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Survival of the Fittest Theory

December 21, 2005

Intelligent design may not yet have gone the way of the dodo, but it took a big hit Tuesday.

In a case watched by scientists nationwide, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design is indelibly tied to its religious underpinnings, and that teaching it in a public school class violates the Constitutional separation of church and state.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones issued a 139-page decision that, at times, railed against defenders of intelligent design (some of them academics) -- and the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania, which became the first school board to formally introduce intelligent design into its curriculum, in October 2004. The 11 parents of children in Dover schools who sued the board were ecstatic about the decision.

“The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view,” Jones’s decision read, “a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” In a 1987 ruling, the Supreme Court held that creationism is an inherently religious belief and thus should not be taught in public schools.

Experts said that Jones’s comprehensive opinion, which also goes to great length to establish that intelligent design is not science, is a heavy blow to efforts to have intelligent design in any classroom in the country. While much of the debate over intelligent design has taken place in high schools, the issue has increasingly moved to higher education as well. Given the overwhelming consensus among scientists that evolution is fact, many scholars have been concerned that the growing intelligent design movement has the potential to hinder American science.

Throughout the proceedings in Pennsylvania, members of the school board argued that intelligent design should be incorporated into the classroom as an alternative that should be considered a possible explanation for phenomena not fully explained by Darwinian evolution.

The school board’s mandate required ninth-grade biology teachers to read a statement that referred to evolution by natural selection as “not a fact,” and to point students to Of Pandas and People, a textbook written by proponents of intelligent design.

Jones, a Republican appointed by President Bush, said in his opinion that some board members who testified that they supported intelligent design on scientific, rather than religious grounds, “testified inconsistently, or lied outright under oath on several occasions.” Several board members previously defended intelligent design in “expressly religious terms,” according to Jones, in board meetings that were open to the public, and reported in local newspapers. He noted that editions of Pandas following the 1987 Supreme Court ruling simply removed the term “creation” and substituted “intelligent design.”

Shortly after the ruling, the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute issued a statement calling Jones an “activist judge,” a term Jones anticipated in his ruling, and distanced itself from the Dover school board that pushed intelligent design. John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, said in a statement that Jones’s ruling seeks to prevent “criticism of Darwinian evolution through government censorship rather than open debate.” Lawyers for the parents said that an appeal was unlikely because voters replaced all but one of the 2004 school board members with people who do not want intelligent design in science classes.

Because the ruling comes from a lower court judge, other school boards are still open to try what they might with intelligent design. Robert J. Richards, a historian and philosopher of biology at the University of Chicago, said that, as creationists embraced “intelligent design” after the Supreme Court ruling 18 years ago, he expects ID supporters to look for new terminology that “removes all theological suggestion,” he said. Richards said he thinks there may already be some terms in the works, but he said that “it won’t be successful. It’s the same kind of movement that hasn’t worked so far.”

Richards added that the comprehensive decision in the 1987 case quieted creationists down for a while, and that this ruling might do the same by serving as a reference for judges and legal skeptics of intelligent design. Richards also lauded Jones for his discussion regarding the scientific merit of ID. In his opinion, Jones says that ID is not science because it invokes supernatural causation; it has failed to produce work accepted by the scientific community; and, rather that putting forth testable hypotheses, ID rests on the notion that evolution has not explained every detail of biological phenomena. These are arguments that have been put forward repeatedly by scientists.

Philip Kitcher, a philosophy of science professor at Columbia University, said that he would rather Jones not have addressed the question of whether ID is or is not science. Kitcher said that philosophers have essentially given up on trying to determine an exact rubric for science. He said that many ideas take considerable time to be accepted by the scientific community, and that the central assumptions of accepted scientific theories are not testable, even though the assumptions spawn testable questions.

Kitcher said that beliefs like creationism and intelligent design “were once part of the investigation of the natural world, like astrology and alchemy.”

Ralph Seelke, a University of Wisconsin at Superior biology professor who supports ID, said that he’ll sit tight for the “weight of scientific evidence” to sort out intelligent design questions, and that the fact ID will not be taught in Dover classes does not bear on the truth.

But Kitcher said that the scientific evidence has clearly weighed in, and “forced very devout people to give up those ideas. There are things that [within the scientific community] were once plausible, but some are dead, some have a nail in the coffin, some are buried, and then comes creationism and intelligent design.” Kitcher said he expects ID proponents to behave similarly to creationists after their big court loss. “They went to Christian groups on campus to have debates with defenders of Darwin,” he said, “and they can put on a good show because they spend so much time preparing.” Kitcher and several scientists pointed out that ID does not seek to explain mechanisms in biology, only that they were created by a designer.

Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biology professor who testified that intelligent design is science, said that it does permit God as a designer, but “Heck, the Big Bang theory doesn't rule out God, and many commentators have thought it points strongly to God,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think it's implausible that the designer is a natural entity, and I think it's implausible the Big Bang was caused by a natural process. How does that affect the scientific status of either idea? I think the judge simply bought the plaintiff's arguments on this, and ignored inconvenient complications,” he added.

Richards said that the fact intelligent design supporters assembled their all-star team for the trial, and still lost, does not bode well for their future in court. “They brought their strongest witnesses,” he said, “and the testimony was found to be insufficient and fallacious.” 

 

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