February Discussion: Of Pandas and Plaintiffs

Kitzmiller v Dover is now famous as the first test case on the constitutionality of teaching “intelligent design” (ID) in public schools, involving a six-week trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, dozens of lawyers and witnesses, nine expert witnesses, 342 filed legal documents, 400 exhibits, national and international media, subpoenas, depositions, lies, videotape, bacterial flagella, the Constitution, civil rights, education, science, religion, history, evolution, the meaning of life, divine intervention, and one recently appointed federal judge. However, it began as just another “flare-up” for the NCSE staff.

This is how the Kitzmiller v Dover trial is described by Nick Matzke, who played an essential role for the plaintiffs’ legal team as a science consultant. He’s not wrong–this story has everything! There have been many legal battles over creationism in science classes, but Kitzmiller is unique. As February 12th is Darwin Day, I chose this as our discussion topic last Sunday.

This trial is noteworthy for so many reasons. It makes compelling reading because the case was so well prosecuted. Matzke writes,

Imagine an artistic masterpiece such as a famous painting or symphony, the culmination of a lifetime of training and practice. Then imagine getting twenty such masterpieces from lawyers, academics, and creationism nerds and somehow putting it together seamlessly into a court case. Melodramatic this may be, but it gives you some idea of how the Kitzmiller decision came about.

The trial is a stunning and comprehensive illustration of evolution, along many lines of evidence. Expert witnesses for the prosecution testified about biology, paleontology, fossils, philosophy of science, the flaws of ID and its roots in creationism. These experts were well prepared and gave excellent, thorough, and even cheerful testimony. They were not rattled by the defense lawyers in cross-examination. The defense, in contrast, was… not as cheerful. Michael Behe testified for the defense as an expert witness on ID. Under cross-examination, he stated that ID is testable, but admitted he had not done any tests, “because it would not be fruitful.” He was forced to admit that by his “expanded” definition of science, astrology would have to be included. The prosecution also revealed that Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, had not passed the stringent peer review Behe claimed. One “reviewer” had been quoted saying he’d never read it. Finally, when pressed on the blood clotting system, Behe was boxed in to redefining his arguments on the fly, demonstrating how ID will always be able to avoid scrutiny and falsification through word games and rationalization.

What guarantees Kitzmiller’s place in history is the way it absolutely laid bare the connection between ID and creationism. In theory, if nobody involved with the case ever brought up religion, ID might have a shot at getting through a court. It would still be bad science, but not unconstitutional. However, there are two avenues by which religion always seeps in to ID.

First, the members of the school board or community who initiate the curriculum change usually give away their religious intentions before they know better. In Dover, the board’s religious motivation was never in dispute–at least, not until the defendants started lying about it months later. Two local newspapers covered the school board meetings, and continually documented what was said. At one meeting, Buckingham exclaimed, “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross! Can’t someone take a stand now?” His wife commented at the same meeting, preaching from the Bible to those assembled–well in excess of the time allowed for each public comment. After Buckingham spoke to the Discovery Institute, suddenly nobody on the board remembered having used the word “creationism,” and recordings of the earlier meetings went missing.

Second, Kitzmiller demonstrated that, at its core, ID cannot be separated from its creationist roots. In a stroke of genius and good luck, Matzke suggested the legal team subpoena early drafts of the book Of Pandas And People. (The school board was insisting on keeping these pro-ID books as supplemental materials in the classrooms.) Matzke writes:

This discovery shed light on a rather important historical fact that had somehow been omitted from all previous histories of the origin of the “intelligent design” movement. It has always been obvious that ID arguments derived from creationist sources, but never in the wildest dreams of creationism watchers had it occurred to anyone that the phrase “intelligent design” had quite literally originated as a switch in terminology in an actual physical draft of an explicitly creationist textbook.

To our amazement, five major drafts were uncovered, and we were able to trace the switch in terminology from creationism to “intelligent design” to just after the Supreme Court’s Edwards v Aguillard decision in 1987. … The drafts are nothing less than the smoking gun that proves exactly when and how “intelligent design” originated. … They prove that the cynical view of ID was exactly right: ID really is just creationism relabeled, and anyone who thought otherwise was either naively misinformed or engaging in wishful thinking.

To make the point even more starkly, one draft contained an error in the word replacement. This resulted in the hybrid “cdesign proponentsists,” and gave the world of pro-evolution bloggers a good laugh.

“Of Pandas and People,” 1987 creationist version

“Of Pandas and People,” 1987 ID version (red marks added by me)

In the end, the decision by Judge Jones left no loose ends. His decision was meant to reach beyond just the Dover school board. He had been treated to a comprehensive evolution lesson, as well as devastating testimony discrediting ID. According to Edward Humes, author of Monkey Girl, Jones lamented “that there was so much more to the case than was being discussed in the media, so much great material that no one would ever see, so much evidence showing that this had not been a close case at all.”



Further reading:
Monkey Girl by Edward Humes
The Devil In Dover by Lauri Lebo
Forty Days and Forty Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania by Matthew Chapman

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