Darwin on Trial
20-01-06 Revista de Prensa
Margaret Talbot discusses Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the first case to test whether it is constitutional for public-school classes to present the argument of intelligent design.
This week in the magazine, Margaret Talbot reports from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In January, the presiding judge, John E. Jones III, will render his verdict and decide whether Dover biology students will be read a four-paragraph statement casting doubt on the validity of Darwinian theory and endorsing intelligent design as an alternative. Here, with Daniel Cappello, Talbot talks about the case, the state of science, and what Americans believe about evolution.
DANIEL CAPPELLO: What first attracted you to the Kitzmiller case?
MARGARET TALBOT: For one thing, it was the first time that the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design in public schools was going to be tested, so I knew it was going to be an influential decision for the teaching of science in this country and for the ongoing negotiation between the courts and American fundamentalists. For another, I had a sense that there was a drama—a neighbor-versus-neighbor, even family-member-versus-family-member, debate about science and religion—taking place within this small Pennsylvania town. I hoped that the trail would open a window onto that, and it did. At one point, one of the plaintiffs testified that her teen-age daughter had come home from school one day, announced, “Evolution is a lie,” and demanded, “What kind of Christian are you?”
What, briefly, is the history of the teaching of evolution? Most Americans know about the Scopes trial, in 1925. What are the other milestones?
Scopes was a young schoolteacher who volunteered to participate in an A.C.L.U. challenge to a law in Tennessee; the law forbade teaching that “man has descended from a lower order of animal.” Scopes lost the case, and never appealed it beyond the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the law but overturned Scopes’s conviction on a technicality. But since then the courts, including the Supreme Court, have consistently held that laws forbidding the teaching of evolution or mandating the teaching of creationism side by side with evolution are unconstitutional—that they violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, because they breach the separation of church and state. The key Supreme Court decision in this area was Edwards v. Aguillard, in 1987, in which the Court overturned a Louisiana statute that mandated the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. Scalia wrote a sharp dissent, which is an indicator of how he might vote if an intelligent-design case ever made it to the Court.
And recently—as in a Cobb County, Georgia, case involving what you might call “warning labels” on high-school biology textbooks, which say that evolution is a theory, not a fact—courts have gone further, seeing such invitations to look askance at evolutionary theory as violations of the establishment clause. In that case, the U.S. District Court judge said that the stickers were tacit endorsements of a fundamentalist-Christian viewpoint, even though they did not mention anything explicitly religious.
What is at the crux of Kitzmiller—the validity of evolution or the legality of teaching intelligent design in schools? Or are those two issues impossible to separate?
I think the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools is what is at stake—is it constitutional or not. But, of course, in order to show that intelligent design is not good science, and therefore that it’s unsound pedagogy to be touting it as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, it helps to remind people how broadly supported the theory of evolution is by recent developments across the sciences—in genetics, for example, as well as in paleontology. That was part of the case the plaintiffs’ lawyers made—quite convincingly, I think.
How does the town of Dover compare to the rest of America, politically, religiously, and demographically?
It sounds pat to say it’s a microcosm, but I think there’s something to that. There’s a joke about Pennsylvania, that it’s Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with southern Alabama in between. Dover itself has fundamentalist-Christian elements, quite clearly, but it also has people who worry about the influence of fundamentalism, people—some of them quite religious themselves, some Republican, some Democrat, some college-educated, some not—who really believe in the separation of church and state, and really believe in promoting what they see as sound science education, which for them includes a thorough, not a reluctant or halfhearted, grounding in the theory of evolution.
