Reports of the National Center for Science Education

The Dover Victory

On the morning of December 20, 2005, we were sitting in the law offices of Pepper Hamilton in Harrisburg, waiting for the judge to deliver his verdict in the Dover trial. It was expected to come sometime that day, or maybe the next day; no one could be completely sure. We had heard that the decision was a long one. An office pool had been started, and the bets were in on what time the verdict would be announced. The waiting was getting unbearable. Finally, at about 10:30, the e-mailed attachment began showing up on the office computers. Immediately, people started to download it and print it out. And then, one by one, the whoops and hollers began to be heard from offices all over the floor.

The attorneys, being used to this sort of thing, immediately flipped to the back pages to learn the formal points of the ruling. What they read astounded them. The judge had given us everything we asked for. It was clear that he had carefully read all the testimony, and that he had bowed to no political pressure in rendering his decision. As we began to compare notes on the different passages of the verdict, the exhilaration quickly grew, and the sports metaphors started to come out. This was a grand slam, a shut-out, a slam-dunk. It was like winning the Super Bowl.

The judge agreed with the findings of fact that our side proposed: "intelligent design" was not science, but religion; the Dover school board had acted with a religious purpose; and bogus "evidence against evolution" could not be presented in classrooms as legitimate science. Going into the trial, it seemed that the second point was a sure thing. We felt confident that we could demonstrate the first point, but we did not know how the judge would react. We decided to go for the third point because we knew that if we didn’t, we would be doing this all over again in six months.

My role in the case, as the only full-time evolutionary biologist, was to explain the principles and methods of the field, and to show how the "intelligent design" proponents misrepresented and distorted them. We decided to focus on the Pandas book, because it embodies the teachings of the "intelligent design" movement, and because it was the specific text that the school board placed in the library for students to consult on "intelligent design".

Like many others in the case, I had never been a witness before, let alone an expert witness. In the months since the trial, people have often asked me if I was nervous testifying in a big trial like this. Quite the contrary: I had been waiting all of my professional life to do this. For decades, creationists had maintained that scientists are either deluded or are deluding the public, including their students. Creationists, including the "intelligent design" proponents, had boasted for years that their science was legitimate, that they were victims of discrimination, and that they would win if they ever got their day in court. Well, they got their day in court.

For me, to be able at last to explain in a public forum, under oath, what our science is really about, was the greatest opportunity that someone in my position could ever have. Winding up the case for the plaintiffs was like coming out in the ninth inning to shut down the ballgame. And this game took place on a level playing field, where you had to answer direct questions, even if you didn’t like them. The opposition found out that they couldn’t run and they couldn’t hide. They were questioned relentlessly about the very things they have tried so hard to hide from the public for over a decade: "Intelligent design" is religion, not science. That is now a finding of fact in federal court.

Bringing science to the public

I have been a scientist and an educator for over 30 years. I’ve taught middle school, high school, and university students. And so, in my testimony I was able to explain the science as well as to describe the effects on students of having bogus alternatives to that science taught in their classrooms. I focused on three major kinds of specific problems with the Pandas text. There are of course the general issues that science as a process and as a philosophy is completely misrepresented in this book. There is the further problem that no authors of Pandas are experts in the sciences that have to do with evolution, particularly those that I deal with. This was made clear by the judge in his decision, when he noted that my testimony went completely unrebutted by the other side, and when he accepted my testimony that there are no "intelligent design" proponents who are recognized authorities in any fields related to evolution.

The three major kinds of problems I dealt with were classification, macroevolution, and homology. Classification is based on ancestry, as Darwin showed. But "intelligent design" proponents, like other creationists, do not accept common ancestry of living things, so it is impossible for them to explain classification accurately to students. They also cannot explain macroevolution, because they do not accept that either. They just think it is impossible. They cannot describe it as the patterns and processes of evolution above the species level, because they do not even accept speciation. But the concept of homology was the truly puzzling one in the mix of ID daffynitions. The criteria of homology include relative position, development, and composition of tissues and elements; these were established well before Darwin. Darwin showed that common ancestry explains why the patterns of homology make sense. But the authors of Pandas even managed to distort a concept that is pre-Darwinian. And, perhaps emblematically, they could not even get the anatomy of the panda’s thumb right.

Most of my testimony was spent dissecting the major contentions of Pandas that related to macroevolution. One major implication of "irreducible complexity," as the ID proponents would have it, is that major adaptations cannot be assembled through natural processes of evolution. This is why they distort and misrepresent scientific knowledge on the subjects as they do. In fact, our evidence for many major transitions, including most of the ones discussed in Pandas, is very good. It was easy to show the scientific evidence that the Cambrian Explosion was not instantaneous, but was drawn out over 70 million years. It was a privilege and a pleasure to show the judge all the fossil animals with features transitional between living in water and living on land; between dinosaurs and birds; between mammal relatives who used two bones to articulate the jaws and other relatives who used the same bones to link to the middle ear; and between land-living relatives of whales and the familiar marine behemoths of today.

The legacy of pseudoscience

It is bad enough that "intelligent design" proponents distort and misrepresent legitimate science as they do. More disturbing are the consequences of treating a religious proposition as if it were scientific. To maintain that it is scientific to search for an ultimate designer implies that scientists can ask questions about who the "designer" is and what his attributes are, even though the ID proponents will do anything to avoid this. That will not stop students from asking such questions. They will ask why a designer could not make biological processes capable of giving a flagellum to a bacterium. They will want to know, if a designer is capable of intervening in the affairs of life, why this "agency" does not do so more often to relieve pain and suffering. They will wonder of what use is prayer. These are not hypothetical questions. My students have already raised them. For the ID crowd not to have ready answers to these questions, but to abrogate the responsibility to deal with them even as they demand that teachers do so, is, I believe, criminally negligent.

In the end, to teach "intelligent design" is to mislead students about scientific evidence and concepts, and to lead them toward an outmoded and poorly conceived theology as a replacement for empirical knowledge. To teach that "intelligent design" is science, as I said in the trial, is to make people stupid. This kind of stupidity is worse than ignorance, because people who are ignorant have simply not learned yet; whereas to be misled about common understanding is to be made stupid. It is difficult to imagine a bigger waste of time or tax dollars, or to imagine a more grievous assault on the integrity of science and science education.

This victory is due to the teachers and plaintiffs of Dover, Pennsylvania; to our crack legal team; to our NCSE staff, without whom the plaintiffs could not have prepared the scientific and historical case; to our expert witnesses; and to the supporters of NCSE. This victory is for all of us, and especially for the students who will receive a decent science education.

By Kevin Padian, NCSE President
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.