Religion in America: Intelligent design on trial
What some people are calling the "Scopes II" trial got under way this week in Harrisburg, Pa., as a federal judge began to hear arguments about whether high school science teachers in the Dover school district should be required to introduce students to intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory.
Defenders of the district's decision to mandate the teaching of ID say that intention and design are at least as plausible as random mutation in accounting for the changes that gave rise to the complex structures that make up living organisms. But 11 Dover parents have sued the school board, saying that ID is essentially a means of sneaking religious perspectives into the public schools and is therefore a violation of the separation of church and state.
It remains to be seen whether the Dover case will end up being as significant as the famous 1925 Tennessee case that for a time barred the teaching of evolution in that state. But the current trial involves powerful organizational playersthe ACLU in support of the parents, the Thomas More Law Center (funded by Domino's Pizza founder and devout Roman Catholic Thomas Monaghan) in support of the districtand key figures in the intellectual controversy, including Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, a leading proponent of the design hypothesis.
Crucial to the plaintiffs' case is whether they can prove that ID is simply a dressed-up version of creationism. If so, teaching it would violate a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that barred the instruction of creationism in public schools on the grounds that it was based on religion.
Whatever the verdict, no decision will likely bring an end to the debate over the issues behind the controversy. But perhaps the case will shed a stronger light on some of the key points of contention and even some of the ironies that make up this peculiar chapter in America's culture wars.
What is a scientific theory? Critics of ID complain that many people today carelessly equate any idea, conjecture, or hypothesis with a scientific theory. With this kind of definitional fuzziness, it is easy for ID supporters to assert that their position is no less a theory than Darwinian evolution is. Not so, say most scientists, who assert that a scientific theory is a hypothesis that has been upheld by the test of evidence, through experimentation, and that it remains a valid theory until it can be falsified, proved untrue. The problem with ID, critics say, is that its key contentionthat genetic mutations leading to such marvelously complex things as the eye and visual perception can only have been intended by a sentient beingcannot be tested.
Therefore, the critics conclude, ID does not have the status of a scientific theory. On this point, ironically, people who defend teaching ID in the schoolroom on the grounds that it could improve critical thinking might have a point: Teaching evolutionary theory alongside ID might help students begin to see the difference between a real scientific theory and a metaphysical conjecture.