Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Posted on May 11, 2009


This program, was released by NOVA November 13, 2007. I just recently ran into it while renting Evolution: A Journey Into Where We’re From and Where We’re Going.


Program description here, full program available for viewing online here, and the transcript is available in full here. The full transcript of the actual court case is available here.

CHAPTER 1 sets the stage in Dover, Pennsylvania in light of the Scopes’ trial of 1925-6, and shows that the tensions of the previous decades between evolution and creationism were still not yet resolved. This leads to a school board’s decision to mandate a one minute statement to be read in the classroom which will eventually lead to one of the most popular court cases in recent American history. The one minute statement reads,

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.”

CHAPTER 2 runs through a brief overlook of Darwin’s life, work, thesis, and his publication, On The Origin of Species. [1]  Basically, animals compete, and those that are able to adapt survive. The mechanism of adaptation? “Natural Selection,” which, over time, gives rise to new species–originally known as “descent with modification.” This idea posed personal and ideological affronts to those religiously dedicated to a “literal” reading of Genesis.

CHAPTER 3 introduces and explains the idea of “Intelligent Design” (ID) as a “competing” theory to be taught in the schools, driven by the Dover School Board. Basically, because species are too complicated to have “evolved” at random over time, the creation must have emerged abruptly through an “intelligent agent/cause” in their current complex forms. Enter Philip Johnson, the Thomas More Law Center, and the Discovery Institute, and the drama that is to unfold as science goes to court.

CHAPTER 4 begins tracking the litigation over the issue which begins with the refusal of the biology teachers to read the one-minute statement. Through re-enactments, the fundamental question and contention on trial is the question, Is Intelligent Design science?, and therefore ought it be taught in a science class? Presiding over the case is Judge John E. Jones III. Not only now was Intelligent Design on trial, but so was science.

CHAPTER 5 introduces Kenneth Miller, and a run through of the detailed explanations of fundamental evolutionary theory and its distinction from the idea of Intelligent Design. Evidence of “transitional forms” are submitted adding weight to the tilting balance towards evolution.

CHAPTER 6 proposes that evolution is actually a very “successful theory,” and re-educates us on the substantive nature of what a “scientific theory” is in the discipline of science; that a “theory” is something that has been tested and tested, worked on, and revised and refined over time. Much like the “theory” of gravity, evolution is a “well supported, testable explanation, that provides a natural explanation for natural phenomena.” Evolution, as a theory, is substantiated not only just in biology, but now in genetics, archaeology, and molecular biology. “Not a single observation, not a single experimental result has emerged in 150 years that has contradicted the theory of evolution. Any theory that can withstand that rigor is a pretty good theory.”

CHAPTER 7 suggests that supernatural metaphysical ideas cannot be tested by science. The fundamental problem with ID is that you can’t use it to explain the natural world. The defense now needed to muster a substantive argument against the claims of the plaintiffs. Meanwhile, things in Dover, are getting tense exacerbating the animosity between the biology teachers and the religious.

CHAPTER 8 puts Intelligent Design to the test (on the stand) and finds Michael Behe’s concept of Irreducible Complexity insufficient, and essentially, invalid. Centering on the bacterial flagellum (the flagship of ID proponents), we discover that evolution provides the best explanation for its existence and apparent “design” rendering the idea of ID quite weak and essentially unnecessary. Simply put, not all the parts are necessary for a structure to exist and operate, thus falsifying the concept of Irreducible Complexity.

CHAPTER 9 begins with a somewhat theatrical presentation to discount Behe’s proposition that evolution is insufficient to explain the immune system. Things get personal for people back in Dover with threats and tensions rising. It is then also purported that faith and science, belief and reason can be compatible and harmonized and can both be considered gifts of God. “If God is real, then faith and reason should compliment each other, rather than being in conflict.”

CHAPTER 10 looks at the issue, inevitably raised, of the “establishment clause,” i.e., the separation of church and state. Was ID motivated by religion? If so, then there would be a clear violation of the constitutional clause. Evidence points to the affirmative. The National Center for Science Education provides the proof, the link of Of Pandas And People and “creationism” (a decidedly religious doctrine) by meticulously mining through thousands of pages of manuscripts. One proof was an excerpt of a pre-1987 draft manuscript reading,

Creation means that various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent Creator with their distinctive features already intact–fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.

The revised edition reads (with CAPS indicating the changes),

INTELLIGENT DESIGN means that various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent AGENCY with their distinctive features already intact–fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.

Another typo found in one draft of Of Pandas And People, is

cdesign proponentsists

which is really “creationists” poorly edited, attempting to replace the word with the phrase “design proponents.” Ironically, here is a direct “missing link,” a “transitional fossil” of the document’s “evolution.”

Everyone knew that ID was creationism repackaged. Few thought it could be documented this well for a court case. This becomes one of the strongest pieces of evidence during the 2004 trial. This exposes the ID movement in a way that is really irrefutable, and suggests that ID proponents are really destroying what has made science what it is, going back before the scientific revolution.

CHAPTER 11 introduces “The Wedge,” a secret strategy document drawn up in 1998 by the Discovery Institute, and highlights the cultural implications of this courtroom conflict. Illustrated by Buckingham’s admission of the origins of the order of Of Pandas, the defense’s position weakens tremendously under the revelation that questionable ethics are employed in the school board’s decisions.

CHAPTER 12 After six weeks, the trial concludes with closing arguments that were as divided as Dover itself had become, and Judge Jones renders his unequivocal verdict–ID is not science, and it should not be taught in the schools.

— VIA —

NOVA does a decent job at remaining objective as they attempt to provide an accounting of the events that took place in Dover, Pennsylvania, 2004-5. We must be hesitant to accept media productions at face value, however, in this case, the manuscripts, transcripts and full documentation are readily available to anyone wishing to really understand what happened during the trial, and the contents therein. Tested against the NOVA production, NOVA fairs well.

With that, it is seemingly inevitable, that I, in search for “truth,” ought to take into serious account the conclusions and rulings of this event. The polarizing positions that have characterized this discourse in the past must now be put to rest. Though, I am skeptical that this is over. Few know much about this trial, have read about the conclusion, or have studied enough to be “intelligent” in their arguments and ideologies regarding ID, evolution, and the nuances and cultural implications of all that. Given that, I suggest that dedicated scientific evolutionists listen carefully to the philosophies of those who hold to metaphysical and philosophical explanations of the universe, and consider carefully their concerns. In addition, religious fundamentalists ought to think and study with an open mind the mounting evidence of evolution, and re-consider why science is seen as an enemy of God. Evolution is not going away, and it would be wise of the religious to offer charity and love as the major values of their faith for this kind of discourse rather than dogmatic argumentation.

I wish the program had focused more on the compatibilities of faith and science, and explored deeper the personal faiths and philosophies of the scientists involved in the program who held to evolution and faith in equal weight and value. (The WGBH program lacked in this area as well.) If there truly is compatibility as many suggest, then there ought to be plenty of content for this kind of programming. In addition to providing the public with education on the legalities of these contentious issues, there is a “soul” of the issue that can also be communicated that might bring more harmony to the discussion, and possibly diffuse the animosity that arises in both camps.

[1] It must be noted that a forgotten title of the book is The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.