In polls, Americans are divided on evolution. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, for instance, forty-two per cent of Americans said they believed that “humans and other living things” have “existed in present form only”—have not, in other words, evolved. This is an astonishingly high percentage, and one that obviously reflects American religiosity (and maybe the inadequacy of our science education). Forty-eight per cent said that humans and other living things had evolved over time (though only twenty-six per cent of those said that evolution was through natural selection; eighteen per cent said it was through guidance by a supreme being, and fourteen per cent didn’t know). Dover was divided, too. Its citizens elected a school board that wanted to add intelligent design to the curriculum—and several of whose members were pretty open about their religious motives for doing so—and then they resoundingly voted the board out, on November 8th of this year, fed up, evidently, with how far the board had pushed this agenda, and how much they may have to pay in legal fees if the board loses. Some version of this drama could have taken place almost anywhere in America. I think part of what happens is that while many Americans will acknowledge, in a poll, say, that they personally have a spiritual view of how life on earth developed, some of them may have quite a different feeling when a religious interpretation is grafted forcibly onto a science curriculum.
Has any one of these factors in particular—politics, religion, age—been an indicator for which side of the case Dover residents come down on?
Interestingly, the division didn’t conform neatly to any of these lines. One consistent division I noticed, and that I wrote about, was between people who read and trusted the very good local newspapers (nearby York has two, which is pretty unusual for a small American city these days) and those who just didn’t trust them. The plaintiffs were the newspaper readers; the pro-intelligent-design school-board people were the newspaper rejecters.
Where does this notion of intelligent design come from? Is it merely creationism by another name, or not?
Some notion of intelligent design—that there are things in nature that are so intricately put together that they seem to bear hallmarks of design by a master intelligence—has been around for a long time. The most recognizable antecedent, perhaps, is the argument for the existence of God made by the Reverend William Paley in the early nineteenth century, in England; for him, the marvels of the human eye were proof of design by a supreme being.
But, in its modern form, it emerged in the nineteen-eighties and nineties as a legally palatable substitute for teaching creationism, which really had its last day in court with Edwards v. Aguillard, in 1987. The courts have made it clear that creationism cannot be taught in the public schools, but until now they have not addressed the possibility that something like intelligent design could be. There is a document called “The Wedge Strategy,” which has been circulated on the Internet, which was apparently produced by someone at the Discovery Institute, a pro-intelligent-design think tank based in Seattle. “The Wedge Strategy” came up at the trial, and has been extensively written about by Barbara Forrest, a historian of the intelligent-design movement. In that document, the movement’s goal is said to be to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”
Some of the board members who voted in favor of mandating the teaching of intelligent design in Dover admitted to having no definition of what, exactly, it is. Did you get a sense of why they voted the way they did? Did they view intelligent design merely as a lesson in critical thinking or did they believe in it as a theory?
I would say there was a certain amount of, to put it delicately, disingenuousness in how they presented these arguments in court. Several of the board members said they thought they were promoting good pedagogy, critical thinking, the chance to learn about another theory, and so on. But at the board meetings, one of the members had said, for example, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for Him?” and “This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.” There was evidence presented that they had started off wanting to teach creationism, before they latched on to intelligent design. And, as you say, they didn’t seem to have a particularly sophisticated understanding—or, in some cases, an understanding at all—of intelligent design.
You write that, in the years following the Scopes trial, the battle between evolution and creationism was fought not in courts but in the pages of textbooks, and that the books that minimized Darwin sold better. How is that being played out today?
Yes, one reason there were few court challenges for several decades after Scopes was that textbook publishers got very timid and omitted evolution from biology books. One contemporary estimate was that by 1930, seventy per cent of American high schools were not teaching evolution. And that continued pretty much until the early sixties, when public support for science in America was triggered by Sputnik and competitive anxiety about the Soviets. At that point, the National Science Foundation stepped in and funded an effort to get biologists to write biology textbooks and to put evolution back in. (This is a history that is discussed in a great book titled “Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Science and Evolution,” by Edward Larson, who also wrote a fascinating history of the Scopes trial itself, “Summer for the Gods.”) That, in turn, triggered the first legal challenges to evolution since the twenties.
