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New Yorker on Kitzmiller case

by Nick Matzke

In the print edition of the December 5, 2005, edition of The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot has a long, excellent writeup of the six-week Kitzmiller trial. She successfully captures the drama, the science, the legal high-points, and the general all-around American-ness of the trial and its cultural context. The online-only edition contains a Q & A with the article's author, Margaret Talbot [Link broken], and also a 1925 New Yorker article on the Scopes Monkey Trial and Dayton, Tennessee.

A full-page caricature drawing accompanies the article, showing lead plaintiffs attorney Eric Rothschild cross-examining defense witness Michael Behe with flagella, Judge John Jones III, and two whales (a swimming modern whale, and the extinct walking whale Pakicetus) floating in the background.

Talbot's colorful descriptions of the personalities of the trial are one attraction of her writing. Judge John Jones III was described as having "the rugged charm of a nineteen-forties move star; he sounded and looked like a cross between Robert Mitchum and William Holden." The lead plaintiff's witness, Kenneth Miller of Brown University, "made delicate scholarly jokes that weren't too geeky, and answered each question with undimished energy, as though he'd heard it before, but not that day, so, really, it was as fresh and interesting as ever." The closing expert for the plaintiffs, Kevin Padian, who is also the president of NCSE and a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, seemed to have "particularly engaged" the judge when he started "showing slides of prehistoric animals -- which he called, variously, 'critters,' 'guys,' and 'paleozoic roadkill' -- in order to illustrate that we have a lot of transitional fossils demonstrating the evolution of fish to amphibians and of dinosaurs to birds." According to Talbot, the judge "clearly enjoyed Padian's remarks on the educational value of dissecting your Kentucky Fried Chicken (the pointy part of the wing where the individual digits of the dinosaur fused together in birds)."

Bringing technical science into court before a nonexpert audience is one of the biggest challenges in any case on evolution education -- Talbot notes that of all the previous evolution/creationism trials, only one, McLean v. Arkansas, contained expert testimony. In the others, the trial was either too short, or expert testimony was excluded by the judge as not pertinent (In the Scopes Monkey Trial, Clarence Darrow wanted to call experts on evolution to testify, but was rebuffed by the court). Talbot said that the trial contradicted the common wisdom about science in court:

You sometimes hear it said that a courtroom is not a proper venue for debating science. In this case, it proved to be an ideal forum. For one thing, it allowed for the close questioning of Michael Behe, the Lehigh University biochemist who is the leading intellectual of intelligent design (and one of the movement's few working scientists). Under cross-examination by Eric Rothschild, a dogged lawyer for the plaintiffs, Behe conceded, for example, that a definition of science that could be expanded to embrace intelligent design could, by the same token, embrace astrology. And he was unable to name any peer-reviewed research generated by intelligent design, though the movement has been around for more than a decade.

After discussing the trial, Talbot moves on to the larger picture: the future of intelligent design and and other forms of antievolution. She briefly recounts the well-known fact that creationism doesn't go extinct, but instead evolves:

Over the past century, creationists have adapted to new environmental conditions. Thwarted in the effort to pass statutes that ban the teaching of evolution altogether, they tried statutes that called for "balance." Stymied again, they've tried to introduce the proviso that evolution is "just a theory." The idea that there is a design to nature has a long lineage -- going back to Paley, at least, or arguably to Aristotle. Tellingly, its newest incarnation emerged in close tandem with the defeat of creationism in the courts. Barbara Forrest, a historian of the intelligent-design movement, testified at the trial that the first "Of Pandas and People" manuscripts contained the word "creationism" precisely where the words "intelligent design" appear now.

If intelligent design is defeated in the Dover case, its backers with undoubtedly find subtler ways of promoting it.

Talbot ends with what was undoubtedly one of the most unexpected moments in the case -- Judge Jones's eerily theatric closing to the bench trial:

In the final minutes of the trial, Judge Jones closed the proceedings with an eloquent speech about how proud he was of everyone in the courtroom, and what great lawyering he'd been privileged to see. Then Patrick Gillen, the soft-spoken lawyer from the Thomas More center, stood up to say something. For all his awareness of what this trial was about, he could not suppress a religious reference. "By my reckoning, this is the fortieth day since the trial began and tonight will be the fortieth night," Gillen said.

"Mr. Gillen, that is an interesting coincidence," Judge Jones replied. "But it was not by design."