Teaching evolution
ID Goes on Trial This Month in Pennsylvania School Case
by Constance Holden - Science, Vol 309, Issue 5742, 1796 , 16 Sept 2005
In 1925, John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution to Tennessee schoolchildren in "the trial of the century." On 26 September, a court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, will look at the flip side of the controversy--whether a local school district can require that students be told about intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

The stakes are high: Although defenders of Darwin believe they have both the facts and the law on their side, a loss could be a disaster. "If we prevail, it's not going to be a knockout punch," says Witold Walczak, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. But "if we lose, ... you're going to see intelligent design taught in schools all across the country."

The suit was brought last December by 11 parents of children in the 3700-student Dover district after its school board, on a 6-3 vote, became the first in the country to instruct teachers not only to inform students of "gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory" but to tell them about "other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design." Dover High School's seven biology teachers refused to play ball. So twice this year, in January and June, the district's top two administrators went around to biology classrooms and read a 1-minute statement explaining that Darwin's was only "a theory" (Science, 28 January, p. 505). They pointed students to books in the school library--in particular Of Pandas and People--that could enlighten them about ID.

In their suit, the Dover parents claim that teaching ID is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The plaintiffs have lined up 25 possible witnesses, including experts in philosophy, theology, science education, and mathematics as well as two veterans of the ID wars, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller and paleoanthropologist Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley.

The defense is now down to two scientists: Lehigh University biologist Michael J. Behe and Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Neither would comment on the pending trial. Two prominent figures who agreed to be witnesses--Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes ID, and mathematician William Dembski, a Discovery fellow--pulled out before they could be deposed, reportedly on orders from Discovery leadership. John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture, would say only that there were "differences of opinion between lawyers."

But ID opponents think they know what's going on. "Discovery has been very cagey--they're worried about a big court defeat," says Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the groups supporting the plaintiffs. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, says that the appearance of Dembski, editor of the latest edition of Of Pandas and People, would have allowed the plaintiffs to introduce the book into the trial and put ID front and center. Instead, Miller expects the defense to "present as small a target as possible," arguing that "the board did not teach ID and that they didn't even endorse it."

Darwin's critics make much of a distinction between "teaching the controversy"--that is, highlighting what they see as scientific discrepancies in Darwinian theory--and teaching ID. "We oppose any effort to require teaching about ID. ... We think that simply politicizes [intelligent] design," says West, adding that Discovery is keen on teaching "scientific" criticisms of evolution. But Miller calls this point "a distinction without a difference. ... ID is nothing except these arguments against evolution." Although a win by the school board seems unlikely, all seem to agree it would be significant. "I believe school boards all across the country will, in the interest of good science, start mentioning intelligent design as an alternative theory," says defense counsel Richard Thompson of the Christian-oriented Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Adding to the tension is a local school board race this fall. Seven pro-ID members of the nine-member board are running for election in November. They are being opposed by seven who believe ID is unscientific. Observers say the races are too close to call.