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God goes to court in all but name
- 29 October 2005
- NewScientist.com news service
- Celeste Biever
“I CAME from a single-celled organism,” declares Bill Marshall, proudly raising his beer glass. It is not the sort of statement I expected to hear in the heart of what locals call “Penntucky”, a stretch of rural Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, nicknamed for what many see as its similarity to the Deep South.
I am in the Racehorse Tavern, the closest bar to the “dry” town of Dover, which nestles among the corn, soy and tobacco fields, and Amish settlements. With its 1900 inhabitants, Dover does not normally attract many visitors. But last month it was catapulted to global attention when 11 parents sued their school board for introducing a religion-friendly alternative to Darwinian evolution into biology classes.
As New Scientist went to press, the defence case was drawing to an end. This is the first time that intelligent design (ID), the idea that life was created by an anonymous designer, has been scrutinised in court. Its significance could rival that of Tennessee’s infamous 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, which exposed deep divides between progressive and traditional America.
This time though, the clash is more complicated. For starters the folk in the bar are not thumping a Bible or waving a pitchfork at me. They want to discuss the case. “My feeling is they should teach both,” says Jim Delisio, a gigantic, tattooed plumber with pierced ears and a long, grey ponytail. He believes his two kids should be given all options.
His friend Kevin Eutzy disagrees. “It’s a couple of fundamentalists trying to stuff religion down our throats because Bush is in the White House.” At this, a fight almost erupts, and bartender Nikki Coleman rushes to join in the argument. “It’s not religion, it’s not God or Jesus, it’s a higher power,” she shrieks.
The same issues are being thrashed out in the courtroom in Harrisburg, 30 kilometres away. “ID is not a testable theory in any sense and as such is not accepted by the science community,” testified charismatic biologist Kenneth Miller from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the first witness called by the plaintiffs. He is a veteran opponent of ID, with 13 public ID debates and four articles refuting ID under his belt. His testimony is an energetic lesson in the evidence for evolution.
Reaction is mixed. Frank Jackson, a retired gastroenterologist, is hooked on the trial. “This is like eating candy all day,” he told New Scientist. But Jim Grove, a Baptist pastor from nearby Loganville, who has scheduled a seminar titled “Why evolution is stupid” to coincide with the trial, is less enthusiastic. “If evolution is true, there should be intermediate forms: birds with fins and fish with feathers.”
The plaintiffs’ next challenge is to show that it was religion, not science, that motivated the school board’s decision to read a statement to pupils promoting ID. Former board member Aralene “Barrie” Callahan described to the court the board’s heated debates over teaching creationism. She, along with other parents, testified that during one such meeting pro-ID school board member Bill Buckingham implored: “2000 years ago someone died on a cross, can’t someone take a stand for him?” The court heard that he claimed students get “brainwashed” at university.
In conversation, other pro-ID school board members adopt a more measured tone. Pentacostal minister Ed Rowand, for example, insists ID is science, although he admits he doesn’t understand it. How does he know? “Well, it sounds like science, doesn’t it?”
However, most people in Dover seem convinced that the school board was motivated by religion. Not everyone thinks that is a bad thing. Tony Caffaro, who runs a pizza restaurant near the school, is delighted that ID will be on the science menu. “What’s the big deal? I want my children to believe in God, that’s all I care about.”
Others disagree. “What it comes down to is infringing on the constitution,” says 17-year-old Jeremy Naylor, stepping out of a large red pickup. “I don’t think ID has a place in schools.” He is a pupil at the school and hopes to become a woodworker or machinist when he leaves next year. “I thought it was a joke,” Naylor says. “I would have walked out of the class.”
In court, the plaintiffs’ will try to demonstrate the religious roots of the ID movement. Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, cites Of Pandas and People, the textbook recommended by the statement. She testified it is a creationist book that was reinvented to dodge the 1987 ruling by the US supreme court banning the teaching of “creation science”. She describes a dramatic shift from the word “creationism” to the phrase ID after the 1987 ruling (see Graph).
Forrest also testified about an ID action plan called the “Wedge Strategy”. This was leaked in 1999 from the Discovery Institute, a pro-ID think tank in Seattle, Washington, and posted online (New Scientist, 8 October, p 47). The document states that ID’s goal is to redefine science so that it “is more consonant with Christian beliefs and theistic convictions”.
Much of the defence’s hope rests on Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He spent a day and a half explaining to the court his concept of “irreducible complexity”. Take one component away from complex biochemical structures and they no longer work, so he claims they could not have come about by stepwise evolution (New Scientist, 9 July, p 10). He admits though that only one peer-reviewed paper has been published supporting ID. Even in that, the phrase does not appear and the reviewers insisted that the term “irreducible complexity” be removed.
The packed courtroom came alive for Behe’s cross-examination. Eric Rothschild, an attorney for the plaintiffs, sparked a heated debate about the definition of a scientific theory. The National Academy of Sciences says it is, “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses”. In court, Behe accepted that ID fails to pass muster, but argued that in practice scientists use the word more broadly. He offered an alternative: “A scientific theory is a proposed explanation which points to physical data and logical inferences.”
