Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

PBS Airdate: November 13, 2007
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Chapter 1

NARRATOR: In October, 2004, a war broke out in the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania.

PETER JENNINGS (ABC NEWSCAST): Today, the teachers in a rural Pennsylvania town became the first in the country required to tell students that evolution is not the only theory.

NARRATOR: It started when the Dover Area School Board passed a policy requiring that its high school science classes include a controversial subject called intelligent design.

Proponents of intelligent design claim that many features of living organisms are too complex to have evolved entirely through the natural process of evolution, as Charles Darwin proposed. Instead, they claim, some aspects of those organisms must have been created, fully-formed, by a so-called "intelligent designer." And advocates contend intelligent design is a bold, new scientific theory, with the power to overthrow the theory of evolution.

ROBERT MUISE (Thomas More Law Center): It's scientists debating science based on the evidence—not any religious text or authority—and it's clearly properly the subject of a science class.

STEVE FULLER (University of Warwick): It's, in fact, opening the path of inquiry to new ways of thinking about things.

PHILLIP JOHNSON (University of California, Berkeley School of Law): If evolution by natural selection is a scientific doctrine, then a critique of that doctrine is a legitimate part of science as well.

NARRATOR: The Dover school board demanded that science teachers read their students a one minute statement claiming that gaps in the theory of evolution exist, and putting forward intelligent design as an alternative. The statement also directed students to an intelligent design textbook called Of Pandas and People that would be made available.

But many Dover residents and an overwhelming number of scientists throughout the country were outraged. They say intelligent design is nothing but religion in disguise, the latest front in the war on evolution.

EUGENIE C. SCOTT: The goal of intelligent design is to try to re-Christianize American society.

KEVIN PADIAN: Intelligent design is not, anywhere, a scientific concept. It's not a field of science. It's not being actively researched by anyone.

KEN MILLER: It's a violation of everything we mean and everything we understand by "science."

NARRATOR: The stage was set for a battle that would pit friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor.

BILL BUCKINGHAM: It was like we shot somebody's dog. I mean, there was a blowup like you couldn't believe.

JUDGE JOHN E. JONES, III (U.S. District Judge): It was like a civil war within the community, there's no question.

NARRATOR: Before it was over, this battle would land the school board in federal court.

No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, so to bring this historic showdown between evolution and intelligent design to light, NOVA has dramatized key scenes from court transcripts.

It was a six-week trial in which modern biology was Exhibit A, and hanging in the balance was not just the Dover biology curriculum. The future of science education in America, the separation of church and state, and the very nature of scientific inquiry were all on trial.

In Dover, Pennsylvania, the debate over religion and evolution has long been personal.

BERTHA SPAHR: We live in a community that has a great many fundamentalist churches.

RAY MUMMERT (Dover Pastor): I've never appreciated the fact that my children are being taught to believe in evolution as opposed to creationism.

MALINDA FORREY: "In the beginning, God created..." To me, that's all I need to know.

NARRATOR: Located in the southeastern part of the state, about 20 miles from the capital, it's a quiet, rural place, home to about 20,000 people, more than a dozen churches, and one high school.

One of the first people in Dover to sense that trouble was brewing was Bertha Spahr. She had been teaching science at Dover High School for almost 40 years. In the spring of 2003, she received some disturbing news from the school district's assistant superintendent.

BERTHA SPAHR: He actually came to my classroom one evening after school and said, "Bert, I think I need to give you a heads up. There is a school board member who is talking about equal time...whether it be 50 percent...but certainly equal time for creationism. And I think you need to be aware of this." That's when the red flag went up.

Another science teacher, Bryan Rehm, heard this too.

BRYAN REHM (Dover Science Teacher): I had actually laughed at him because I thought that was the funniest thing I'd heard. I mean, creationism was ruled out in public education and science when I was in junior high school.

NARRATOR: When Bertha Spahr asked which school board member was interested in creationism being taught alongside evolution, she was told it was a local businessman named Alan Bonsell, who had recently joined the school board.

