Intelligent Disguise

This must be how a religious conversion happens: You sit still in a windowless room for hours and hours, listening to the voice of a single higher authority. There is no one to contradict him, nothing else to do. Over and over, Michael Behe, the main expert witness, repeats the same mantra: Intelligent Design is science, not religion. By the end of the second morning of his testimony, I am beginning to see my way through to some of the central scientific claims of ID. The attorney asks a series of questions that elicit the same answer—”Creationism is a theological, religious concept; Intelligent Design points to observable physical empirical facts”—and I experience the repetition like a ritual prayer.

The courtroom, it turns out, is a poor place to conduct a science class. Behe runs through specific examples of “irreducible complexity”—his idea that certain biochemical structures are too complex to have evolved in parts: blood clotting cascades, the immune system, cells. He claims his critics have misread crucial bits of data. To a nonscientist such as myself (and presumably the judge), this is like Chinese: I recognize the language, but I have no idea whether the speaker is faking it. I have no context, no deeper knowledge of the relevant literature. The reporter seated next to me has written only four lines of notes for three hours of testimony. The mere fact that the trial is being conducted in such highly technical language means, for the moment, ID is winning.  

Thank God for cross-examination. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that states can not require schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. So, the plaintiffs are intent on proving ID is just another form of creationism. To do that, Eric Rothschild, the sharp ACLU attorney, does the courtroom equivalent of This Is Your Life, trotting out all of Behe’s more embarrassing friends and relations. To give students a fuller understanding of ID, Dover’s ninth-grade biology teachers are now required to read in class a statement referring them to a textbook called Of Pandas and People, which the schools will keep in their libraries. Behe wrote sections of the textbook and has called it an “excellent reference for students.” But the book is not nearly as careful as Behe is to avoid the old creationist lingo: “Intelligent Design means that various forms of life began abruptly with distinguishing features already intact: fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings, etc,” Rothschild reads out loud from the book. Behe can manage a defense of why that statement is still consistent with certain well-accepted evolutionary principles, but it’s a stretch. The passage sounds an awful lot like Genesis. 

Rothschild then points to some of Behe’s own writing in a magazine called Biology and Philosophy, where Behe mused about the identity of the Great Designer. What if the existence of God is denied at the outset? he asks himself in an article. Well, yes, he admits, for those who deny God’s existence, ID is much less plausible. Finally, he gets to what so far counts as the smoking gun in this trial: a 1999 article in “the Wedge,” a publication of the Discovery Institute (the main outlet for ID research), where Behe is a fellow. In it, ID theorists plot their “five-year strategic plan” with Behe as the crucial tool to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

For the purposes of this trial, these are slip-ups. But as time goes on, the ID people are getting better and better at avoiding overt theism, narrowing their theory to its most unobjectionable form. Of Pandas and People merely replaced the word “creationism” with “intelligent design.” There’s already an updated textbook in the works called Design of Life, which excises the Genesis-speak and more thoroughly incorporates the principles of ID. The Discovery Institute does not like this case because it involves a requirement that teachers mention ID and because there are too many creationist fingerprints on it. They prefer a model tested in Ohio schools called Critical Analysis of Evolution. In this model, teachers are encouraged to poke holes in evolution and make sure students understand it’s just a theory. They can check out ID in their own free time. “They need at least a couple of different perspectives to appreciate the difference between fact and theory,” Behe says in his testimony. This is the safest position for ID people to take: What could be more scientific than subjecting a theory to hard scrutiny? But it’s also the most disingenuous. This would be teaching 14-year-olds that the truth is relative, that life can be explained by any one of many competing theories. And there is no way Behe believes that.