A federal judge in Pennsylvania will hear arguments Monday in a lawsuit that both sides say could set the fundamental ground rules for how American students are taught the origins of life for years to come.
At issue is an alternative to the standard theory of evolution called “intelligent design.” Proponents argue that the structure of life on Earth is too complex to have evolved through natural selection, challenging a core principle of the biological theory launched by Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Instead, contend adherents of intelligent design, life is probably the result of intervention by an intelligent agent.
Intelligent design has been bubbling up since 1987, when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not teach the biblical account of creation instead of evolution, because doing so would violate the constitutional ban on establishment of an official religion.
Critics deride intelligent design as creationism gussied up for the courts; advocates say it is an explicitly scientific construct that makes no supposition about the identity or nature of the designer.
The disagreement has led to anguished public debates and hearings before local school boards for almost 20 years. While judges have considered smaller questions barnacled to the issue, the trial that opens Monday is believed to be the first time a federal court has been asked to decide the fundamental question: Is intelligent design religion or science?
Finally, a chance for a definitive ruling
The Pennsylvania case “is probably the most important legal situation of creation and evolution in the last 18 years,” said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which opposes challenges to the standard model of evolution.
“This will be the first legal challenge to intelligent design, and we’ll see whether they have been able to mask the creationist underpinnings and basic orientation of intelligent design,” she said. Regardless who wins, “it will have quite a significant impact on what happens in American public school education.”
The suit, brought by 11 parents, challenges the Dover Area School District’s adoption last year of an addition to the science curriculum directing teachers — in addition to teaching evolution — to tell students about intelligent design and refer them to an alternative textbook that champions it. Three opposing board members resigned after the vote.
The parents contended that the directive amounted to an attempt to inject religion into the curriculum in violation of the First Amendment. Their case was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation for Church and State, with support from Scott’s organization.
The school board is being defended pro bono by the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian law firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. The case is being heard without a jury in Harrisburg by U.S. District Judge John Jones III, whom President Bush appointed to the bench in 2002.
Science organizations have generally turned their backs on forums in which they have been challenged to defend Darwinian evolution, on the theory that engaging the intelligent design school in any way is to take its ideas too seriously. For example, when the Kansas Board of Education held hearings this year on new science standards that criticized evolution, science groups boycotted.
The Pennsylvania case, however, gives scientists the chance to go on the attack, forcing intelligent-design advocates to defend their beliefs. But because local school boards have almost complete latitude to set the content of the curriculum, the plaintiffs must navigate a narrow path.
It isn't enough for them to discredit intelligent design — indeed, that is almost irrelevant to the legal question. Instead, what they must do is show that the school board’s decision would have an unconstitutionally religious purpose and effect, Scott said.
Even so, Scott and others make no bones about their principal motivation: Intelligent design as science is bogus, they insist, and teaching it is a grave disservice to students.
“Intelligent design is simply the most recent version of creationism, which is admittedly a religious concept,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and publisher of the journal Science. “There is no scientific basis to intelligent design.”
Debating the terms of the debate
This is where things get sticky, because it all boils down to a basic argument over just what is evolution and what is religion.
Advocates have labored for years to have intelligent design be taken seriously as science. Although many of the leading thinkers in the movement openly acknowledge their Christian faith, they also sport Ph.D.s in hard science and maintain that their suppositions are rooted in principled observance of the scientific method.
And they generally have no problem with much of evolutionary theory, which can — in part —be stated as the change of species over time. Evidence, they agree, amply bears out this observation, which is known as micro-evolution.
Where they dissent is in what’s known as macro-evolution — the transformation over time of a species into another species. The distinction is drawn in “Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins,” the alternative text endorsed by the Dover school board:
“Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact — fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings. Some scientists have arrived at this view since fossil forms first appear in the rock record with their primitive features intact, rather than gradually developing.”
In other words, their argument is not so much with evolution per se as it is with what they see as the failure of evolution to account for how it all started. It is perfectly reasonable as science, they believe, to explore whether an outside agent triggered diversity of complex biological structures seemingly engineered to sustain life on Earth.
Intelligent-design supporters are careful to say they don’t know who or what that outside agent was, but to the large majority of biologists, that’s beside the point: Science is concerned with the natural world, while intelligent design supposes an agent independent of the natural world.
You can teach such concepts, Leshner and Scott say; indeed, you should — just do it in philosophy and religion and literature classes. Don’t do it in science classes, because, by definition, that’s religion. It isn’t science.
“If we human beings evolved as a result of natural cause, are we special to God? Does life then have some sort of purpose?” Scott asked.
They’re legitimate questions, but “these are issues that are outside of science,” she said. “These are not issues that should be part of the science curriculum.”
Tough spot for ID crowd
The Dover case raises difficult issues for many advocates of intelligent design, who sometimes feel as if they’re dismissed as rubes or Bible thumpers trying to wiggle God back into the classroom in a white lab coat.
Indeed, the Discovery Institute — the Seattle-based think tank that is the intellectual engine of the movement — finds itself opposing both sides. While it criticized the ACLU for pursuing an “Orwellian” stifling of scientific debate, it also disagreed with the Dover school board’s vote last year.
“Discovery Institute strongly opposes the ACLU’s effort to make discussions of intelligent design illegal. At the same time, we disagree with efforts to get the government to require the teaching of intelligent design,” the institute said in a statement this week.
“Misguided policies like the one adopted by the Dover School District are likely to be politically divisive and hinder a fair and open discussion of the merits of intelligent design among scholars and within the scientific community, points we have made repeatedly since we first learned about the Dover policy in 2004.”
Regardless, the end result could be some judicial proclamation of that kind. Because the losing side is likely to appeal every step of the way, the case may well end up at the Supreme Court, leading to a ruling that could set a national precedent.
That is “a disturbing prospect,” the Discovery Institute said — judges should not be telling scientists “what is legitimate scientific inquiry and what is not.”