“Teach the controversy” was a fairly popular slogan to hear in the debate over intelligent design versus evolution, and if there’s one thing this documentary does well, it’s teaching the controversy. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial follows the 2005 court decision of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, wherein 11 parents in Dover, Pennsylvania sued the school district over the required reading of a statement to ninth-grade science classes. Much more was on trial than just the mandated statement though, as the debate became one of how to determine what belongs in science curriculum, how to tell science apart from pseudo-science, and whether or not religiously motivated ideas may have a forum in public school classrooms.
I. Taking Sides
From the very beginning, Judgment Day stresses the extreme divisiveness created by the debate. The small town of Dover becomes intensely polarized when the local school board decides to require that a statement be read to all ninth-grade science classes – a statement proposing intelligent design (ID) as an alternative to evolution and criticizing evolution as a weak and incomplete theory. Proponents of ID argue that there are legitimate scientific challenges to evolution which point to nature being the work of an “intelligent agent”, whereas critics of ID argue that it is not a scientific proposal at all, but thinly-veiled religious creationism. Citizens, school teachers, and board members in Dover take their sides with firm conviction, and families and friends become divided in heated debate.
Many people may be familiar with the precedings and results of the courtcase, but this documentary also covers the lesser known effects of the dispute upon the Dover community. Some parents express that they do not want their children to be taught that they descended from monkeys. Others express that religious ideals should have no place in science classes. These conflicting views lead to some unpleasant confrontations for those against ID, as teachers and parents tell of receiving death threats, having property destroyed, and being labeled ‘atheists’ and ‘un-American’, although many of them are church-going Christians.
With the help of the ACLU, eleven parents took the debate to court. Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Christian law firm, was hired to represent the school board and advocates of ID. Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed to office by George W. Bush, presided over the case.
II. Only a Theory?
American education has been plagued with misunderstandings of evolution ever since the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial of 1925. John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. For some time, textbook publishers in the United States kept silent on Darwin and evolution, after noting the heated controversy that erupted from the Scopes Trial. Figuring that tempers had died down enough by the 1960s, evolution began to make it back into textbooks, and laws forbidding the teaching of the theory in schools were struck down, as in Epperson v. Arkansas of 1968. Biblical literalists were quick to react by proposing creation science and passing laws to enforce its teaching alongside that of evolution.
The struggle continued on through the 70s and culminated in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard, where creationism was officially recognized as religion and rejected as science. This setback caused biblical literalists to retreat and reorganize for a time, until the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover. But during the interim, there was no period of significant enlightenment on evolution. Years of legal battles proved that evolution was still a touchy subject for many people. The only free and open discussion of Darwin and his theory has been on college campuses, in the classes of professors who somehow managed to learn about evolution themselves, despite the absence of science education that troubled the United States from 1925 to the 1970s.
With all this in mind, the plaintiffs wisely decided to spend a fair amount of their time in court explaining evolution and why we know it is on good scientific standing. Dr. Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, was brought in to inform the court that evolution is the observable process of change that occurs in organisms over time. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection postulates that organisms which adapt to their environment have a greater chance of survival than those which do not adapt. Given enough time, some organisms will evolve to the point that they can no longer produce offspring with other members of their own species. Thus a new species is born from an existing one.
Dr. Miller and the other witnesses of the prosecution presented the evidence of transitional fossils that support evolutionary theory – fossils like Australopithecus afarensis, Archaeopteryx, and the newly discovered Tiktaalik. They explained how certain species like Tiktaalik have characteristics of both fish and amphibians, seen in the scales and gills that are common to fish, and the flat snout and limb joints in the fins that more resemble amphibians. Perhaps the most impressive piece of evidence was that of human chromosome #2. As stated in the trial, humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, while chimps have 24. If we share a common ancestor, as evolution predicts, we should be able to find that two of our chromosomes have been fused together, accounting for the missing pair.
Chromosomes have markers of repetitive DNA on each end, which are known as telomeres. With human chromosome #2, we find four total telomeres: two on the ends and two fused together at the center. Not only is there evidence of a fusion, but the two chromosomes in human chromosome #2 are observed to match two separate chromosomes that are also found in chimps. Evolution has made a testable prediction and genetics has proven it true.
