Science

Defense Gets Its Days in Court in Support of ‘Intelligent Design’

By Sean Cavanagh — October 25, 2005 6 min read
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Supporters of “intelligent design” ventured deep into the realm of biological and chemical research last week in an attempt to show the concept’s scientific legitimacy—as well as its legal standing in public schools—alongside the theory of evolution.

It was the fourth week of what could be a landmark trial underway in federal court here.

Lawyers for the Dover school district, in south-central Pennsylvania, opened their defense of a policy exposing students to intelligent design on Oct. 17, with the help of a prominent advocate.

Michael J. Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, offered the court what amounted to a broad tutorial on the controversial explanation of how life developed, in testimony covering everything from the mechanics of blood clotting to the movement of bacteria.

“The appearance of design in aspects of biology is overwhelming,” the professor testified. Evidence supporting the concept, he later told the court, is “physical, observable, and empirical.”

Mr. Behe is the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, which has emerged as a prime guidebook for the intelligent-design movement since its publication in 1996. His testimony last week on behalf of the rural, 3,600-student Dover district reflected and amplified upon many of the core arguments offered by design proponents over the years.

The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, centers on the school system’s October 2004 decision to change the science curriculum to require that students be introduced to intelligent design. A month later, the district approved a policy that students in 9th grade biology classes would have a four-paragraph statement read to them that mentions intelligent design and asserts that the theory of evolution is “not a fact.”

Eleven parents sued to halt the policy. So far in the nonjury trial, lawyers for the parents have argued that intelligent design is a faith-based belief akin to biblically based creationism. Dover’s policy, in their view, is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by a public school system.

‘Copied Everywhere’

Intelligent design is the belief that certain aspects of human and animal life show signs of having been directed by an unnamed guiding force. Supporters of the concept say they do not claim to know the identity of the designer. That explanation for life’s development—which has been rejected by the vast majority of scientists—contrasts sharply with the theory of evolution, which posits that human and other organisms descended from common ancestors through a process of natural selection and random mutation.

While the federal courts have consistently rejected attempts to teach creationism alongside evolution, they have not addressed intelligent design’s status in public school science classes, legal observers say. As a result, the trial here could have a broad effect on school systems nationwide.

“If this [Dover] policy was upheld, you would see it copied everywhere,” said Nicholas J. Matzke, a spokesman who attended the trial on behalf of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization that opposes the inclusion of intelligent design in science classes.

The Dover district is being defended by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based legal-advocacy group specializing in cases of religious freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have joined the parents in the lawsuit.

In his testimony, Mr. Behe took issue with several points raised by the parents and scientists earlier in the trial—in particular, their assertion that intelligent design is not science, because it is not testable by the strict rules of the field. (“‘Intelligent Design’ Goes on Trial in Pa.,” Oct. 5, 2005.)

Critics say the notion of design is also not a “theory,” in scientific terms, because it is based on guesswork and supernatural belief, rather than empirical evidence and testable hypotheses.

But Mr. Behe cited examples from scientific journals suggesting that the term “theory” is used “in a broad range of senses.” Working with computer images projected along one courtroom wall on such varied topics as vertebrate embryos, lactose systems, and protein sequences, the bearded, bespectacled professor argued that the mainstream scientific community has downplayed weaknesses in evolutionary theory.

“A reasonable person might wonder if the theory was missing a large piece of the puzzle,” Mr. Behe said.

Parallels to Big Bang?

One courtroom spectator listening to that testimony was Randy Tomasacci, a school board member from the Northwest Area school system in Shickshinny, Pa. Mr. Tomasacci, who made the two-hour drive south to the state capital to attend the trial one day last week, said his 1,400-student district is considering adding intelligent design to the curriculum, either in science or another course.

The outcome of the Dover case would go a long way toward shaping the district’s thinking, he said.

“Obviously, we don’t want to be sued out of existence,” Mr. Tomasacci said. “You can get a sense of which way the tree is going to fall, so to speak, by what happens here.”

Whether the pertinent legal questions will be settled in Harrisburg is another matter. Should the school district lose, it is possible that Dover officials will appeal, Robert J. Muise, a lawyer for the school system, said outside court.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, who was appointed to the bench in 2002 by President Bush, is hearing the case. A former litigator, he served in 1994 as the co-chairman of the transition team for Pennsylvania’s then-Gov.-elect Tom Ridge, a Republican, and later became the chairman of the state liquor-control board.

The 51-year-old jurist has struck a genial tone at various points during the trial, which is expected to last through November, often injecting humor into sometimes long stretches of detailed scientific testimony.

Mr. Behe delved into just such painstaking detail last week. The biochemistry professor testified that the rejection of intelligent design by the overwhelming majority of scientists does not lessen its potential importance. In addition to the professor, the defense is expected to call Dover district administrators and school board members in the coming weeks, in an attempt to show that their motives were to promote critical thinking—not religion—in science class.

In his testimony, Mr. Behe compared intelligent design with the Big Bang theory, an explanation of the beginnings of the universe, which he said was initially rejected by scientists because they feared its supernatural implications.

“All theories, when they’re proposed, have outstanding questions,” Mr. Behe said, “and intelligent design is no exception.”

Defining ‘Theory’

Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the parent plaintiffs, vigorously challenged those claims when he was given the chance to cross-examine the witness. He noted that Mr. Behe’s own colleagues in Lehigh University’s department of biological sciences had issued a statement rejecting his position.

Faculty members at the private, independent university in Bethlehem, Pa., said the theory of evolution “has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years.”

In a series of often biting questions, Mr. Rothschild suggested that Mr. Behe was overstating the supposed flaws in evolutionary theory, while glossing over inconsistencies in his arguments for intelligent design. At one point, the Philadelphia lawyer read the definition of a scientific theory offered by the National Academy of Sciences.

“You used a looser definition of ‘theory,’ is that correct?” Mr. Rothschild asked.

Mr. Behe responded that his definition was “intentionally broader” and based on the common experiences of scientists.

Using that broader definition, Mr. Rothschild asked, is astrology a valid theory?

When Mr. Behe replied that astrology would have been considered a legitimate theory at one time, the lawyer displayed a dictionary definition of the term on a screen in the courtroom. Astrology, as the reference book noted, seeks to understand human life through the movements of celestial bodies—a common practice in past societies, which is not recognized as science today.

Deadpanned Mr. Rothschild: “That’s the scientific theory of astrology.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Defense Gets Its Days In Court in Support Of ‘Intelligent Design’

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