ALAN BONSELL: My family and I have been very blessed here, and I've had family that have lived in the Dover area for 100 years. So it was something give back. And I thought that I could help to try to make Dover, you know, the school district, a better place.

NARRATOR: When Bonsell had questions about how evolution was taught at Dover High School, Bertha Spahr and her biology teachers agreed to meet with him.

ALAN BONSELL: I had a meeting with some of the science teachers in the high school just to see what they taught or didn't teach in the high school science class.

JENNIFER MILLER (Dover Science Teacher): And creationism really didn't come up at that meeting, it was more, "how do we teach evolution?" And he seemed very satisfied. He was okay with how we taught, and we thought everything was good, and we went on our merry way.

ROBERT ESHBACH: If you'll recall, he did enlighten us, at that time, that he did not...wasn't his belief that evolution is how things came about.

JENNIFER MILLER: Right. That's correct.

ROBERT ESHBACH: He felt the Earth was not much more than 4,000 years old.

ALAN BONSELL: I personally don't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution. I'm a creationist. I make no bones about that.

NARRATOR: Creationists like Bonsell reject much of modern science in favor a literal reading of the Bible. They believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that God created everything fully-formed, including humans, in just six days.

Although most mainstream religions made peace with evolution decades ago, many creationists still see evolution as incompatible with their faith. And both creationism and evolution are no strangers to the court. Their legal battles stretch back to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

Dick York As Bertram T. Cates/Clip from Inherit the Wind): As I told you yesterday, Darwin's theory tells us that man evolved from a lower order of animals.

NARRATOR: In that case, a high school science teacher in Tennessee, named John Scopes, was accused of violating state law by teaching evolution.

(Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady ): I hereby place you under arrest.

NARRATOR: Loosely portrayed in the classic film Inherit the Wind, the trial turned into a courtroom showdown between legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow...

SPENCER TRACY As HENRY DRUMMOND Clip from Inherit the Wind): The defense wishes to place Dr. Keller on the stand so that he can explain to the gentlemen of the jury the exact meaning of the theory of evolution.

NARRATOR: ...and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

ELLIOT REED As PROSECUTER TOM DAVENPORT/Clip from Inherit the Wind): If you had a son, Mr. Sillers, what would you think if that sweet child came home from school and told you that a godless teacher...

SPENCER TRACY As HENRY DRUMMOND Clip from Inherit the Wind): Objection!

NARRATOR: Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution, and slapped with a mere hundred-dollar fine. But the verdict would have a chilling effect on science education throughout the country for the next three decades.

EUGENIE C. SCOTT: After the Scopes trial, textbook publishers decided that evolution was just too controversial a subject, and so they just quietly removed it from the textbooks. And for most of that time, the textbook was the curriculum, and, so, if it wasn't in the textbook, it didn't get taught.

NARRATOR: The chilling effect of the Scopes trial did not thaw until the 1960s. But as publishers slipped evolution back into their textbooks, creationists fought to teach their views in science class as well.

Over the next 30 years, the two sides battled it out in court. The fight culminated in 1987, when the Supreme Court decided that teaching creationism in public school science classes violated the separation of church and state mandated by the constitution in the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from promoting or prohibiting any form of religion. To this day, teaching creationism in public school science classes anywhere in the United States remains a violation of students' constitutional rights.

Another Dover school board member, Bill Buckingham, a retired policeman, was appointed by Alan Bonsell to head the curriculum committee. It was his job to review all requests for new textbooks.

The 9th grade biology teachers had asked for a widely used book, co-authored by biologists Ken Miller and Joe Levine. But Buckingham did not like what he saw.

BILL BUCKINGHAM: In looking at the biology book the teachers wanted, I noticed that it was laced with Darwinism. I think I listed somewhere between 12 and 15 instances where it talked about Darwin's theory of evolution. It wasn't on every page of the book, but, like, every couple of chapters, there was Darwin, in your face again. And it was to the exclusion of any other theory.

NARRATOR: And at a school board meeting in the summer of 2004, Buckingham made it clear he wasn't comfortable approving that book. The school board put the purchase on hold.

So what was it about Charles Darwin's theory that Buckingham objected to?

Chapter 1

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