Even in spite of all this and more evidence that was introduced over the course of the trial, the advocates of ID pressed forward with their allegations that evolution was a ‘theory in crisis’. To defend their accusations and swoop in with intelligent design as a possible replacement, a few arguments were made to challenge evolution.
III. Challenging Evolution
During the defense testimonies, Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, put forward one challenge to evolution, which he called ‘irreducible complexity’. In his own words, Behe explains irreducible complexity:
The problem with this concept is that it is an argument from ignorance which ignores the way Natural Selection operates. It is essentially saying that if something has no appearance of gradual evolution, than it has not evolved. This could be due to a lack of understanding or a lack of imagination though, it is not necessarily true that if you can’t conceive of how something evolved that it must not have evolved. Behe’s idea rests on the presumption that if you can remove part of a biological system and it no longer works, then it must have been created exactly as we find it now. Yet even a cursory knowledge of Natural Selection tells us that a system which may not function normally with a missing part can still be useful for other functions, and in fact this is exactly what was demonstrated in the trial.
Behe used the example of the bacterial flagellum as an irreducibly complex system. The flagellum is often described as an out-board motor that rotates the ‘tail’ of the bacteria, propelling it forward in motion. According to ID proponents and Behe’s trial testimony, removing any part of the flagellar motor causes it to cease functioning. However, Dr. Kenneth Miller debunked this example of irreducible complexity by introducing the Type-III Secretory System (TTSS) at the trial. The TTSS is a biological system very much like the bacterial flagellum, only it is missing some parts found on the flagellum. Rather than being defunct, the TTSS acts as a syringe for injecting poison, instead of the rotating propulsion device found on the flagellum.
The existence of the TTSS in a wide variety of bacteria demonstrates that a small portion of the ‘irreducibly complex’ flagellum can indeed carry out an important biological function. Since such a function is clearly favored by natural selection, the contention that the flagellum must be fully-assembled before any of its component parts can be useful is obviously incorrect. What this means is that the argument for intelligent design of the flagellum has failed.
The conservative creationist thinktank known as the Discovery Institute had some involvement with the Dover school board at first, introducing intelligent design to board members who wanted an alternative to place alongside evolution in science classes. Originally several fellows of the Discovery Institute planned to testify in the trial, including William Dembski, Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell, but all withdrew over supposed disputes with how the Thomas More Law Center wanted to conduct the deposition.3 However, the director of the Discovery Institute later stated that he asked the witnesses not to testify, claiming that “Dover is a disaster in a sense, as a public-relations matter.”4 As a result, the defense lost a large amount of its case and Michael Behe wound up presenting virtually the only coherent (but fallacious) argument against evolution at the trial. Most of the remaining speakers focused on intelligent design.
IV. Exposing “cdesign proponentsists”
Intelligent design is the idea that certain aspects of nature bear the ‘fingerprints’ of an intelligent agency. This differs from creationism in a matter of words. Creationism is the idea that certain aspects of nature bear the ‘fingerprints’ of a creator. ID advocates never openly say their intelligent agent is god, but it is definitely implied. Why they strive to steer clear of religious language is directly related to the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case. After creationism met numerous defeats in legal battles and was finally judged to be religion and not science, biblical literalists regrouped and restrategized. Though creationism was officially ruled unconstitutional, the door was left open to “alternative scientific theories”.
Part of the statement read to all ninth-grade students in Dover mentioned a book called Of Pandas and People. When the school board had gotten in touch with Thomas More Law Center and expressed an interest in finding a textbook that taught additional theories to evolution, Of Pandas and People was recommended. The prosecution subpoenaed the publishing company to send in the drafts of the book, and it was found that copies prior to 1989 contained references to ‘creationism’ and ‘creator’, whereas later editions replace the words with ‘intelligent design’ and ‘intelligent agent’. Creationists were normally changed to ‘design proponents’, but in one particularly damning instance of a 1987 draft of Pandas, the word “cdesign proponentsists” is printed.5 This has since been referred to as the missing link between creationism and intelligent design.
