New barrages sounded in the evolution war Monday as lawyers for a group of parents challenged the teaching of "intelligent design" as nothing more than an old argument for God's hand wrapped in fancy new cloth.
"This clever tactical repackaging of creationism does not merit consideration," Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer for the parents, told U.S. District Judge John E. Jones in opening arguments. "Intelligent design admits that it is not science unless science is redefined to include the supernatural."
This is, he added, "a 21st-century version of creationism."
Eleven parents from Dover, in central Pennsylvania, are seeking to block their school board from requiring that high school biology teachers read a four-paragraph statement to students that casts doubt on Darwin's theory of evolution. This mandatory statement notes that intelligent design offers an alternative theory for the origin and evolution of life -- namely, that life in all of its complexity could not have arisen without the help of an intelligent hand.
The foremost advocates of intelligent design are silent on whether that intelligent hand belongs to God or some other intelligent force, even including a space alien. The school board, represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative, religiously grounded nonprofit firm, took the position that the case was about freedom of speech.
"There is in fact a controversy over Darwin's theory," Richard Thompson, chief counsel for the law center, said afterward during an impromptu news conference on the courthouse steps. "Clearly both theories have religious implications. But this is not about God."
Last year, however, Dover school board members -- who voted 6 to 3 for the new policy -- made it clear that they believed that the origin of life was guided by a heavenly hand. Several of them suggested that their views on evolution are far closer to Young Earth Creationism, which holds that God created the world 6,000 years ago and that Noah's flood covered Earth, than to intelligent design.
One board member told a public meeting -- in a remark he has since tried to deny -- that the nation "was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such."
The war over the teaching of evolution is almost a century old, the first great shot having been fired in Dayton, Tenn., in the famous 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," in which the ACLU defended a teacher convicted of teaching evolution. Former presidential candidate and prairie populist Williams Jennings Bryan represented the school board. Another shot sounded in 1987, when the Supreme Court prohibited the teaching of creationism in public schools, ruling that it was not science but religion and violated the separation of church and state.
Shortly after that Supreme Court ruling, intelligent design began to appear on the lecture circuit, championed by a small band of scientists and academics. Intelligent design advocates tend to concentrate their criticism on Darwinian theory; they have been far less successful at laying a foundation for a new scientific theory, which by definition must be testable.
This was a point hammered at Monday as the ACLU called its first witness, Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University biology professor and author of a biology textbook used in nearly half the schools in the nation -- including in Dover. Miller noted that virtually every prominent scientific organization in the United States has upheld Darwin's theory of evolution as an unshakable pillar of science.
Intelligent design, he emphasized, has not fared nearly as well.
"Intelligent design is inherently religious. It is a form of creationism," Miller said during four hours of testimony that often resembled an extended college seminar. "If you invoke a spiritual force in science, I can't test or replicate it.
"Scientific theories are not hunches," he added. "When we say 'theory,' we mean a strong, overarching explanation that ties together many facts and enables us to make testable predictions."
The school board's attorneys countered by arguing that several of the leading intelligent design theorists are respected scientists and professors. And they said the school board merely makes students aware of another viewpoint. The board also mandated the placement in the school library of the book "Of Pandas and People." The book makes the case for intelligent design, and the school board's attorneys made the case that it was sort of an alternative textbook.
But Miller rejoined in his testimony that it was nothing of the sort. He pointed out many examples of outdated or distorted science in the book. He said the errors were so numerous as to amount to an intentional misreading of science, designed to drive unwary students to reject evolutionary theory.
"The errors in the book are systematic," Miller said.
Both sides plan to call a long line of witnesses, from scientists to philosophers to local teachers and parents. And, in a rare moment of agreement, they said the case is likely to eventually reach the Supreme Court.