One of these days, the Dover, Pa., school board's attempt to insert creationism in a public school biology class will make a great movie. The story has drama, deception, perjury, shocking discoveries and colorful characters. Until that movie gets made, there's PBS's excellent "NOVA: Intelligent Design on Trial" (8 tonight, WQED), a fascinating and gripping look at the trial and both sides of the issue.
I came to the "NOVA" special without a lot of knowledge about the case that began in Dover, York County, about 25 miles south of Harrisburg. I grew up believing what at the time seemed to be common acceptance: that what's in Genesis and the theory of evolution are not mutually exclusive, even among those who regularly attend Sunday worship. But this was before the rise of the religious far right as a political force, back when strict, literal interpretations of the Bible seemed to be less pervasive.
I didn't know much about so-called "intelligent design" theory beyond its name and a sense that it's synonymous with creationism. So I went into the film willing to be persuaded that maybe there's some validity to intelligent design. If there is, those in favor of ID failed to prove it. And failed miserably.
That's what makes "Intelligent Design on Trial" such a thriller. As a legal exercise, the pro-evolution team presents a slam-dunk case; in the end, even a defense attorney says his losing side received a fair trial.
The controversy began when members of the Dover school board sought to introduce the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in high school biology classes. Teachers objected, even to the reading of a short statement about intelligent design that also questioned evolution. Some parents objected, too, and a lawsuit was filed by parents of 11 students against the school district.
Upper St. Clair's Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, joined with two other lawyers to lead the plaintiff's case, which set out to prove that ID is not science and that there were religious motivations in trying to get ID added to the curriculum.
"NOVA" explains that intelligent design posits that some things in nature are too complex to have evolved through a natural process of evolution. The theory is that an "intelligent agent" had a hand in creation, that "organisms poofed into existence," as one scientist notes derisively.
The film also lays out the basis for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The key difference in the presentations is that there's a ton of science to support evolution. ID, on the other hand, is characterized by the supernatural rather than science.
"NOVA" uses re-enactments, generally not my favorite approach, to dramatize the courtroom scenes. But in this instance, I'm not sure there would have been a better way to do it. There's a lot of science to explain, and the re-enactments use court transcripts, ensuring that viewers see at least portions of the trial as they exist in the record.
In July, "NOVA" executive producer Paula S. Aspell acknowledged that tonight's "NOVA" does not start from a blank slate, weighing the virtues of intelligent design with those of evolution.
" 'NOVA' would never do that. We're a science series, and intelligent design is not a science," she said at a PBS press conference.
The program proves that conclusively. It explains that in science a "theory" is not synonymous with an idea or a notion, obliterating the question, "Why teach something as fact if it's just a theory?" A theory has the weight of a large body of study and testing behind it, one scientist explains. As one plaintiff's witness notes, the theory of gravitation is not a theory that's likely to be falsified.
The most devastating blow to those arguing in favor of ID was their own literature, which showed ID is an inherently religious proposition. Experts testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs even found two drafts of an ID textbook that used identical wording that only replaced "creation" with "intelligent design." In some portions of the text, use of a computer's search and replace function resulted in this oopsie: "creationists" became "cdesign proponentists." Talk about a smoking gun.
What's most disturbing is that some of these creationists, who claim to be Christians, sent death threats to the plaintiffs. Afterward, the trial's ruling federal judge, a Republican appointed by President Bush and recommended by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, required protection due to threats, showing that terrorism is not exclusive to extremists from any one religious faith.
Oh, and my suggestion that the Dover case could make a good feature film? Walczak told me Paramount Pictures already is developing such a project.