Scientist’s Critiques Kick Off
Intelligent-Design Trial

By Sean Cavanagh — September 27, 2005 8 min read
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A legal showdown over “intelligent design” began here Sept. 26 under an intense media spotlight, but the occasion was marked by calmly delivered testimony about the controversial concept’s alleged scientific weaknesses rather than by impassioned debates over life’s origins.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Eric Rothschild and plaintiff Tammy Kitzmiller enter the U.S. District courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa., on Sept. 26, the first day of a civil trial challenging the constitutionality of the Dover Area School Board's incorporation of "intelligent design" material into its 9th-grade science curriculum.

Eleven parents are suing Pennsylvania’s Dover school district in federal court over a policy that requires high school students be introduced to the concept of intelligent design alongside evolution. Intelligent design is the belief that the development of humans and other forms of life is simply too complex to have occurred without the direction of an unnamed designer or architect.

The case, Kitzmiller v. The Dover Area School District, is being heard by a federal court in Harrisburg, less than an hour’s drive north of Dover. The lawsuit is believed to be the first to challenge intelligent design—as opposed to the biblically based belief in creationism—as an unconstitutional insertion of religion into the public school classroom. Legal observers say it could have broad influence on school policies across the country.

Despite those potentially high stakes, the tone on the opening day of the landmark trial was decidedly tranquil. Lawyers for both sides offered relatively brief opening statements foreshadowing the legal arguments to come, before yielding to a full day of testimony from Kenneth R. Miller. A prominent Brown University biology professor and the author of numerous high school and college textbooks, Mr. Miller testified on behalf of the Dover parents.

Eric Rothchild, a lawyer for the parents, argued in his opening remarks that the 3,600-student district’s policy unfairly singles out evolution for criticism, and promotes intelligent design in “starkly religious terms.”

“Intelligent design is not science in its infancy,” Mr. Rothchild said. “It is not science at all.”

Patrick T. Gillen, a lawyer for the school district, countered that the parents were exaggerating the effect of the district’s policy. Approved by the Dover school board last year, it requires that 9th grade biology students have a four-paragraph statement read to them introducing intelligent design—a “modest” effort, according to Mr. Gillen, to expose students to the concept. The policy, he contended, does not mandate a more detailed teaching of the design topic.

“This case is about freedom in education, not a religious agenda,” Mr. Gillen said in his opening statement.

‘Argument for Ignorance’

From there, the day belonged to Mr. Miller, who was questioned for the entire session, mostly by a lawyer for the parents.

The professor said intelligent-design proponents continually exaggerate the idea of “gaps” in evolutionary theory, the widely accepted theory among scientists that human beings and other life forms evolve through natural selection and random mutation. Using a red-laser pen to point to images, tables, and other graphics projected onto a big screen in the courtroom, Mr. Miller offered detailed explanations of what he saw as flaws in intelligent design—and evolution’s strengths. His visual aids touched on chromosomes, proteins, and at one point, depicted images of a chimpanzee, a gorilla, and a human being, as he discussed the evolutionary concept of common ancestry.

Mr. Miller also took issue with several popular intelligent-design-centered ideas, including one known as “irreducible complexity.” That idea, supported by intelligent-design advocates, holds that some biological aspects of organisms, such as certain types of cells, do not function independently, and thus are likely to have been assembled together for a purpose, most likely by an intelligent designer.

But Mr. Miller cited examples, such as the immune system, as biological mechanisms working perfectly well while missing certain component parts, which he said would contradict the argument for irreducible complexity.

Under questioning by the parents’ legal team, Mr. Miller also pressed a broader point: Intelligent-design proponents, he said, focus on supposed “gaps” in evolutionary theory without offering any firm, testable explanations for how life might have developed without evolution.

“This is, in every respect, a completely negative argument,” Mr. Miller testified at one point about intelligent design. Scientists readily acknowledge that there are areas of evolutionary theory that need further explanation, he said. But intelligent-design advocates use those unresolved questions to falsely depict evolution as irrevocably flawed, he said.

