An Analysis of Homer Simpson and Stephen Jay Gould

by William A. Dembski

Note: The Simpson's, television's popular prime-time cartoon known for its satirical commentary on various social issues, recently took a shot at the creation-evolution debate by featuring Stephen Jay Gould prominently in one of its episodes. Here is Bill Dembski's review and observations of that episode.

For those of you who regularly watch the Simpsons, you'll know that to have one's voice and character appear on a Simpsons episode is a mark of accomplishment and fame. Over the years George Harrison, Bette Midler, Magic Johnson, Danny DeVito, and a host of other entertainers and notables have appeared on the program. I was therefore particularly impressed when S. J. Gould appeared on tonight's episode. Gould was playing himself, a scientist at the local natural history museum.

This episode was really a very clever cultural commentary. Lisa Simpson wants to stop a huge mall development from proceeding at "Sabertooth Ravine" because the ravine is a fossil site. As a compromise, the mall developers decide to let Lisa dig for fossils while they continue to build the mall. While digging, Lisa finds an almost human fossil. Almost, but not quite: in place of arms the fossil has wings. "It's an angel" declare the naive and religiously motivated townfolk. Lisa, who plays the scientific naturalist, will have none of it. She therefore enlists Gould to prove that the fossil is nothing of the sort. Gould claims that the DNA tests he performed proved inconclusive.

Meanwhile, Lisa's father, Homer, takes the angel fossil, and charges admission to his house for people to view it. Homer sets the angel fossil under some fuzzy dice, and surrounds it with cheesy Christmas lights. He also sells various angel paraphernalia (e.g., angel ashtrays). Lisa meanwhile is getting exasperated that the entire town is believing in a supernatural origin of the angel. She therefore sets out to destroy the angel, but on entering the garage where Homer stores the angel finds it missing.

Upon discovering the angel missing and Lisa with a crowbar, the angry townspeople accuse Lisa of destroying it (and that for the sake of science), arrest Lisa, and put her on trial (a clear allusion to the Scopes trial). With the angel missing and the "scientific naturalist" Lisa under arrest, the religious fanatic Ned Flanders inveighs against science likening it to a guy who tells you the end of a movie before you've finished seeing it. At this, the townspeople run amock and destroy Gould's natural history museum and all other symbols of science (as they destroy a robotics lab, a robot exits the burning lab and screams "Why was I programmed to experience pain?").

Finally, Lisa is brought to trial. The judge says that the trial will decide two things, Lisa's fate and the relation between science and religion. As for the relation between science and religion, the judge decides to put a "restraining order on religion" keeping it "500 yards away from science" (note that it is religion that is expected to stay away from science and not vice versa). Just as the trial gets under way, however, the angel fossil is spotted on the top of a hill, though now it is inscribed with the words "The End Will Be At Sundown." The mood in the town now becomes that of a Jehovah's Witness gathering waiting for the Second Coming.

Finally, sundown arrives. At first nothing happens. Then suddenly the angel fossil levitates, and a voice booms claiming the end has arrived. The end of what? Why, the end of "high prices"! It turns out the angel fossil was a fraud perpetrated by the mall developers who used the fossil as a publicity stunt. Are the townspeople upset about the way this stunt flouted their religious sensibilities? Not at all. For the publicity stunt marks the grand opening of the mall, together with 20% savings on all items sold. Thus we see the townspeople, who just moments ago were awaiting the end of the world, rushing madly to a shopping frenzy.

In the closing scene, Lisa asks Gould why his test failed to detect that the angel fossil was a fraud. Gould (and mind you, this was Gould's actual voice--he is listed explicitly in the credits) admits that in fact he never did perform the test--even though he claimed he did earlier. Gould comes off quite badly in the episode. Indeed, I'm surprised he let himself be used this way. To be sure, the religious fanatics and the simpleton townfolk come off worse. But neither science nor religion triumph. Rather, it's CONSUMERISM writ large that emerges as the clear winner.

All in all, a very clever episode.