Defense Makes Its Case in Intelligent-Design Trial

By Sean Cavanagh — October 18, 2005 8 min read
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After weeks of hearing “intelligent design” described as a combination of amateur science and religious belief, lawyers for the Dover school district are attempting to strike back, with the help of an academic scholar friendly to their cause.

The legal team representing the south-central Pennsylvania school system—in what has become an internationally watched trial—opened its defense Oct. 17 by calling Michael J. Behe, a Lehigh University biochemistry professor. He is one of the nation’s most prominent supporters of the controversial concept, which suggests that certain facets of the natural world show signs of having been guided by an unidentified master architect. A district policy requiring that students be introduced to the concept of intelligent design in 9th grade biology classes sparked the lawsuit.

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Mr. Behe is the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, which since its publication in 1996, has emerged as seminal work in the intelligent-design community. His testimony on behalf of the defense reflected many of the core arguments made by lawyers for the 3,600-student Dover district.

Intelligent design is legitimate science with a body of scientific research supporting it, the professor told the court, but its principles are routinely ignored or distorted by the mainstream scientific community. Mainstream scientists also overlook weaknesses in the theory of evolution, the widely accepted view of how humans and other species develop over time, he said.

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

The Dover district’s legal team offered Mr. Behe as an expert on intelligent design, but also for another, perhaps equally important, purpose: as a foil to Brown University professor and influential textbook author Kenneth R. Miller, who opened the trial with 1½ days of detailed testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs. Mr. Miller sought to deconstruct the arguments of intelligent-design advocates point by point, singling out the scholarship of Mr. Behe in particular. The two men have become well-known antagonists in the debate over intelligent design, squaring off in numerous venues over the years, from panel discussions to the pages of research journals to televised talk shows.

‘Ordered for a Purpose’

This day belonged to Mr. Behe, however, and he laid out the case for intelligent design in methodical, and often extremely technical detail.

The belief in intelligent design contrasts with evolution, the theory that species evolve over time through natural selection and random mutation from common ancestors. In similar courtroom style as Mr. Miller, Mr. Behe used a laser pointer and a computer screen projected along one side of the courtroom to present his arguments.

He devoted considerable effort to explaining a core intelligent-design principle known as “irreducible complexity,” the idea that certain biological systems are made up of several interacting parts, all of which are needed for the system to function. Those complex systems, Mr. Behe told the court, could not be produced by the relatively slight modifications of evolution. Rather, they are most likely the product of design, he said.

As an example of irreducible complexity, Mr. Behe described the role of bacterial flagellum, a tail-like object that makes a cell move. Using colorized charts, the professor likened bacterial flagellum to a sort of engine, complete with a motor and drive shaft needed for movement.

An objective observer who studied that propulsive system and all its interdependent parts, Mr. Behe said, would “quickly realize these parts are ordered for a purpose.”

Yet suggesting that such a system was designed, he noted, did not mean one was obligated to identify the designer. Mr. Behe, under questioning from defense lawyer Robert J. Muise, acknowledged that he believed the most likely intelligent designer was God, but added that such an assertion—unlike that of irreducible complexity—was not a scientific claim.

Broad Legal Implications

The debate over whether intelligent design is a form of religious belief is a core question in the case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which is being heard in U.S. District Court here. Eleven parents from Dover, less than an hour’s drive from Harrisburg, are suing the district to halt its policy requiring that students be introduced to the concept of intelligent design in 9th grade biology classes.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have joined the parents in the suit. Those organizations say the district’s policy amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Since the trial began Sept. 26, lawyers for the parents have seized upon statements allegedly made by board members in support of creationism—the biblically based view that God created the universe and all living things—in the months leading up to the policy’s adoption.

The district is represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization that specializes in cases of religious freedom. Although the courts have rejected attempts to teach creationism alongside evolution in science classes, the Dover case is believed to be the first in which intelligent design’s constitutionality has been tested. For that reason, it is expected to have broad legal implications for districts around the country.

Assisted by Mr. Behe’s testimony, the district’s legal team has sought to pick apart many of the Dover parents’ claims, most notably that intelligent design is not valid science. The plaintiffs have argued that intelligent design is not a “theory,” in the strict scientific sense, because it is not testable by the rules of science. But Mr. Behe cited examples from scientific journals suggesting that the definition of the word “theory” is not as rigid as pro-evolutionists say it is.

“Scientists use the word ‘theory’ with a very broad range of senses,” Mr. Behe testified.

Mr. Behe also argued that the mainstream scientific community has downplayed “gaps” in the theory of evolution, in areas such as sexual reproduction and the process of natural selection. (Many scientists say those claims of evolution’s weaknesses are vastly overstated.)

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

Sources of Skepticism

Witold Walczak, a lawyer for the ACLU and the parents, would not say how his side was likely to challenge Mr. Behe’s assertions when it gets the opportunity to question him, most likely Oct. 18 or Oct. 19. But he noted that the biochemistry professor had quoted from several research articles by other scholars, in an attempt to present flaws in their arguments supporting evolution. Mr. Walczak suggested Mr. Behe was taking their words out of context.

“I’m pretty sure you’ll find that none of them supports intelligent design,” Mr. Walczak said.

Mr. Behe’s views on intelligent design have also been greeted with skepticism by another source: his colleagues at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. A statement posted on the university’s Web site says that faculty members in the department of biological sciences, of which Mr. Behe is a member, do not endorse his views.

Faculty members “are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory,” the statement says, “which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years.”

But in his testimony, Mr. Behe noted that the rejection of intelligent design by the vast majority of scientists does not lessen its potential importance. He argued that scientists have relied on the same sort of “inductive reasoning” in formulating opinions about intelligent design that scientists once used in developing the theory of the Big Bang, an attempt to explain the beginning of the universe.

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

Observers Take Different Views

Some of the professor’s testimony was characterized by the sort of exacting detail only a scientist could love. Near the end of the day, during a presentation on lactose systems, Mr. Behe offered an overhead projection that covered terms ranging from “lac operon” and “galactosidase,” to “repressor” and “permease.” Marion Schultz, a native of nearby York, Pa., who attended the trial Oct. 17 after accounts in the local newspapers stirred her interest, admitted that a lot of the scientific jargon confused her. At times, she turned to her husband, Jack, a retired mechanical engineer, who joined her in the audience, for translations.

Aside from the technical jargon, she said Mr. Behe’s arguments were not persuasive.

“I’ve tried to keep an open mind, but I find it hard to accept teaching intelligent design in the schools,” Ms. Schultz said. “I like to keep religion out of school, and they’re bringing it in.”

But another member of the audience, who had a different reason for attending the trial, was more impressed by Mr. Behe’s remarks. Randy Tomasacci, a school board member for the Northwest Area School District in Shickshinny, Pa.—about two hours north of Harrisburg—said his system is considering writing an intelligent-design policy into its curriculum.

School officials in the 1,400-student district have not decided whether to attempt to include intelligent design in science classes, or another venue, such as social studies, he said. The outcome of the Dover case would go a long way toward shaping their thinking, he acknowledged.

“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.”


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