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The case of creation

Last year's Dover trial resulted in intelligent design being removed from the science curriculum.

The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA

Jossey-Bass: 2007. 240 pp. $24.950787987867 | ISBN: 0-787-98786-7

40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin® and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania

HarperCollins: 2007. 288 pp. $25.950061179450 | ISBN: 0-061-17945-0

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul

Ecco: 2007. 400 pp. $25.950060885483 | ISBN: 0-060-88548-3
Pennsylvania parents, and their children, fought against the teaching of intelligent design in schools. Credit: C. KASTER/AP PHOTO

Three new books use as a centrepiece the court case of Kitzmiller et al. versus Dover Area School District, which played out for six weeks in late 2005 at the state capital of Pennsylvania. This trial was the latest in a series of American 'Scopes trials', named after the 1925 prosecution of Tennessee teacher John Scopes, who was fined $100 for flouting a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in state-run schools. Scopes volunteered to be the test case, knowingly breaking the law. Famed attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued the case. Scopes lost, Tennessee was ridiculed, a few other states passed similar legislation, and the divide between fundamentalists and secularists in the United States was irrevocably cleft.

Since the Scopes case, American jurisprudence has increasingly sided with the Enlightenment in a sequence of landmark decisions: yes, you can teach evolution; no, you cannot balance it with creationism; no, 'creation science' is not science; and so on. Then, in the late 1990s, a new kid on the block, intelligent design, began to flex its muscles and demand consideration as a viable scientific theory — but in the public arena, not the scientific one. Intelligent-design proponents, mostly right-wing Christians with more chutzpah than scientific acumen, gathered steam, money and eventually a grand strategy to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist world view, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”. They set up a think-tank, the Discovery Institute, and started to write op-ed pieces and lobby school districts to introduce their exciting new concept to children. A gullible and obstinate school board in the middle of Pennsylvania's rolling hills was just crazy enough to buy it — and that was the start of the now-famous Dover case.

The characters on all sides of the Dover trial — judge, plaintiffs, witnesses, school-board members and attorneys — are colourful and complex, and the trial strikes at the heart of what still divides the US population, 400 years after European settlers arrived. Is the American tradition one of philosophical and political idealists, or of persecuted pilgrims who then turn around and ostracize anyone who doesn't agree with them?

The three books take different tacks and each has different strengths. The author of 40 Days and 40 Nights, Matthew Chapman, is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin; his presumed vested interest in the proceedings is tempered by his own history as a school dropout, a movie screenwriter and a Brit with a perpetually bemused view of colonial antics. Still, his odyssey is a fulfilling one, and he seems genuine enough to get himself invited into many homes where insights and passions run deep. Gordy Slack, author of The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything and an experienced science writer and editor, likewise brings his own family baggage (his father is a staunch fundamentalist) to his account, but his reporting is more linear and his background research deeper. Edward Humes in Monkey Girl is even more scholarly and thorough in his approach, and contextualizes the trial historically. Unlike Chapman and Slack, he does not insert himself into his narrative, but his views of the proceedings are no less clear.

The particulars of the trial are by now familiar (see Nature 437, 607; 2005 and Nature 439, 6–7; doi:10.1038/439006b 2006). Dover's school board, against the advice of its teachers and attorney, required that high-school biology students be read a statement that among other things alleged that “gaps in the [evolutionary] theory exist for which there is no evidence” and that intelligent design is “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view”. Students were referred to a supplementary text published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Of Pandas and People, for more information on intelligent design. Eleven parents sued, engaging the American Civil Liberties Union and other top representation and scientific advice. The decision of Judge John E. Jones III slammed the “breathtaking inanity” of the school board, established its religious motive and actions, accepted the view of the scientific community that intelligent design does not qualify as science, and proscribed bogus criticisms of evolution in science classes. Intelligent-design proponents sputtered and fumed; the usual right-wing commentators fulminated; no one has since taken the Discovery Institute seriously.

All three books, despite their regrettable titles, handle the basic story very well and recount some extraordinary moments. An OxyContin-addicted school-board member ranted on record: “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Won't anyone take a stand for him?” and then denied that creationism had ever been discussed at board meetings. The school-board president claimed in his deposition that he did not know where the money came from to purchase the Pandas books, and then was shown the cheque from the other board member to his own father. Expert witness Barbara Forrest graphically showed that the authors of early drafts of Pandas had changed some 150 uses of terms such as 'creation' and 'creationist' to 'intelligent design' and 'design proponents', despite a 1987 Supreme Court decision ruling that 'creation science' was not science.

Where does the 'science' of intelligent design come from? Biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is virtually the only scientist prominent in the movement; he has published popular books (for a review of the latest see Nature 447, 1055–1056; 2007) but no demonstrable peer-reviewed research on intelligent design. Behe's notions of 'irreducible complexity' and the status of intelligent design as science were shredded by attorney Eric Rothschild, who got him to admit that under his own definition, astrology would qualify as science.

Conspicuously absent from the trial was William Dembski, the other pillar of intelligent-design 'research', who holds advanced degrees in maths and theology but none in science, and believes that intelligent design is the Logos of the Gospel of John restated in the language of information theory. His notion of 'specified complexity', a probabilistic filter that allegedly allows one to tell whether an event is so impossible that it requires supernatural explanation, has never demonstrably received peer review, although its description in his popular books (such as No Free Lunch, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) has come in for withering criticism from actual mathematicians. Plaintiffs' attorneys were eager to take him apart, but Dembski exited the proceedings in a suspicious eleventh-hour dispute about having his own lawyer represent him in deposition.

All three books are entertaining and informative reads; on balance the nod goes to Humes for his comprehensive account, although Slack is concise and readable. Another book on the trial, by local reporter Lauri Lebo, is due out next year. It promises even more lively details of this perfect storm of religious intolerance, First Amendment violation and the never-ending assault on American science education.

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Padian, K. The case of creation. Nature 448, 253–254 (2007).

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