Harrisburg, Pa. A school district is undermining science education by raising false doubts about evolution and offering "intelligent design" as an alternative explanation for life's origins, a biologist testified at the start of a landmark trial.
"It's the first movement to try to drive a wedge between students and the scientific process," said Brown University's Kenneth Miller, the first witness called Monday by lawyers for eight families suing the Dover Area School District.
Dover is believed to be the nation's first school system to require that students be exposed to the intelligent design concept. The policy requires school administrators to read a statement before classes on evolution that says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact" and has inexplicable "gaps." It refers students to an intelligent-design textbook for more information.
Intelligent design holds that Darwin's theory of natural selection over time cannot fully explain the origin of life or the emergence of highly complex life forms. It implies that life on Earth was the product of an unidentified intelligent force.
The eight families say the district policy in effect promotes the Bible's view of creation, violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
But the rural school district of about 3,500 students argues it is not endorsing any religious view and is merely giving ninth-grade biology classes a glimpse of differences over evolution.
"This case is about free inquiry in education, not about a religious agenda," said Patrick Gillen of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., in his opening statement. The center, which lobbies for what it sees as the religious freedom of Christians, is defending the school district.
"Dover's modest curriculum change embodies the essence of liberal education," Gillen said.
The nonjury trial before U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III is expected to take five weeks.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs began their case by arguing that intelligent design is a religious concept inserted in the school district's curriculum by the school board.
"They did everything you would do if you wanted to incorporate a religious point of view in science class and cared nothing about its scientific validity," attorney Eric Rothschild said.
Miller sharply criticized intelligent design and questioned the work that went into it by one of its leading proponents, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, who will be a witness for the district.
Under questioning from American Civil Liberties Union attorney Witold Walczak, Miller said he wasn't even sure that Behe had done research on intelligent design.
"I have yet to see any explanation advanced by any adherent of design that says we have positive evidence for design," he said.
The statement read to Dover students states that "because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact."
Miller said the statement is "tremendously damaging," falsely undermining the scientific status of evolution.
"What that tells students is that science can't be relied upon and certainly is not the kind of profession you want to go into," he said.
"There is no controversy within science over the core proposition of evolutionary theory," he added. On the other hand, he said, "Intelligent design is not a testable theory in any sense and as such it is not accepted by the scientific community."
He also challenged the accuracy of "Of Pandas and People," the intelligent-design textbook to which Dover students are referred.
Miller said the book omits discussion of what causes extinction. Since nearly all original species are extinct, he said, any intelligent design creator would not have been very intelligent.
A brief history
The history of evolution litigation dates to the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was fined $100 for violating a state law that forbade teaching evolution. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed his conviction on the narrow ground that only a jury trial could impose a fine exceeding $50, and the law was repealed in 1967.
In 1968, the Supreme Court overturned an Arkansas state law banning the teaching of evolution. And in 1987, it ruled that states may not require public schools to balance evolution lessons by teaching creationism.
President Bush has also weighed in, saying schools should present both concepts when teaching about the origins of life.