Such criticism amounts to an “argument for ignorance,” Mr. Miller asserted on the witness stand. Intelligent-design supporters, he said, suggest that “because we don’t understand something now, we never will.”

Mr. Miller’s remarks were colored with humorous anecdotes and hypotheses, such as when the New Englander described how an intelligent designer might have helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series last year. He later described the high school textbooks he has written by noting, “They all have catchy titles, like ‘Biology.’ ”

That quip drew chuckles from both sides of the court audience.

Trial Attracts International Media

Judge John E. Jones III, is overseeing the non-jury trial, being held in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. A native of northeastern Pennsylvania, the judge was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2002 and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate that same year.

The trial is expected to last at least through November. The plaintiffs, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are expected to call experts on philosophy, theology, and the history of intelligent design later this week. The defense is not likely to begin making its case for several weeks.

Meanwhile, reporters from publications ranging from The Guardian of London, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair to the Pottsville (Pa.) Republican crowded the ninth-floor courtroom on the case’s opening day. At least two writers working on books touching on the case were in attendance, as was an independent filmmaker.

The controversy was set in motion in October 2004, when Dover’s school board voted to revise the district’s science curriculum to include the statement: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory, and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

A month later, the school board announced that teachers would be required to read a statement to students in 9th grade biology classes at Dover High School. Among other points, that statement says that the theory of evolution “is still being tested” and “is not a fact.” It also describes intelligent design as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”

The statement also says that students seeking more information about intelligent design could read a book, Of Pandas and People, which espouses that controversial concept. Fifty copies of the book were donated anonymously to the district last year. Students who didn’t want the statement read to them were allowed to be excused from that portion of the class. Several Dover science teachers refused to read the statement, which resulted in district administrators delivering it in classes.

‘Downright False’

In his testimony, Mr. Miller scoffed at many of the conclusions in Of Pandas and People, pointing to specific page numbers and chapters. “The treatment of biology in Pandas is inaccurate and sometimes downright false,” he maintained.

Critics of intelligent design say it is a thinly veiled form of creationism.

The plaintiffs say the religious motives of the Dover school board were evident at a number of public meetings held around the time the intelligent-design policy was approved. The lawsuit quotes board member William Buckingham as saying at a June 2004 board meeting, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

In separately filed court documents, the defendants deny that Mr. Buckingham made such a statement. They also say their policy makes it clear that teachers are not to make religious statements of any kind in class, and that evolution is to be taught, in accordance with Pennsylvania’s state standards.

As Mr. Miller noted in his testimony, the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as science, in part because they say it is not testable by the rules of science. Scientists seek to understand the world through observation and experimentation, and through explanations that can be tested. Intelligent design, which references an unnamed master architect, cannot be subject to that level of examination, scientists say.

Defense Cross-Examines Expert

The Harrisburg trial begins as critics of evolution in states and school districts across the country seek to allow more criticism of the theory into biology classes.

It also follows another legal fight in the Cobb County, Ga., school district, where school officials had put stickers that said evolution was “a theory, not fact” on high school biology textbooks. A federal judge earlier this year declared the stickers unconstitutional and ordered them removed.

Lawyers for the Dover district noted that they plan to call on Lehigh University biology professor Michael Behe, a well-known intelligent-design proponent, who they believe will refute many of Mr. Miller’s arguments. The defendants are represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization that focuses on legal cases involving religious liberties for Christians.

In his cross-examination, a lawyer for the Dover district, Robert J. Muise, repeatedly suggested that Mr. Miller was downplaying legitimate doubts in the scientific community about evolution.

Mr. Muise questioned why a scientist would object to the Dover statement. In science, there are many unanswered questions, the lawyer said. Couldn’t those be accurately described as “gaps,” he asked Mr. Miller.

“I would not refer to unanswered questions as gaps,” Mr. Miller responded.

The school board’s lawyer later questioned whether British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution could accurately be described as “incomplete and unfinished.”

But Mr. Miller said that description ignored a fundamental point about scientific research.

“All science,” Mr. Miller responded, including the theory of evolution, “ is necessarily incomplete.”

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