The 'Intelligent Design' Debate

By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher

The reading and discussion questions below focus on the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board's effort to introduce the idea of "intelligent design" as a complement to evolutionary theory, and the resulting federal court case. These materials are an addition to "Separation of Church & State: Four Case Studies," (in particular, Case 3: "Is teaching evolution controversial?), available on this website.

Student Reading:
Does teaching intelligent design in a public school biology class violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

On October 18, 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board voted to have ninth- grade biology teachers read to students a four-paragraph statement. It included the following:

"The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of EvolutionÖ.Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidenceÖ. Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origins of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understand of what Intelligent Design actually involves."

Supporters of the idea of "intelligent design" (I.D.) argue that life is too complex to have developed randomly but must have been designed by an intelligent power.

Following the school board action, eleven parents sued. They maintained that to include such a statement in a biology class "constitutes an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment." (Kitzmiller et al v. Dover)

Judge John Jones, a federal judge appointed by President Bush, ruled on December 20, 2005, for the parents and against the school board. He wrote:

"In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

"Both defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

"To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

The judge wrote that the statement the school board had ordered read to biology classes "singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, causes students to doubt its validity without scientific justification, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a scientific resource and instructs students to forego scientific inquiry in a public school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere."

Judge Jones found that "Defendants' ID policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America." In his ruling he cited a key precedent, Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), in which the Supreme Court found that a Louisiana law requiring that "creation science" must be taught if evolution is taught was a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The judge was also scathing in condemning the school board. "The breathtaking inanity of the board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."

According to The National Center for Science Education, two dozen other states are planning curriculum challenges to evolution. It remains to be seen these states will be affected by the Pennsylvania ruling or the more than $1 million in legal fees for which the Dover school district is now liable. (New York Times, 12/22/05)

For discussion

1. Consider Judge Jones' dismissal of the statement the school board had wanted
read to biology students:

  • He criticizes the school board for singling out evolutionary theory for special treatment. Why do you suppose that the board did not include other scientific theories, such as Newton's theory of gravity and Einstein's theory of relativity?

  • In what way do you suppose the judge thinks the board "misrepresents" the status of the theory of evolution?

  • Do you think the fact that, as the judge notes, "the theory of evolution is imperfect" is scientific grounds for students "to doubt its validity"? Why or why not?

  • Why do you think the judge views ID as "as religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory"? Do you? Why or why not?

2. Why do you think some people regard evolutionary theory as "antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being"? Why doesn't Judge Jones?

3. For a theory to be considered scientific it must be testable and capable of being proved false. Why? What makes ID"an untestable alternative hypothesis? Which of the following do you think are testable and capable of being proved false? Which are not? Why?

  • Taking a prescribed combination of chemicals will cure throat cancer.
  • Spraying a certain agent into the atmosphere cuts global warming by 50%.
  • The creation of human life is part of a supreme plan.
  • A product, if used as directed, will raise IQs by 25 points.

4. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereofÖ." What is your understanding of why Judge Jones ruled that requiring the reading of a statement about ID to all ninth-grade biology classes in Dover, Pennsylvania, "violates the establishment clause"?

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:

Back to top


© Morningside Center
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 550
New York, New York 10115
212.870.3318 | fax: 212.870.2464