Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

PBS Airdate: November 13, 2007
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Chapter 3

NARRATOR: The controversy engulfing the school board caught the attention of local newspaper reporters, including Lauri Lebo, who grew up in the area.

LAURI LEBO (Journalist): From the first time I heard school board members were talking about creationism, I thought this could become a big issue. I didn't realize how big, but I certainly knew I was intrigued by it.

NARRATOR: Lebo began reporting on the controversy. But her interest in the issue was not just professional, it was also personal. Lauri's father had been the owner of a local radio station, but the oldies format wasn't paying the bills, and the electric company was about to put him off the air.

LAURI LEBO: The next day a gentleman came in who belonged to a local church...wanted to lease programming on the radio station and offered to pay a decent sum of money. And overnight the radio station became Christian radio station. My father became born again.

NARRATOR: In her articles, Lebo would write about the 1987 Supreme Court ruling that would keep Buckingham from introducing any creationist text into biology class. In the meantime, Buckingham was in touch with two organizations known for questioning Darwin.

One was a public interest law firm in Michigan called the Thomas More Law Center. Headed by former public prosecutor Richard Thompson, famous for his efforts to convict assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, the firm bills itself as "the sword and shield for people of faith."

RICHARD THOMPSON (Thomas More Law Center): Bill Buckingham contacted me as a private citizen, and also as someone who was concerned that the biology textbook presented only one side. And he thought there should be other alternative theories involved. And that's when I introduced him to the theory of intelligent design and indicated that I thought that that theory could be taught alongside the theory of evolution and pass constitutional muster.

BILL BUCKINGHAM: I asked, you know, if there were any reference books out there, and they gave me the title of the book Of Pandas and People.

NARRATOR: He also found a conservative think tank in Seattle, named the Discovery Institute, which calls itself "the nation's leading intelligent design proponent."

They sent Buckingham a DVD and other material on intelligent design. In these materials, Buckingham found a view that did not seem to conflict with his own. For example, according to the book Of Pandas and People, "Intelligent Design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact: fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings, et cetera."

And in the DVD he got from the Discovery Institute, Buckingham found more support for intelligent design.

NARRATOR, DISCOVERY INSTITUTE DVD: One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin transformed science with his theory of natural selection. Today, that theory faces a formidable challenge. Intelligent design has sparked both discovery and intense debate over the origin of life on Earth. And, for a growing number of scientists, it represents a paradigm, an idea with the power to once again redefine the foundations of scientific thought.

NARRATOR: Both the DVD and book use the same example to illustrate intelligent design's central tenet, explained here by proponent Steve Fuller.

STEVE FULLER: One way to get into the concept of intelligent design is by imagining what it would be like to run across something like this on the beach: "John Loves Mary." I mean, this is the sort of design that's very unlikely just to have assembled itself just from sand blowing randomly over even a very long period of time. Rather, it shows a sign of some sort of intelligence that's behind it.

NARRATOR: And just as those words on the beach are clearly the product of an intelligent being, the claim is that some aspects of life itself must be the product of a designer.

BILL BUCKINGHAM: Intelligent design, in my way of thinking, states that life is too complex to happened at random, that there had to be a designer, something to shape how things went, so to speak. In the Book of Genesis, the designer would be God.

NARRATOR: But in the materials Buckingham received, God is never mentioned. The mysterious designer is called an "intelligent cause" or "intelligent agent."

Championed by a law professor named Phillip Johnson, intelligent design began to emerge in the 1980s.

PHILLIP JOHNSON: This whole Darwinian story, it seems to me, has been very much oversold. Everybody is told that it's absolutely certain and certainly true. And because it's called science, it has been proved again and again by absolutely unquestionable procedures. But this is not true. It's an imaginative story that has been spun on the basis of very little evidence.

NARRATOR: An emeritus professor at the U.C. Berkeley law school, Johnson wrote a book called Darwin on Trial, in which he laid the groundwork for the intelligent design movement.

For years, he's been making the claim that evolution may produce small-scale changes—like the different finch beaks Darwin observed—but for humans to come about requires the intervention of some kind of intelligence.

PHILLIP JOHNSON: That is the basic intelligent design proposition: that the unintelligent causes, by themselves, can't do the whole job. An intelligent cause had to be involved.

NARRATOR: Armed with information on intelligent design, Bill Buckingham returned to the school board.

LAURI LEBO: He had been told that intelligent design was a good compromise between his religious beliefs, is what he told me. And Alan Bonsell told me that, too—and what the courts will allow. They were both very clear on that, that this is their compromise even though they believe in creationism. This would, this would, sort of, bridge the gap for them.

NARRATOR: But the science teachers were not convinced.

BRYAN REHM: The first reading of it, "an intelligent agent created life." That's creationism. It's Biblical creationism, you know? All I have to do is take out "intelligent agent" and put in "God," and, voila! We have the story of Genesis. So there is no question in my mind what intelligent design was.

NARRATOR: Now Buckingham was ready to take a stand.

ROBERT ESHBACH: He came up with the ultimatum that the only way that they would vote for the textbooks was that we adopted the book Of Pandas and People as a sister or companion textbook.

NARRATOR: But when he put it before the school board, he came up two votes short. The board chose to purchase only the standard biology book co-authored by Ken Miller. Pandas was shelved.

That might have been the end of the story, but a few weeks later, 60 copies of Pandas turned up in Bertha's Spahr's department, a gift to the school from an anonymous donor.

Then, without consulting the teachers, members of Buckingham's curriculum committee drafted the outlines of what became a bold new policy for the science department. It was brought before the full school board for a vote, and after a heated debate, it passed, six to three.

In its final form, the policy mandated that all students in ninth grade biology be read a one minute statement telling them that Darwin's theory is not a fact and that it contains gaps. Suggesting intelligent design as an alternative, it directed students to the 60 copies of Pandas that would be available as a reference.

The school board members who voted against Buckingham's proposal resigned in protest.

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