Design or Dumb Luck?

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In rural Pennsylvania, a trial that pits Charles Darwin's theory of evolution against the theory of intelligent design has heard testimony on both sides from Catholic scientists and others.

Arguments in the non-jury trial, Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School District began in U.S. District Court on Sept. 26, with Judge John Jones III, a Bush appointee, presiding. Court dates are scheduled until Nov. 4.

At issue is the fact that on Oct. 18, 2004, the Dover Area School District Board, by a vote of 6-3, made the following resolution: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

The school board solidified the policy on Nov. 19, requiring that teachers read a four paragraph statement to ninth-grade biology students studying evolution. The statement says origin of life theories other than Darwin's exist, specifically a theory of intelligent design. It refers students to a book about intelligent design, Of Pandas and People (1993, Foundation for Thought & Ethics) available in the school library.

In response, 11 parents filed suit on Dec. 14 in Federal District Court against the School District, claiming the intelligent design policy is an impermissible establishment of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has the purpose and effect of establishment of religion.

Proponents of intelligent design hold that aspects of the universe and life are too complex to be explained through evolutionary science and that an unspecified intelligent designer must be responsible.

The district is represented by the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich. Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the law center, believes much can be accomplished by this case.

“For too long, atheists have been using the theory of evolution, which posits the claim that natural selection is the mechanism by which humans were created, in a stealth campaign to indoctrinate our children into atheism or secular humanism,” he said.

George Sim Johnston, author of Did Darwin Get It Right? (1998, Our Sunday Visitor) agreed.

“My problem is that some Darwinists that teach at the high school level are crusading secularists so they, if not explicitly, implicitly use this as a stick to beat on religion,” he said.

Johnston is not, however, in agreement with the school district's decision.

“I sympathize with the school board members who would like to see ID taught,” he said. “They are reacting to a very aggressive secularism which has permeated the whole educational system, but I think it's premature now at this point to insert this philosophical concept into a high school biology class.”

The lead witness for the families opposing intelligent design was Kenneth Raymond Miller, cellular biologist at Brown University. He is a Catholic whose essay “Darwin's Pope: Benedict XVI and Evolution,” was published in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Fall 2005. Miller took the stand Sept. 26 and testified until mid-day Sept. 27.

He insisted intelligent design has no place in the science classroom.

“Scientific theories and hypotheses make testable predictions,” Miller said. “Intelligent design, the proposition that the complexity of living things can only be accounted for by invoking a designer-creator whose actions take place outside of the laws of nature, makes no such predictions.

“The theory of evolution, by contrast, makes testable predictions,” he said, “and 145-plus years of research have borne out those predictions in remarkable detail.”

But Michael Behe, author of the book Darwin's Black Box (1998, Free Press), and also a Catholic, insisted intelligent design should be part of a science curriculum on evolution.

Behe, an expert witness for the defense, testified Oct. 18 that evolution is a theory that alone cannot explain the complexities of the immune system, blood clotting and other molecular intricacies of animals. He said such things may be the handiwork of an intelligent designer.

Under cross-examination, he also said that astrology and intelligent design fit under his “broader” definition of scientific theory, a definition he acknowledged is not accepted by major scientific organizations.

Behe teaches a course at Lehigh University titled Popular Arguments on Evolution, which discusses Darwin's theories and other alternative theories. In August, his colleagues at Lehigh posted a statement on the university's website saying they are “unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory” and hold the position that “intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.”

“You're not even able to convince your colleagues” that intelligent design is science, Eric Rothschild, a lawyer representing parents opposed to the school district's policy said to Behe during questioning.

Science or Religion?

When Rothschild read the statement in U.S. Middle District Court, Behe questioned why his colleagues would “swear allegiance to a theory.” Behe also dismissed a statement made by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which said that intelligent design is not science, and that “the scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.”

Under cross-examination, Behe said the intelligent designer is God, and he acknowledged submitting an article to The New York Times in which he asked, “Can Science Make Room for Religion?”

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is co-litigating the case in Dover along with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Robert Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “Our organization opposes the introduction of religious concepts into public school science classes. Intelligent design teaches that humans and other living things are so complex that they must have been the product of a higher power. This is a theological concept. It might be appropriate to study it in a comparative religion class, but it does not belong in science courses.”

Defense attorney Thompson differed, saying, “This is science vs. science. If the Dover School District wins this case, school districts across the nation will be adding intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution. Evolution will still be taught as the predominant theory, but students will be informed about the controversy and will be able to critically analyze the competing theories. This is good pedagogy in that it teaches students critical learning skills.”

Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, is among those who believe intelligent design is not a matter of philosophy but of science.

“If macro-evolution is only taught in the philosophy class, it would be appropriate for intelligent design to only be taught there as well,” he said in an interview. “Macro-evolution is a philosophy, a set of presuppositions and beliefs, by which life, including science is interpreted. It presumes there is no Creator but only natural mechanisms at work and therefore scientific observations must fit into this theory. It is a conclusion looking for evidence.

“Intelligent design is evidence resulting in a conclusion and in that regard is more scientific than evolution,” Stevens added. “It doesn't state how the world was formed but simply states that science reveals that humans and animals are too complex in design to have happened merely by chance. Natural mechanisms can't explain what is observed. It is a more valid conclusion than evolution.”

The debate promises to continue, whatever the court decides in Pennsylvania. In the past two years, 14 states have introduced legislation that challenges the current teaching of evolution.

(RNS contributed to this report.)

Mary Ann Sullivan is based in New Durham, New Hampshire.