From the September, 2006 issue of Touchstone

Getting Over Dover by Phillip E. Johnson

Getting Over Dover

As readers will know, on December 20 of last year, federal district judge John E. Jones of the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced his decision in a heavily publicized case involving the Dover, Pennsylvania school board. The board had required teachers in high-school biology classes to read a statement mentioning gaps or problems in Darwin’s theory.

It informed students that there are alternative theories, including Intelligent Design, and urged them to keep an open mind with respect to any theory. It also told them of the availability of a reference book titled Of Pandas and People, “for those interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.” When teachers refused to read the statement in their classes, the board arranged for an administrator to come to the class and read it to the students.

Even before the court decision, the voters of the district had elected new members to the school board, who formed a majority that quickly rescinded the requirement. Some of us thought or hoped that the lawsuit might be declared moot, as the challenged policy had become a dead letter.

Intelligent Freedom

The judge, however, was evidently eager to assume a leading role in the national controversy over the scientific legitimacy of the concept of Intelligent Design in biology, and the possibility that this concept might be taught in some public schools as a possible alternative to the reigning Darwinian theory of evolution solely by unintelligent causes.

That Judge Jones held the Dover policy unconstitutional is the least disturbing aspect of his opinion. Like other leaders of the Intelligent Design movement, I had viewed the Dover case as a loser for several reasons. We thought that the concept of Intelligent Design needed further development before it would be ready to be presented in science classes as a theory, in competition with the reigning Darwinian theory.

There is plenty of reason for dissatisfaction with the orthodox neo-Darwinian theory, which I and many others have presented in a growing number of books, but working out a satisfactory alternative will require time and resources. For some time to come, opponents of the Darwinian monopoly need to be doing research and publishing papers, and it would be best to avoid messy controversies involving public schools that reinforce in the public’s mind the self-evident truth of Darwinism as “science” and the religious nature of any challenger.

Such controversies arise not because we encourage them, but because local citizens object to the dogmatic way in which evolution is taught to their children, and often to the religious doctrines that are sometimes at least implied along with the biological theory. They mistakenly suppose that their local school board has the power to change this state of affairs, if it were only sufficiently motivated to do so.

Typically, these ordinary citizens are understandably inexpert in matters of science, law, and media relations. The outcome, as in Dover, may be a measure intended to advance freedom, but it is clumsy, ineffective, and an easy target for litigation. The Dover resolution was just the sort of measure that draws overwhelming fire from lawyers and hostile media, without accomplishing anything sufficiently important to justify the legal risk and community hostility.

We in the Intelligent Design movement want to be defending the intellectual freedom of capable teachers who choose to inform their students about some of the difficulties of proving the alleged creative power of the Darwinian mutation/selection mechanism. We do not want to support a resolution that requires teachers to recite a board-drafted statement with which they disagree.

I have long believed that the Intelligent Design movement can make progress only if it is seen to be firmly on the side of academic and intellectual freedom. This is a hard role to maintain even when would-be local supporters do not start off on the wrong foot, because dogmatic Darwinists sincerely believe that science is being censored when they are told that they should allow fair consideration of views opposing evolutionary naturalism. Reporters overly influenced by the movie Inherit the Wind sometimes accept that way of thinking uncritically, as though allowing dissent were equivalent to making it a crime to teach evolution.

Intelligent Life

The essence of Judge Jones’s 139-page opinion was succinctly captured in the title of an admiring Washington Post news story, “Defending Science by Defining It.” I would say rather that the judge was defending naturalism by defining it as science.

His key premise was that science, by definition, deals only with natural causes as explanations for the origin of natural phenomena. I would not object to that definition, if it were understood to state a limitation upon science rather than a limitation upon reality. In that case, biologists would have to consider whether their failure to demonstrate an unintelligent cause capable of creating new biological information from non-living chemicals is the result of their self-imposed inability to take some indispensable intelligent element or entity into account.

Is there life for the Intelligent Design movement after Dover? Or did, as some commentators and scientists jump to declare, the judge’s decision signal the waning of the movement? Writing a few months later, after the dust has cleared, I would say: Clearly it did not.

We must distinguish between the legal problems involved in any effort to challenge the monopoly that Darwinists enjoy in the public schools of America and the scientific and philosophical issues we are raising.

We argue that scientific evidence, considered impartially, does not support the key Darwinist claim that all the complex functioning elements of life can be explained by the accumulation of random genetic variations or mutations, sifted by the brute fact that some organisms are less successful than others at producing viable offspring. The Dover decision has not changed the worth of this argument.

The fundamental questions raised by the movement are occupying an important position in the public marketplace of ideas, even though attempts, often clumsy, to raise those questions in the public schools run into formidable roadblocks from judges wielding definitions and stereotypes. I predict that those questions will come into public-school classrooms eventually, because most students and teachers will understand, as many already do, that they are unavoidable, and not because elected members of a school board have passed a resolution.

We are clearly raising an important and worthy question, even if the answer to it is debatable. One reason I think we must be right is that the Darwinist response is so panicky and so unscientific. Defining science so as to make evolutionary naturalism unfalsifiable, and disqualifying any alternative as unconstitutional, is one way to win a legal battle, as long as the judges and the science educators take their view of the controversy from Inherit the Wind—now known to be an utterly fictitious portrayal even of the Scopes trial itself.

But a defense of Darwinism built along these lines, rather than on an experimental demonstration of the creative power of undirected mutations, will crumble of its own weight in time.

Punctured Pretensions

Some popularizers tell the story of modern science as a series of deflations, each one puncturing some pretension, always religious, erected by human arrogance. First, Copernicus removed the earth from its supposedly exalted position at the center of the cosmos. Then Darwin showed that man is not created in the image of God, but is merely an accident of natural history, a randomly evolved animal species like all the others.

It would be a delicious irony if further steps in scientific progress were to puncture the most inflated pretension of all, that of our modernist dogmatists, who imagine that, because we have an advanced technology, we know more about everything than our ancestors did, and so the assumptions we make have all the authority of undeniable fact.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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