Noa’s Arc

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Monday’s courtroom drama in Harrisburg, Pa., opens with visuals projected onto a six-foot screen: a picture of a black rectangular box emitting rays of golden light, like the magic briefcase in the final scene of Pulp Fiction (God knows what’s in there, but we don’t). The image comes from the cover of Darwin’s Black Box, a book by Michael Behe, a leading proponent of intelligent design and the star defense witness in the very curious trial unfolding here.

Just over a year ago, the Dover school board voted to require ninth-grade biology teachers to tell students about “problems in Darwin’s theory” and to mention intelligent design as an alternative theory of evolution. Eleven parents sued the district in federal court. The case has played out like an adult education class; the plaintiffs have called to the witness stand biologists, paleontologists, textbook writers, and science historians. All have reiterated the plaintiffs’ main point: Intelligent design is just creationism hiding behind a lab coat, Genesis posing as science, a Trojan horse of the religious right. But it’s obvious from Monday’s testimony that this is an oversimplification. Perhaps the old creationists and the ID people share a common ancestor, but the ID folks have undergone so many stages of evolution that they are now a barely recognizable subspecies.

The old creationists make cameos in the court record, and they are a familiar historical type. Stories have surfaced of school board members quoting scripture at meetings, telling fellow members that if they didn’t accept Jesus as their personal savior they were “going to hell.” One supposedly said at a meeting on the proposed changes: “Someone died on the cross. Can someone take a stand for him?” The ID types are mortified by this un-evolved kind of talk. After it was reported, the Discovery Institute, the main outlet for ID research, pulled two of its scheduled witnesses and declared this a tainted test case. That leaves Behe to go it alone.

If the ID people were looking for a frontman, they could not have cast anyone better. Behe is perfectly professorial, pale and slim with owl glasses and trim gray hair everywhere but on top of his head. (When the theatrical version of the courtroom drama gets made, they can add a top hat and caned umbrella). He likes to be the smartest person in the room, giving a long lecture about, say, isopropyl thiogalactoside, that neither the judge nor the 100 or so spectators are likely to follow (this is not a jury trial). The defense attorney asks him whether it’s true that ID is anti-evolution. “That’s completely wrong,” Behe answers, cutting the cord between him and the Scopes monkey crowd.

Behe is Catholic, and the defense lawyer asks several times whether his religious convictions require him to believe in ID. Always the answer’s the same: No. They spend three hours establishing his scientific credentials (he’s a biochemist at Lehigh University) and the rest of the day establishing the scientific credentials of ID. Unlike Biblical creationists, Behe does not believe the earth is only a few thousand years old. He accepts many parts of evolutionary theory. He constructs his arguments using scientific principles, from open inquiry to hypothesis testing to falsification. ID is science because it “relies on the physical observation of observable empirical facts,” he says.

So far, so good. But when he gets any closer to explaining how one would actually go about proving the existence of intelligent design, Behe starts chasing his tail. Design, he says over and over, is merely the “purposeful arrangement of parts.” We can detect it when “separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components.” This is a perfectly tautological argument. It is reasonable to infer design, he argues, when something seems well designed. In his writings, Behe argues that the theory can be falsified and suggests an experiment: Place a bacterial species without a flagellum under selective pressure, grow it for 10,000 generations (about two years), and see whether a system as complex as a flagellum is produced. It’s a circular experiment, as William Saletan has explained. To that I add: Why wouldn’t Mr. Designer, whoever he is, just go to work on that Petri dish? I need look no further than myself for counter-evidence: weak ankles, diabetes, high probability of future death. If there is a designer, she doesn’t seem so intelligent.

In his testimony, as in his book, Behe says we can conclude something was designed without knowing the identity of the designer. It could be aliens, an army of fairies, Frank Lloyd Wright directing from the sky. In his writing and speaking, he hardly ever mentions God, much less Jesus. This has turned off some potential evangelical supporters but only the most fundamentalist. Behe’s omission is an updated evangelical strategy, perfected by President Bush in his first campaign. Bush didn’t have to mention abortion, stem cells, or any of the issues dear to the religious right. He just told a story about how an encounter with Billy Graham led him to stop drinking—a story any evangelical would recognize as a religious testimonial without Bush ever having called it that. Behe sends similar cues, mentioning that certain Darwinians are atheists, using examples familiar to anyone who’s read creationist literature. At one point, he says the believer in him thinks the designer is God, but the scientist can’t prove that. But that’s another old political trick, like the Japanese prime minister saying this week he visited the controversial war shrine only as a “private citizen.”

I’ve met biologists who are strict Biblical literalists. Usually they exhibit a certain humility and reconcile their twin beliefs by admitting that there are many mysteries of creation the tools of science can never explain. Behe utterly lacks that deference. In his book, he writes that ID should be ranked as “one of the greatest achievements in the history of science,” rivaling “Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur and Darwin.” The evidence of design is all around us, and any honest scientist would embrace that as the obvious Ur-Explanation.

My 4-year-old daughter feels this way, too. She marvels at how a katydid looks exactly like a leaf, or how stars really do twinkle in the sky. But I’m hoping by ninth grade her thinking will have evolved.