By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- By any measure, the professor appeared trapped on the legal ropes.
Biochemistry professor Michael J. Behe had just conceded in federal court that precious few scientists support the intelligent design theory, which holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand of an intelligent creator. Now came another question: Isn't it true, professor, that the nation's most esteemed scientific organization denounced the theory as non-science?
Behe, who is bespectacled and bearded, sat straight up in the witness chair.
"Their statement is a political document without any marshaling of evidence," Behe said with rising voice earlier this week. "Talk about scholarly malfeasance. . . . Science has marched on. We have now data to reopen the evidence for design in nature."
It has been hailed as another Scopes "Monkey Trial," in which the forces of science would again vanquish those who would inject religion into the science classroom. But as the trial in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg reached a midpoint this week, victory has proven elusive.
That first evolution trial in Tennessee in 1925 -- in which teacher John Scopes was accused of illegally teaching that humans are descended from one-celled organisms -- pitted scientific modernism against the fire-and-brimstone set. Scopes lost, paid a $100 fine, and eventually the verdict was reversed in his favor. But the case's long-term effect was to deal a crushing defeat to fundamentalism.
This time the scientific establishment faces a more artful foe, one comfortable with the language of science. Even if the judge rules against intelligent design in November, few predict a cultural turning point.
"The evolution debate has exposed a fundamental divide in our society," said Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University and author of "The Evolution-Creation Struggle." "There is no question that America is fractured and that the intelligent design people are bloody serious. A court case isn't changing that."
Dover is a farm town in central Pennsylvania that is half-evolved into a suburb. Last year, its school board voted to require that high school biology teachers read to students a short statement casting doubt on Darwin's theory of evolution and offering intelligent design as an alternative theory. Eleven parents sued, arguing that intelligent design is religion gussied up as science.
Legions of scientists say that Darwin's theory of evolution remains as solid as ever and is the soil in which modern science takes root. They say advances from DNA research to the discovery of new fossils tend overwhelmingly to shore up their case.
The Dover plaintiffs have marshaled a string of notable witnesses, beginning with Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller, to fire scientific salvos at intelligent design.
"It is what a philosopher might call the argument from ignorance," Miller told the court several weeks ago. "Because we don't understand something, we assume we never will and therefore we invoke . . . a supernatural creator."
But bringing a legal case against intelligent design is a tricky business. The small band of scientists who publicly support intelligent design are able debaters, and, as became clear when Behe took the stand, they do not sound remotely like William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer who eight decades ago in Tennessee invoked biblical authority to decry evolution.
Behe began by rattling off the names of prominent scientists, many of whom are not advocates of intelligent design, who questioned key aspects of evolutionary theory and noted that there is scant evidence for large mutational leaps. Then he read aloud from a paper written by an evolutionary biologist, whose theorizing was peppered with "maybe" and "might have" and "probably."
The heart of Behe's argument, though, centered on biochemistry, where he claims to have found machinery so complex, such as the bacterial flagellum, as to be irreducibly complex -- meaning it could not have evolved because it needs all of its parts to work.
"If leaders in the scientific field do not know how something came about, then one can be confident . . . that nobody in the world knows how it came about," Behe said. "There's no natural evidence that Darwinian evolution would have produced it."
Several weeks back, biologist Miller told the court that scientists are hard at work decoding the evolution of the flagellum. "Behe basically told scientists, 'Don't bother to try to investigate the evolution of this because it's irreducibly complex,' " Miller said. "Fortunately, research scientists didn't listen to him."
Lawyers also peppered Behe with questions about his assertion that those who believe in God are more likely to accept intelligent design. Behe replied that it was a matter not of theology but common sense: An atheist or agnostic will be predisposed to doubt a theory that relies on the possible hand of God.
Critics of intelligent design seem convinced that the past week in court went smashingly. A lawyer for the parents mockingly compared intelligent design to the "theory" of astrology.
Still, Behe and the intelligent design crowd display no signs of flagging. They have considerable financial support, often from political conservatives. And Behe's argument that intelligent design represents an insurgent struggle against a scientific bureaucracy resonates deep within the heart of American culture.
"Have you listened to him?" asked Dover Area School Board President Sheila Harkins, who is among the board members who favor teaching intelligent design. "He's smart and knowledgeable, and he's not backing down up there. He's terrific."