From Dayton to Dover: Why is Darwin still on trial?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Some 80 years after John Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution in the tiny town of Dayton, Tenn., the battle against Darwin continues to be waged across the nation. Like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps going and going and going.

But these days evolutionists have the upper hand. In 1925, the so-called monkey trial was all about keeping evolution out of the classroom. In 2005, the struggle is to get an alternative to evolution (apparently any alternative will do) into the classroom.

The focus of the current courtroom fight over evolution is Dover, Pa., a small, mostly conservative, white, Christian town much like, well, Dayton, Tenn. Though evolutionists triumphed twice at the U.S. Supreme Court (1968 and 1987), they have yet to win in the court of public opinion — at least in communities like Dover and Dayton.

The Dover case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was brought by 11 parents angered by the school board’s decision to make “intelligent design” part of the science curriculum. They argue that intelligent design (the idea that the complexity of living organisms can be explained only by the existence of an intelligent designer) is religion, not science — and to represent it as science in public schools imposes religion in violation of the First Amendment. The civil trial began Sept. 26 in federal court in Harrisburg and is expected to end in early November.

At the center of the dispute is a mandatory four-paragraph statement read to students at the beginning of their biology classes. After informing students that Darwin’s theory “is not a fact,” the statement describes intelligent design as “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” Students are told that an intelligent-design textbook, Of Pandas and People, is available in the library if they want to know more.

Is the school district simply making kids aware of an “alternative scientific view,” as the school board contends? Or do the four paragraphs undermine science education and unconstitutionally advance religion, as the objecting parents claim?

On the first day of the trial, Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller took the stand to defend evolution and attack intelligent design as a nonscientific religious belief. Miller, who also wrote the biology textbook used in Dover classrooms, claimed that the statement read in classes falsely suggests that evolution is “only” a theory in the sense that the term is used in everyday speech.

“Scientific theories are not hunches,” he testified. “When we say ‘theory,’ we mean a strong overarching explanation that ties together many facts and enables us to make testable predictions.”

The school district is putting its own witnesses on the stand to make its case for the purported scientific validity of intelligent design. Faced with opposition from all major scientific organizations, the district will find it a tough sell convincing the judge that intelligent design counts as science. That’s why the Discovery Institute, the leading proponent of the idea, probably wishes this trial had never happened. Discovery wants schools to raise questions about evolutionary theory, but not mandate (at least not yet) that intelligent design be mentioned as a “scientific alternative.” A loss in court that labels intelligent design “religious” could be devastating to the movement.

Judge John E. Jones may have a difficult time sorting out what is and isn’t science, but he’s sure to take a hard look at the motives and purposes of the school board for challenging evolution — the only scientific theory that Dover students are told to question. According to testimony from the plaintiffs, one school board member wanted evolution balanced “fifty-fifty” with creationism (a proposal that has already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court). Another board member advocated at board meetings for a textbook that included the biblical view of creation. “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross,” he said. “Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

If Judge Jones is looking for evidence that the school board had a religious purpose, he need not look far. And if he finds it, the school district will lose this case on First Amendment grounds.

Whatever the outcome, the crusade against evolution is bound to go on. Why? Because from Dayton to Dover, many religious people still see evolution as the great enemy of faith. “Darwinism entirely changes one’s view of life,” thundered William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial, “and undermines faith in the Bible.”

What’s sad about all this is how self-defeating these efforts are. When believers insist on “proving” religion through science, they are playing on the wrong field. If religion needs scientific proof to be true, it would no longer be authentic religion. It’s not called “faith” for nothing.

Of course, science has implications for religious belief. That’s why a dialogue between religion and science is needed, but only if both sides understand the language and the method — and respect the limits — of the other.

Dover, like Dayton, isn’t about dialogue — it’s about people shouting past one another. Eighty years ago, Scopes lost. This time around religion may be the big loser, and that would be unfortunate, indeed.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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