27 September 2005

Darwin's (First) Day in Court

HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA--Evolutionary biology took the stand Monday as what some have called the Scopes trial of the 21st century finally got under way here in federal District Court. The case--Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District--has generated national attention because it's the first attempt to add intelligent design (ID) to a public school curriculum since the U.S. Supreme Court shot down creationism in 1987.

Darwin dispute. Biologist Kenneth Miller disputed many of the claims made in ID's flagship textbook Of Pandas and People.
CREDIT: Dan Reynolds

The case was brought by 11 parents of the 3700-student school district in eastern Pennsylvania, who objected to the school board's decision last fall to inform students that evolutionary theory has "gaps/problems," and encourage them to look into ID as a promising alternative (Science, 16 September, p. 1796). Taking the stand yesterday was the plaintiffs' star witness, biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Miller offered the packed courtroom a detailed introductory lesson on what science is. And it's not ID, he said.

Under questioning from plaintiffs' lawyer, Witold Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union, Miller systematically challenged a number of key points made by ID proponents. Saying ID's flagship textbook Of Pandas and People is filled with erroneous science, Miller pointed out that it espouses the notion that new organisms appeared suddenly "with their distinctive features already intact." This, he said, is "identical to creation science. The only difference is that in Pandas, these creative events are spaced out over time" rather than all happening in the biblical span of 6 days.

Miller also took apart the biochemistry in the book. For example, Pandas says that the cascade of events leading to blood clotting is too complex to have evolved without a designer because all the components have to be present for the system to function. In reality, he said, nature has already performed the test: Whales and dolphins don't have the Factor XII shared by other mammals, and yet their blood will still clot.

Even the flagellum got its moment in the spotlight. Miller tore into a favorite example used by biochemist and ID proponent Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who claims that the organelle cannot be explained by evolutionary principles because it is "irreducibly complex." Behe argues natural selection can only operate on systems that already exist. But Miller said that if you remove 30 parts from the flagellum, you are left with 10 parts at its base that closely resemble a molecular syringe used by some bacteria to infect cells.

The defense has yet to call its two scientific witnesses--Behe and Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho. But from what the lawyers have said so far, they will lean heavily on what they perceive as weaknesses and uncertainties in evolutionary theory. They will also seek to convince District Court Judge John E. Jones III that ID has nothing to do with God or religion. In his opening statement, defense lawyer Pat Gillen of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, portrayed the school board's new policy as a "modest change in the biology curriculum for the purpose of enhancing science education [and] critical thinking."


Related sites
Court Web site
Ken Miller Web page

Copyright © 2005 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.