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A dubious first for 'intelligent design'

In a surprise move, a Pennsylvania school board recently voted to include "intelligent design" in the district's science curriculum. At its meeting on October 18, 2004, the Dover Area School Board revised the science curriculum to include the following:
Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught.
The district is now apparently the first school district in the country to require the teaching of "intelligent design" -- a move that prompted two school board members to resign and that is likely, locals fear, to result in a lawsuit.

The controversy began over the summer, when the high school science department and district administration recommended that the district adopt the 2002 edition of Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph Levine's Biology: The Living Science. William Buckingham, a board member and head of the curriculum committee, complained of its focus on "Darwinism" and vowed to seek a textbook in which both evolution and creationism are presented. Buckingham was reportedly unconcerned that such a textbook would violate the separation of church and state, which he regards as a myth. Assistant Superintendent Michael Baksa said that the current textbook, the school's science curriculum, and the state science standards all teach evolution. The local newspapers then saw vociferous debate in their letters-to-the-editor columns.

At the board meeting on August 2, the board initially deadlocked 4-4 (with one absence) on whether to adopt the Miller and Levine textbook. Buckingham then offered to vote in favor of the book if and only if the board voted also to adopt the "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People as a "companion" book, a proposal that board member Jeff Brown characterized as blackmail. Subsequently, after a board member changed her mind, the book was adopted by a vote of 5-3. The question of whether to adopt Of Pandas and People lingered, however. The York Daily Record explained, "While Buckingham considers the Bible's Book of Genesis to be life's blueprint, he says the issue of intelligent design is a pragmatic compromise between his beliefs and what the law will allow."

Of Pandas and People, published originally in 1989 and in a second edition in 1993, is the flagship textbook of the "intelligent design" movement: coauthor Dean H. Kenyon is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, as is its "Academic Editor" Charles Thaxton; CSC Fellow Mark Hartwig and CSC Director Stephen C. Meyer wrote its "Note to teachers"; and the CSC recently described it as "an excellent educational resource covering a topic appropriate for inquiry and discussion." That opinion is at odds with those of philosopher Michael Ruse, who described the 1989 edition as "worthless and dishonest," and of Gerald R. Skoog, a past president of the National Science Teachers Association, who said, "It's just not science." Although Buckingham acknowledges having consulted with the CSC, its Associate Director John West told the York Daily Record, "We don't endorse or support what the Dover School District has done."

On October 4, it seemed as though a compromise of sorts was reached. An anonymous donor offered fifty copies of Of Pandas and People as "reference material" for classrooms. As such, the donation did not require the approval of the board but only of the superintendent, Richard Nilsen, who granted it. In response to a question about whether teachers would be required to teach "intelligent design," Nilsen replied, "A teacher can, but is not required." Reaction to the compromise was mixed: one resident, who home-schools his children, expressed the hope that "some students will pick up this book and see what a lie evolution really is," while a former school board member worried that even the compromise was likely to provoke a lawsuit.

At the board meeting on October 18, however, after a heated discussion, the school board voted 6-3 to revise the science curriculum to require that students "be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design." Opposing the revision were eleven of the twelve residents testifying at the meeting, as well as the head of the science department and the school administration, which objected to the reference to "intelligent design." Addressing concerns about a lawsuit, Buckingham claimed that a law firm would represent the district pro bono but declined to name the firm; according to later reports, it was the Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Casey Brown, a ten-year veteran of the school board who resigned over the vote, commented, "There seems to be a determination among some board members to have our district serve as an example; to flout the legal rulings of the Supreme Court, to flout the law of the land. They don't seem to care. I think they need to ask the taxpayers if they want to be guinea pigs," adding that the board has already spent almost one thousand dollars in legal expenses. The York Dispatch editorialized, "When it comes to including that mantra ["intelligent design"] as part of an official school curriculum it's a case of religious zeal playing with taxpayers money, and it's just plain wrong."

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott told the York Daily Record, "Intelligent design is just a sham to get creationism into the curriculum," explaining that "even if [its advocates] haven't convinced the scientific community, they have been able to convince the politicians ... And that's too bad for the students in Dover."

Concerned readers who are in, or who have family or friends in, the Dover, Pennsylvania, area are urged to get in touch with Nick Matzke at NCSE.

[This article underwent a minor edit to fix the title and email address, 12/06/04]

(Story in the York Daily Record [Link is broken])