dramatis personae, as if we could not tell by the dialogue Schwabauer stuffs into her mouth), an emeritus professor of life sciences (who plays the inverse role from the William Jennings Bryan character of "Inherit the Wind"), the dean of the college of religious studies (who illustrates the lapse from real religious belief that sophisticated study of religion often implies to fundamentalists), and a mathematics professor who professes to be Christian but refuses to show any sign of it to the panel. Points of logic brought up by the protagonist are passed over, points of procedure are broken by the "prosecutor", and no one even hints that the assertions made by the protagonist concerning evolution demonstrate considerable ignorance of the available evidence and state of the science.
The protagonist offers a number of claims during the course of the proceedings, and as mentioned above, none of them are effectively countered in the script. He defines science as "empirically verifiable knowledge". He asserts that evolutionary biology has offered no effective mechanism for change. He asserts that natural selection has never been observed or measured. He asserts the "all genetic change is a loss of information" argument. ID advocate Jonathan Wells's arguments on four-winged fruit flies and peppered moths are treated as factual. (Although, of course, Wells receives no credit here for those arguments.) The 'panda's thumb' is asserted to simply be a "spur" with no pretensions to thumb-hood. The Cambrian explosion is cited as a difficulty, and he asserts that no "clearly" transitional fossils exist. Of course, any halfway clued-in lurker in this debate could supply the missing rebuttals to all these supposedly unanswerable ojections. But cluelessness in the opposition is apparently just one of the hypothetical conditions in force here. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to remonstrate with a proponent of education in evolutionary biology for her over-optimistic imaginary debate with ID advocate Phillip Johnson (http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=67lv1r%24t3i%241%40news.tamu.edu&output=gplain, last accessed 2003/01/09). It seldom comes about that participants on either side have it all their way when put to face-to-face discussion with the other side. The incompetence of the inquisitors in Schwabauer's play takes us ever further away from anything like verisimilitude.
The protagonist refuses to go through with an offered compromise, and thus loses his job and his love interest. The "compromise" is for him to read a prepared statement, which is actually a statement of faith in the completeness and accuracy of Darwinian evolution. His point is to say that truth requires anyone to say "I don't know" when it comes to evolution. Certainly there are unknowns in evolutionary biology, but any evolutionary biologist is likely to come up with a far different list than the ones which the protagonist is urging as reasons to doubt.
It's certainly the case that the protagonist is personally ignorant of much. He is thrilled that a student on campus asks to borrow some of his books expressing the "doubt" he espouses toward evolution. In the play, he is falsely accused of biblical evangelism, but his real evangelical calling is for a generalized ignorance masquerading as moral fortitude. In the end, only lip service is paid to the concept of looking at the empirical evidence.
I think that we can count on ID advocates pushing for student groups to perform this extended work of propaganda. But as with most propaganda, I suspect that its value as entertainment will remain low.
The "study questions" at http://www.troubledhouse.com/study.html are notable for their absence of examination of the claims made in the play. Although Schwabauer claims that his site gives a brief introduction to "both sides of the controversy", I see remarkably little accurate information about evolutionary biology given there, and rather a lot of what ID advocates claim evolutionary biology is. There are no links to sites which argue whether ID claims are valid, such as TalkDesign, TalkReason, and Antievolution.Org, or even those which take the part of mainstream science, such as The TalkOrigins Archive or the National Center for Science Education.
Schwabauer sells manuscript copies for $6 each, and charges a $60 royalty for performances.
Edited by Wesley R. Elsberry on Jan. 12 2003,00:14
"You can't teach an old dogma new tricks." - Dorothy Parker