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A Reflection on the Dover Anniversary


As Casey Luskin and Sarah Chaffee remind us in a series of posts at Evolution News, it will be a decade ago on December 20 that opponents of free inquiry successfully took a school district in Pennsylvania to federal court to censor any mention of intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution. The spark for the lawsuit -- a suit that cost the families of Dover, Pennsylvania, more than a million dollars in legal damages -- was a single paragraph, to be read to schoolchildren once during biology class:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being 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 to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

The judge ruled that this criticism of Darwin's theory was unconstitutional, and he ordered teachers and administrators not to disparage Darwin's theory in the classroom. The plaintiffs and their lawyers demanded $2,000,000 in damages from the families in the school district. They ultimately settled for $1,000,011, when the next school board promised to be silent.

Darwinists were exuberant about the intimidation. The assistant legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State said this of the million-dollar fee extracted from Dover schoolchildren: "Any board thinking of trying to do what the Dover board did is going to have to look for a bill in excess of $2 million," and "I think $2 million is a lot to explain to taxpayers for a lawsuit that should never be fought."

What has happened in Dover in the ensuing decade? In schools, presenting alternatives to Darwinian evolution not approved by the federal court is not an option. Violation of the court order is a federal crime (U.S. Code Title 18, Part1, Chapter 21, section 401). Teachers and students, while in school, are well advised to remain silent on their non-Darwinian views.

Outside of Dover schoolrooms, meanwhile, scientific inquiry is thriving. The Dover decision didn't stop the debate. It fanned the flame. Research programs on ID are robust, ID conferences are flourishing, ID books are being published, and the Darwinists are fending off a rising tide of critiques from within the scientific profession and from scholars in other fields who question the adequacy of Darwinism to account for life and even question the coherence of the theory of "natural selection." State legislatures are proposing and passing academic freedom laws. Darwin Day is now Academic Freedom Day.

Courtrooms are not the right setting for academic inquiry, and court decisions in the past have been largely irrelevant, or even contrary, to the ultimate outcome of scientific debates. Socrates and Servetus and Galileo and Lysenko's critics lost in court.

Though the Dover school board's ID policy was not supported or endorsed by the ID movement, the visceral and angry reaction to that policy from Darwinists is a manifestation of ID's strength. Dover was a concession by the Darwinist community that it could not defend Darwinism from a one-minute paragraph read in a schoolroom. It was a concession by the Darwinist community that it must rely on courts, not science, to defend orthodoxy. It was a concession by the Darwinist community that the only sure defense of Darwin's science is imposed silence. Dover was a concession by the Darwinist community that it had to shield Darwinism in open court because it could not defend Darwinism in open debate.

In Dover Darwinists showed their hand, and their desperation. A decade later, our reply hasn't changed: "And yet it is designed."

Image: Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse, Harrisburg, PA, by Pubdog [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.