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Intelligent design verdict set to sway other cases

Failure in court sets offers evolutionary precedent.

Washington DC

A high-profile trial centred on the teaching of evolution is over. High-school students in Dover, Pennsylvania, will not now hear an announcement promoting intelligent design — the idea that an intelligent creator shaped today's organisms — before taking lessons on evolution. On 20 December, federal judge John Jones struck down a local school-board decision in a scathing 139-page rebuke to the intelligent-design movement. But other challenges to evolution are simmering across the country — and the Dover decision could influence their outcome, some say.

Such fights usually originate at the state level — in the form of legislation or the setting of state-wide education standards — or at the school-district level, where local standards and curricula are generally set.

A recent study from the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute into science curriculum standards gave failing grades to 15 states (see map). Alabama students, for instance, learn from biology textbooks adorned with a sticker describing evolution as “controversial”. But in Ohio, which passed, some students are taught from a state-approved lesson plan called “critical analysis of evolution”, in which they research and present pro- and anti-evolution viewpoints.

Robin Hovis, a member of the Ohio state board of education, says the Dover case may affect the future of the lesson plan. “It certainly gave those of us on the board who objected renewed hope,” he adds. In Cobb County, Georgia, an appeals court is set to rule on a lower-court judgement deeming similar stickers unconstitutional.

And in Kansas, a school-board primary election next August could reshape the state's educational landscape. Board members who edited the education standards to include “scientific criticisms” of evolution face challenges by moderate Republicans who want such language weeded out (see Nature 438, 267; 2005).

In another twist, a group of Christian schools is suing the University of California for refusing to recognize certain high-school courses, including biology classes that use textbooks taking an anti-evolution view. The university has filed for dismissal, and expects to hear from the judge in a few months. “The Dover verdict says schools can't teach these non-scientific ideas as science, so that supports us,” says Christopher Patti, a lawyer with the university.

Legislation promoting intelligent design or similar anti-evolution ideas was introduced in more than a dozen states in 2005. Most died a hasty death, according to Nick Matzke, spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, a California-based non-profit organization that fights for evolution education. He and others hope that the Dover decision will help quash the promotion of intelligent design, which they say is a legal strategy for introducing religion into the classroom. “Court decisions never resolve social issues, and it won't here,” says Matzke. “But it will give us a little breathing space. Intelligent design as a strategy is probably toast.”

Credit: THOMAS B. FORDHAM INST.

Naturally, proponents of the theory disagree. Casey Luskin, a lawyer at the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design think-tank in Seattle, Washington, says the Dover decision will have a “negligible effect”. “You cannot change the facts of biology through a judicial ruling,” he argues.

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School board in court over bid to teach intelligent design

Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds?

Religion and Science in focus

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The Discovery Institute

National Center for Science Education

Judge Jones' opinion (pdf)

Ohio-approved lesson plan on “Critical Analysis of Evolution”

Kansas science education standards (grades 8–12; see p 75–78)

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Marris, E. Intelligent design verdict set to sway other cases. Nature 439, 6–7 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/439006b

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