"Intelligent Design" on Trial

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PLAINTIFF: Dover, Pa., resident Tammy Kitzmiller is one of eight families suing the school district over "Intelligent Design"

The Pennsylvania trial over the place of evolution in school curricula has been called "Scopes II," after the infamous "Monkey Trial" of 1925 — and 80 years after a Tennessee teacher was indicted for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the issue is hotter than ever. New challenges to the teaching of evolution have sprung up all over the country, but the focus this week is on the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, PA, where 11 parents from the town of Dover have sued the local school board over its mandate that students hear a statement insisting that evolution is a theory rather than a fact, and that another theory called "intelligent design" (ID) is one viable alternative. The plaintiffs argue that ID is not actually science, but simply religion by another name, and that teaching it would therefore violate a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that banned the teaching of "creation science" in public schools.

Proponents of intelligent design insist that it is founded on science, because evolution can't fully explain some of the complexities of living things — the structure of the eye, for example — which they argue follow a conscious design. And while some critics maintain this argument is but a ploy to avoid the Supreme Court's ruling, advocates of ID avoid identifying who or what that designer might be. Could be Klingons, even.

The thrust of the ID argument — that there are many things not yet explained by the theory of evolution — will be challenged by expert witnesses, on the grounds that it holds true for a variety of other widely taught scientific theories. Plate tectonics, for example or even Einstein's General Theory of Relativity fail to cover all bases. Still, ID'ers will counter, failing to teach kids about the scientific controversy over evolution is tantamount to keeping them ignorant. Except that there is no significant scientific controversy. ID proponents are correct in maintaining that there are legitimate scientists — a relatively tiny handful — who maintain that evolution is bogus science. But you can also find an equivalent handful of legitimate scientists ready to challenge relativity, or quantum physics, or the idea that HIV causes AIDS, or pretty much any widely accepted idea in modern science. A handful of doubters does not a controversy make.

So the Dover plaintiffs are bringing in scientists to try and persuade the court that ID isn't really science, but rather the exact opposite. If they lose, they will likely take consolation from the fact that back in 1925, Scopes was actually convicted. But he won a moral victory, because publicity from the trial made a laughingstock of anti-evolutionists — for most of a century, anyway.