Big names from the Dover trial argue for evolution

Last night, Swarthmore played host to several of the leading figures in the recent Dover trial on the teaching of evolution in schools. Three teachers from Dover Area High School, Jennifer Miller, Robert Eshbach and Bertha Spahr, led a panel on their recent front-page experience. Later on, one of the expert witnesses from the Dover trial, Dr. Kenneth Miller, gave a lecture titled “Time to Dump Darwin? The Challenge of ‘Intelligent Design.'”

The Dover panel took place in the Scheuer Room from 4:15 to 5:30 p.m., and was well-attended by students and faculty. Jennifer Miller began by discussing how evolution was taught before the trial. The origin of life was never mentioned, but Darwin’s famous voyage and his theory of natural selection were taught, along with evidence for evolution and a timeline of the Earth’s history.

Spahr described how the intrusion of religion into the Dover science classrooms began gradually, and then suddenly ramped up. The conservative school board instituted a requirement that teachers watch anti-evolution videos, and then refused to approve a request for copies of the Prentice Hall introductory biology textbook unless copies of a text titled “Of Pandas and People,” were also purchased. This textbook espouses the idea of Intelligent Design, which claims that life was purposefully created by an intelligent entity.

Eleven parents of students at Dover Area High School filed suit against the school board on December 15, 2004. The trial began in September of 2005, and spanned two months, during which several of the teachers, including Spahr and Miller, testified in court.

Spahr noted wryly that “[the school board] went for the wrong department… Scientists are known to document everything!” The teachers therefore came to the trial armed with boxes of files, including the catalog from which “Of Pandas and People” was purchased, which explicitly listed the book under the category of “Creation Science”.

Based on the concerted defense of the teachers, parents, and expert witnesses, Judge John Jones ultimately ruled against the school board, specifically noting the “unnecessary sacrifices” that the teachers were forced to make. In a stunning defeat for Intelligent Design advocates, he also ruled that teaching Intelligent Design would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution: “Intelligent Design cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

During the trial, Eshbach helped to establish the Dover CARES political action group, which, in an election held during the trial, won 8 out of 8 contested seats in the school board. The election thus ousted the very members who had originally attempted to force Intelligent Design onto the high school curriculum.

The panel concluded by summarizing the current state of affairs in Dover. Intelligent Design has been removed from the curriculum by the newly elected school board, and most copies of “Of Pandas and People” are gone. The teachers added that, contrary to inflammatory statements made by Rev. Pat Robertson, faith-based activities remain strong at Dover Area High School.

At 7:30 p.m., Dr. Kenneth Miller gave his lecture to an excited and packed audience in Science Center 101. Miller, a prominent cell biologist, Brown University professor and writer, is the author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” along with several introductory biology textbooks. He immediately set a light-hearted tone by opening with a clip from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “We live in interesting times,” he began.

Starting with the recent history of the debate over evolution and Intelligent Design, with focus on the Dover trial, Dr. Miller described how scientists should respond to Intelligent Design advocates. Arguing the evidence is all well and good, he noted, but it is important to first develop a proper understanding of science in the public consciousness: “Theories and facts are not opposite things. Theories explain fact.”

Dr. Miller also restated the evidence he used as an expert witness during the Dover trial. These included data showing a vast quantity of intermediate fossils, as well as a thorough debunking of Michael Behe’s examples of irreducible complexity (that is, biological structures too complex to have emerged without the aid of a designer).

Although a committed Roman Catholic himself, Dr. Miller opposes Intelligent Design for a number of reasons. It is creationism masquerading as science, it fails utterly to achieve the explanatory power necessary to be considered a true scientific theory, and its proponents have a very specific political agenda. Miller noted that the creationist wedge strategy aims to convince people that Darwinism is equal to atheism, and thus sway public opinion against the theory of evolution.

Dr. Miller also criticized anti-religious scientists as well as religious anti-evolutionists for making the issue black-and-white, saying, “Partisans from both sides are eager to display the conflict as an either-or proposition.”

The talk was well-received by the audience, Dr. Miller’s frequent humorous asides bringing both laughter and applause. A spirited question and answer session followed, with discussion on the ethical considerations of science, and Dr. Miller’s personal conjecture on the polarization of America’s political climate regarding the evolution issue.

Student response was extremely positive. Matthew Fiedler ’06 commented, “I think the most important point [Dr. Miller] made was that opponents of evolution need to be engaged on the ground they care about… until you can convince them that religious faith is compatible with scientific explanations, you will make no progress.”

Meagan Bolles ’06 agreed: “He was an amazing speaker, very charismatic. I liked that he spoke for both religion and science, and the fusion of the two.”

The teachers from Dover, who attended the lecture, were similarly impressed. Robert Eshbach stated, “The lecture was excellent. My father is a minister… the things that [Dr. Miller] is presenting to scientists are exactly the same things my father is presenting in seminary.” Jennifer Miller enthused, “I’ll definitely use some of his stuff in my classroom!”

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