Rothschild saw his opportunity to move in for the kill. “But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Behe said, as the court erupted in laughter.
“You’ve got to admire the guy,” comments Robert Slade, a local retiree and science enthusiast. “It’s Daniel in the lions’ den.”
Surprisingly to some, many of the plaintiffs and the scientists testifying for them are deeply religious. They see no conflict between evolution and their faith. Edward Larson, a historian at the University of Georgia who has written a book about the Scopes trial, says it was a smart move to choose Miller, who is a Catholic, as the primary expert witness, rather than an outspoken atheist such as Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford. “If they wanted a case that would have got the nation’s attention, like the Scopes trial and O. J. Simpson, then you bring in Dawkins, you let it all hang out.” But he says that Dawkins’s idea that Darwinism disproves religion would have been more difficult for the judge, John Jones, to swallow.
Jones’s verdict, which could come as early as mid-November, will have little direct effect other than on teaching in Dover. But it will send an important message. If he rules for the defence it will encourage similar pro-ID moves. “It’s going to be like mushrooms in a forest after a warm summer rain,” says plaintiff attorney Witold Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is funding the plaintiffs’ case.
Either way, the issue is likely to eventually reach the US supreme court. And with two new justices being appointed to the court this year, the outcome there is far from certain.
What all the fuss is about
This is the full statement from the school board of the Dover Area School District. It was read to children during science classes by administrators because biology teachers refused to do so.
“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.
Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is not evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.
With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.”
In 1987, the US supreme court struck down Louisiana’s so-called “equal time” law, which mandated that “creation science” as well as Darwin’s theory should be taught in science classes. Creation science sought scientific evidence in favour of the Christian creation story.
The court decided that because creation science failed to meet requirements such as starting with a falsifiable hypothesis, it did not qualify as science. Teaching creation science amounted to teaching religion, the court ruled, and so fell foul of the first amendment, which enforces the separation of church and state.
Part of the court’s judgement: “The Louisiana Creationism Act advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety. The Act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose.”
The case of the Plaintiffs
Eleven parents argue that the decision by the school board of the Dover Area School District to read a statement during biology class promoting intelligent design violates the First Amendment of the US constitution, which provides for the separation of church and state. To win the case they must convince the judge that the statement has “no primary secular purpose or effect” on pupils.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: ID and the book Of Pandas and People, which is recommended by the statement, are unscientific and therefore cannot have a primary secular effect.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, testified that Of Pandas and People systematically omits and misinterprets scientific findings in its representation of evolution. He also testified that ID does not make testable predictions and lacks peer-reviewed scientific papers to support it, while evolution has hundreds of thousands.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: ID is based on religion and therefore has a primarily religious purpose.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond who has chronicled the history of the ID movement, testified that it was founded on a desire to redefine science to include the idea that human beings were created by God. John Haught, a theologian at Harvard University, said that ID was a religious, not a scientific, concept.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: Of Pandas and People is a creationist book that has been recrafted to dodge the 1987 supreme court ruling banning the teaching of creation science.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Forrest testified that drafts of Of Pandas and People that predate the supreme court ruling are virtually identical to the published book except that the words “creationism” and “creationist” have been replaced (See Graph).
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: The Dover school board was motivated by religion when it voted for the statement: therefore the statement has a religious purpose.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Parents and teachers who attended school board meetings testified that members of the school board were troubled because evolution contradicted Christian teachings. They testified that the board actively tried to find biology textbooks promoting creationism and believed a religious version of biology should be taught in the school.
The Defence case
The school board of the Dover Area School District argues that its decision to read a statement promoting ID does not have a primary religious purpose or effect.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: ID is a scientific theory, and a legitimate scientific controversy exists between ID and natural selection.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, testified that ID is “based on observable, empirical and physical evidence from nature, and logical inferences” and so counts as science. He listed more than 28 occasions on which he had debated with other scientists about ID.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: There are gaps in evolutionary theory, so there is a secular purpose and effect to exposing students to other theories.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho, Moscow, testified that there are gaps in the theory of evolution because it does not fully explain the origin of information, the origin of life or the evolutionary history of biochemical pathways and subcellular structures. Behe testified that there is “zero evidence that natural selection and random mutations can build complex biochemical structures”.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: ID is not religious and is not the same as creationism.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Michael Behe testified that ID “requires no religious commitment”. He said that science has not yet shown who the designer is, although he said that as a devout Catholic he personally believes it was God. Behe also testified that Of Pandas and People makes no firm claims about common descent; the plaintiffs, however, presented evidence that it describes itself as a book that “questions the Darwinian notion of common descent”.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: Reading a statement does not constitute “teaching”.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Defence lawyer Patrick Gillen stated that students “are merely made aware” of the existence of ID and so are not formally taught it.
WHAT THEY MUST SHOW: It is not unscientific to redefine science, so even if ID does not fit traditional definitions of science, it is not necessarily unscientific.
HOW THEY ARE DOING IT: Sociologist Steve Fuller of the University of Warwick, UK, testified that many phenomena, such as gravity and the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics, were once thought to be supernatural.