From Scopes to Dover-25: The Dover policy on teaching evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I previously showed how that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) strategists had laid out a careful long-term stealth strategy aimed at discrediting the teaching of evolution and breaking through the restrictions placed on religion in the schools because of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. They should have paid heed to Scottish poet Robert Burns who in his poem To a Mouse cautioned those who place too much faith in detailed plans for the future:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, 

Gang aft agley.

When historians of the future write about the demise of the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) movement, they will likely point to the Dover, PA court decision as when the carefully thought-out plans and strategy of the IDC movement ganged agley in a big way.

In some ways, the Dover trial was fitting bookend to the Scopes trial. I mentioned earlier that the Scopes trial had more features of a comedy than of a drama, and so did Dover case. As in the Scopes trial, a colorful cast of local characters impulsively waded into the midst of a national debate and completely muddied the waters. (See Matthew Chapman’s article God or Gorilla in the February 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine for entertaining insights into what was going on in that small town before and during the trial. Chapman, incidentally, is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.)

The Dover trial was from the beginning a bad situation for the IDC people, especially the strategists at the Discovery Institute, because it took events out of their control and put them in the hands of people who did not really understand what IDC was all about. The IDC theorists were trying to implement a carefully crafted stealth strategy, avoiding any taint of religion. The Discovery Institute’s ‘Wedge Strategy” required everyone to very discreet, carefully avoiding any mention of god or religion or anything remotely connected to them.

The problem was that the Dover school board was much too clumsy in its attempts to introduce IDC ideas into its curriculum. They had little patience for the subtlety of the slow, long-range plan envisaged by the Discovery Institute. They wanted god and the Bible and prayer back in their schools and they wanted it now. As a result, they left their religious fingerprints all over the policy in a way that the sophisticated strategists suspected would be fatal to its case. While the main IDC strategists were walking on egg shells, the Dover school board members were clumping around in thick boots.

The Dover school board by a 6-3 vote in October 2004 passed a resolution that “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.” The actual policy to be implemented in January 2005 required students in biology classes to have a statement read to them that said, in part:

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

In enacting this policy, the religious members of the Dover school board, thinking they were doing god’s work, effectively sabotaged the entire stealth strategy of the Discovery Institute. By explicitly naming and introducing IDC into the science class, they were inviting a court challenge that would expose the idea of intelligent design itself to direct judicial review, something the Discovery Institute had been carefully avoiding.

What is worse, the Dover school board even advocated a particular book Of Pandas and People, which had a blatantly creationist pedigree. The book had been around a long time and in its earlier incarnations was clearly advocating creationism. But creationism was ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) to be a religious belief that had no place in public schools. After that setback, a ‘new’ edition of the book came out that seemed to differ from the earlier versions mainly in the fact that someone had used the ‘search and replace’ function of their word processor to remove all references to the word ‘creationism’ and replace it with ‘intelligent design’ or its derivatives. The replacement was so blatant and sloppy that in one place in the drafts of this new edition, while seeking to replace the word ‘creationists’ with ‘design proponents’, they ended up with ‘cdesign proponentsists‘. This discovery, when revealed during the Dover trial, added weight to the argument that ‘intelligent design’ was simply creationism thinly repackaged, nothing more.

Recall that it was because of that same Edwards v. Aguillard decision that the Discovery Institute had carefully avoided any mention of creationism in its work. In fact, the entire ‘Wedge’ strategy was based on tailoring a policy that avoided all the features of religion mentioned in that landmark decision, and thus could hope to pass future constitutional scrutiny. IDC strategists feared that such a flimsy disguise as replacing the word ‘creationism’ with ‘intelligent design’ and their cognates, as the Of Pandas and People book did, was unlikely to fool the courts. Even worse, it would make it look as if the two terms were synonymous.

(The IDC strategists were right to be concerned about this weakness because Judge Jones said in his ruling that: “By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge: (1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID; (2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and (3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content.”) (p. 32, italics in original)

The Dover board’s actions thus made a hash of the IDC strategy, because it mixed creationism, intelligent design, and opposition to Darwin into one big entangled mess. To make it worse, the advocates of this Dover policy made no secret of the motives for their actions, and in school board meetings and other public forums spoke about how they were adopting their policy so as to bring god back into the schools. Even leading IDC advocate William Dembski ruefully noted the problem raised by his supposed allies:

Unfortunately, members of the Dover school board have, through their actions, conflated ID with an apparent religious agenda. For instance, it doesn’t help the ID side that William Buckingham, then a member of the Dover school board, in trying to get the Dover policy adopted, remarked: “Two thousand years ago somebody died on the cross, can’t somebody stand up for him?”

(Incidentally it was Dembski who in 2002 had explicitly laid out the goal of the IDC movement when he said: “So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, IDT [intelligent design theory] has no chance [in] Hades. . . In the words of Vladimir Lenin, What is to be done? Design theorists aren’t at all bashful about answering this question: The ground rules of science have to be changed. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that the material world is all there is (in the words of Carl Sagan, “the cosmos is all there ever was, is, or will be”).”)

As another example of the religious motivation behind the school board’s actions that would cause problems during the trial, Buckingham had raised money in churches to buy sixty copies of the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People, gave the money to his fellow board member Alan Bonsell’s father, who then donated them ‘anonymously’ to the school’s library to be available as ‘reference’ books for biology students. Both Buckingham and Bonsell then denied, under oath in their depositions, any knowledge of where the books had come from. During the trial, this and other blatant acts of perjury were revealed in open court and clearly angered the judge and did not help their case, with the judge saying in his ruling “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

The challenge to the Dover policy was not long in coming, when in December 2004 some Dover parents led by Tammy Kitzmiller, challenged the constitutionality of the school board’s decision. The stage was now set for the latest courtroom confrontation involving the teaching of evolution.

POST SCRIPT: More stuff on Dover and intelligent design creationism

For all the documents pertaining to the Dover case including trial transcripts, depositions, and briefs, see the comprehensive Wikipedia page.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, the two-hour documentary on the Dover trial on PBS by the Nova producers can now be viewed online.

The documentary about IDC called A Flock of Dodos is available on DVD and a pro-IDC documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is to be released on Darwin’s birthday in February 2008. (See Bad Idea Blog for a seven-minute promo for the latter film and a critique of it.)


  1. says

    Speaking of Expelled, I’ve contacted some of the pro-science folk shown in the clip, and I’m going to be working on a sort of guide to the issues and responses the science side has with the film. It’s really the next stage of ID: they’ve done away with even trying to argue their case, and are going straight on for crying victim-hood and oppression.

  2. CCBarnett says

    Robert Burns, “To a Louse” (on seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at church)ended with:

    “O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    I wad frae monie a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion:
    What airs in dress and’ gait wad lea’e us,
    An’ ev’n devotion!

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