After Edwards v. Aguillard, creationists redressed their doctrines in pseudo-scientific language in order to continue fighting evolution. The “cdesign proponentsists” anomaly is the smoking gun, but it is not the only evidence that intelligent design is religion attempting to disguise itself as science. A document presented during the trial, entitled “The Wedge”, is a breakdown of the goals and strategy of the Discovery Institute. Among them are the following objectives:
- To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
- To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.6
One could hardly ask for better evidence that ID advocates pursue religious ideals, not scientific accuracy or understanding. When the words “God” and “theism” are right in the text of your own organization’s goals, you cannot maintain neutrality. The Discovery Institute’s ambitions to undercut “scientific materialism” are based on a distaste of the implications they perceive in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Just like the Dover school board, they do not like to think that man is an animal. They believe man is the exalted creation of a higher power. However, personal preferences are not science.
V. A ‘Miraculous’ Verdict or Just a Reasonable One?
On December 20th, 2005, Judge John E. Jones III ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and issued a 139 page decision. In his conclusion, he wrote:
ID proponents have criticized Judge Jones’ decision as “activist”, but like I stated before, he is a conservative placed on the bench by George W. Bush and other evangelicals. Despite his political leanings, Judge Jones was able to see the overwhelming evidence for evolution and also notice the thinly-veiled religiosity of intelligent design. An activist judge would have gone with the opinion of his conservative and Christian constituents. Instead, Judge Jones did not let faith cloud his thinking, but he listened to the arguments, weighed the evidence, and made the only reasonable conclusion. But not in the eyes of everyone, of course, as Judge Jones reported receiving death threats after his ruling. Even so, in the next school board election, none of the members who had voted for the intelligent design policy were re-elected.
Evolution is not anti-Christian. As this documentary illustrates, it doesn’t take an atheist to acknowledge the truth of Darwin’s theory. Several of the science teachers, parents, and even witnesses in the trial are church-going, bible-reading believers, yet they see no conflict between faith and evolution. Only those who interpret the bible in a rigidly literal sense will find evolution a threat to their faith. But then again, they should also find gravity a threat to their faith, since the bible says that the earth rests on pillars (Job 9:6). Strict biblical literalism will only reverse the progress mankind has made in the last 2,000 years, and it makes the terrifically terrible assumption that the last thing god wants us to use is the brain he gave us. Everything must be filtered through a scriptural lens.
Evolution is not anti-inquiry either. ID proponents would have you believe that there is a massive conspiracy of scientists in all countries, all disciplines, and even in all religions, protecting the faulty theory of evolution and trying to keep ‘real science’ (ID) from being recognized. The level of distrust and paranoia that goes into such a belief has to be staggering. Criticisms of evolution are more than welcome in the scientific community though. In fact, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection won the recognition it has today because it invalidated an earlier theory on evolution that was proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. If there are holes in the theory of evolution, science does not mind learning of them. What is objected to are the false impressions that evolution is on unstable ground or that it is marred by lots of inconsistencies. A legitimate and factual critique of evolution will have nothing to hide from peer-review and analysis. Over 150 years have passed since Darwin wrote The Origin of Species and there has yet to be any significant challenge that threatens to undermine evolution.
VI. The Final Judgment
For anyone interested on the creation and evolution debate, Judgment Day is a spectacular documentary. It presents both sides in a very objective and unbiased manner, letting each person speak for him/herself. Vibrant animations accompany most discussions of scientific concepts so that the material is easy to understand and not at all boring or dry. Re-enactments of the courtroom precedings do contain some overacting, but in a way that is more amusing than it is irritating. The documentary does a wonderful job of capturing the wide variety of opinions and arguments, from scientists and experts, but also from school teachers, parents, and occasionally students. I think more discussion with the students could have been perhaps the one thing that might have made this film even better. Nonetheless, this is easily one of the best documentaries on the debate over evolution and intelligent design, as centered around one of the most important court decisions of the 21st century.
1. Behe, M. (1996) Darwin’s Black Box. 2nd edition. p.39.
2. Miller, K. (2004) The Flagellum Unspun. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2010.
3. (2005) Discovery Institute and Thomas More Law Center Squabble in AEI Forum. NCSE.com. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2010.
4. Postman, D. (2006) Seattle’s Discovery Institute scrambling to rebound after intelligent-design ruling. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2010.
5. (2008) “Cdesign Proponentsists”. NCSE.com. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2010.
6. The Wedge Strategy. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2010.
7. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District – H. Conclusion. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2010.