Now, though textbooks certainly include evolution, a lot of public-school teachers feel that students and parents push them to include alternatives to evolution or even to omit it. In a survey taken last spring by the National Science Teachers Association, for instance, thirty per cent of the teachers responding—mostly high-school teachers—said they felt pressured to de-emphasize or drop evolution and related topics from their science courses—a disturbing phenomenon, I think, when you consider how central evolution is to understanding everything from the fossil record to the classification of species, from antibiotic resistance to the commonalities between the human and chimpanzee genomes.
Intelligent-design proponents also tout another approach to the issue, which is the “teach the controversy” movement. Can you talk about that a bit?
The Discovery Institute has been a big proponent of that language, which is subtler and perhaps constitutionally safer. The idea is not to say anything as blunt as, “Intelligent design is a good alternative,” but, rather, to emphasize criticisms of evolutionary theory. It’s funny, because a lot of people associate “teaching the controversy” with the left-wing academy, but now it’s rhetoric associated mainly with trying to introduce doubts about evolution. It sounds kind of appealing—the free marketplace of ideas, let a thousand schools of thought bloom, that sort of thing. But most scientists don’t like it, because they say there is no real debate over the fundamental validity of evolutionary theory, though there are certainly unanswered questions and debate about the relative importance of various mechanisms of evolution. As Steven Gey, a law professor who has written about the intelligent-design movement, said to me, “It’s like saying we want to be able to teach that the earth is round, but also that it’s flat, that it revolves around the sun, but also that the sun revolves around the earth. Science doesn’t work that way. We know these things are wrong.”
Intelligent-design advocates often present themselves as revolutionary thinkers who are going up against the scientific establishment, and they like to point out that a lot of people thought the big bang was a crazy idea, too. But as evolutionary scientists counter, Well, maybe you do have a revolutionary idea, but, if so, then do the experimental work to prove it, and publish that work in peer-reviewed journals, which the intelligent-design people have not done. Don’t try to get it taught in high schools—even as part of a “teach the conflicts” approach—before you’ve done the science. “The interesting question is not whether revolutionary ideas occasionally win out in science” is how Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown, put it at a forum recently. “The interesting question is, How do revolutionary ideas win out? And the big bang won out because of scientific research, because Arno Penzias [and Robert Wilson] found the background radiation to the big bang. They completed the theory. They stitched it together. It is a predictive theory that said you ought to go out and find this in nature. Now, the curious thing is that the advocates of that theory did not try to get this injected into the curriculum. They did not produce pamphlets on how you could get the big bang taught in your school and avoid the constitutional questions. They did research. They won the scientific battle.”
The trial isn’t over, but the school-board elections seem to give some sense of the community’s feelings about the issue. Evangelicals like Pat Robertson, who denounced Dover as having turned its back on God, aren’t happy about this. Will the debate rage on forever?
Well, maybe not forever, but I don’t think court rulings will quash it, either. It goes back to a very deep division in American history—between the Puritans, whose main objective in shaping this country was the desire to implant and live out their faith, and the side represented by Thomas Jefferson, for instance, the sort of Deist, Enlightenment figures who developed the metaphor of the wall of separation between church and state.
At one point, a British documentarian following the trial asked if America has a love-hate relationship with God. How does the rest of the world see a case like this? Or, for that matter, how has America perceived this case?
Well, many Europeans probably see it as another example of bizarre American exceptionalism. There were reporters from around the world at the trial. I met one young journalist from Italy at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Harrisburg, and I couldn’t tell whether he thought Dunkin’ Donuts coffee or a trial about evolution was weirder. But I think there were some great, very American things about this trial, too—the really standup Doverites, grassroots rationalists, who took this case to court, though they stood nothing to gain financially and some were criticized as atheists when they weren’t; the sensible judge, a Bush appointee and former state liquor-control chairman, with a great sense of humor, an impressive command of the precedent, and a genuine, if slightly bemused, interest in all the science. And the trial was a great, even thrilling, science lesson—civic pedagogy at its best.
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