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See Inside December 2005

The Trials of Life

Because eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, we have to talk about intelligent design again



FRANK VERONSKY
Let's review. First there was the oxymoronic, and just plain moronic, creation science, which says that biblical creation, not evolution, accounts for all life on earth. Creation science begat the more subtle intelligent design (ID), which holds that life is too complex to have evolved naturally--an intelligent designer (identity a secret, but it rhymes with Todd) must have done it, producing wonders of nature like the flagellum, that whippy tail some bacteria have, and both Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston.

On September 13, the New York Times ran an article that discussed how the documentary March of the Penguins was a big hit among some groups because of the lessons it imparted. A reviewer in World Magazine thought that the fact that any fragile penguin egg survived the Antarctic climate made a "strong case for intelligent design." Conservative commentator Michael Medved thought the movie "passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing."

Coincidentally, I had seen the movie just a few days before. On a blisteringly hot day in south Florida, I intelligently designed my afternoon to be in an air-conditioned theater watching penguins. So perhaps I can be of some help.

Penguins are not people, despite their natty appearance and upright ambulation. Their traditional norms include waddling around naked and regurgitating the kids' lunch. But it would be as absurd to castigate them for those activities as it is to congratulate them for their monogamy. Besides, the movie clearly notes that the penguins are seasonally monogamous--like other movie stars usually reviled by moralists, the penguins take a different mate each year. And there are problems with them as evidence of intelligent design. While caring for the egg, the penguins balance it on their feet against their warm bodies; if the egg slips to the ground for even a few seconds, it freezes and cracks open. A truly intelligent design might have included internal development, or thicker eggshells, or Miami. Finally, penguin parents take turns walking 70 miles to the sea for takeout meals. The birds have to walk.

From tribulations to trials. On September 26, I sat in a federal courtroom in Harrisburg, Pa., where a lawyer said for almost certainly the first time ever, "Can we have the bacterial flagellum, please?" This groundbreaking moment in legal history came on day one of the trial that will determine if the Dover, Pa., school board violated the First Amendment by introducing religion in a public school when it required the inclusion of an antievolution, pro-ID advisory in ninth-grade biology classes.

Dubbed "Scopes II" by some, the case is really "Scopes III." The 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, which barred creation science from public school science classrooms, was often dubbed "Scopes II." And you can't have two Scopes II's, at least not until the forces of irrationality begin futzing with the math curriculum, too.

Members of the Dover school board who want ID taught are free to consult the opening paragraph for an explanation of ID. The curriculum chair, ID proponent William Buckingham, could have used some crib notes when he was asked in a deposition last January, "Do you have an understanding in very simple terms of what 'intelligent design' stands for? What does it teach?" Buckingham responded, "Other than what I expressed, that's--scientists, a lot of scientists--don't ask me the names. I can't tell you where it came from. A lot of scientists believe that back through time, something, molecules, amoeba, whatever, evolved into the complexities of life we have now."

Is our children learning?

Anyway, the trial was only about half over when this issue of Scientific American went to press, so we'll have to revisit it at a later date. Hey, nobody said eternal vigilance was going to be easy.

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