Intelligent designer

The chief defender of intelligent design in the Dover evolution trial insists he has science and God on his side.

Topics: Evolution,

Intelligent designer

Richard Thompson has a startling habit of thrusting his fist to his mouth and biting his index finger between the first and second knuckles, as if trying to keep himself from saying too much. But as quickly as it goes in, the finger comes out again and his words begin to flow. He cannot help himself. He must tell the truth. As he sees it.

Thompson is the founder, president and chief council of the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit group in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Law Center is representing the Dover School Board pro bono in the current landmark case that pits the theory of evolution against “intelligent design,” the theory that some features of the natural world are best explained as the products of an intelligent cause or designer. The Law Center describes itself as “the Sword and Shield for People of Faith,” and was originally funded by ultraconservative Domino’s Pizza millionaire Thomas Monaghan, who is, like Thompson, a Catholic.

On Sept. 26, the first day of trial, Thompson, in an elegant dark suit, is standing on the steps of the U.S. Middle District Courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa. The trial has adjourned for the day. It is expected to continue through the first week of November.

A light rain falls as lawyers and advocates on both sides of the debate are making public comments. But nearly all of the reporters, photographers and cameramen surround Thompson. He is short and powerfully built, white-haired but bald on top, and endowed with an impressive nose and preternaturally white teeth. He has the defiant, almost menacing energy of an armed man on a moral mission.

Thompson is holding forth on his defense strategy. He says his scientific experts will show that I.D. is a valid scientific theory based on empirical observation by credentialed and respected scientists. He is arguing that no theory should be judged by its historical roots, even if they are religious, or even if they are creationist. Modern chemistry emerged from alchemy, after all, and that doesn’t make it bogus. Astronomy emerged from astrology, and we don’t hold that against it. Nor should a theory be judged by the personal ideologies of those who hold it; plenty of Darwinists are atheists, but that doesn’t disqualify evolutionary biology as an ideology, he says.

Schools that want to include the I.D. debate in their curriculum deserve the right to do so, Thompson says. Denying them that right is a form of both scientific and religious discrimination. “I.D. is seeking a place in the classroom because of its merits,” he says. “But it’s being kept out because it is harmonious with the Christian faith.”

He continues: “There are two Americas today, one that’s still very religiously based, and another that has no foundation, where everything is relative, where everything goes.” And the moral relativism that dominates the second America is an ideology enabled by Darwinism.

“All scientific theories, including Darwinism, have religious implications,” Thompson says. And the religious implication of Darwinism is atheism. Furthermore, moral relativism, atheism and the idolatry of science are symptoms of our “floundering society.” Thompson says he aims to put society back on track, and that track is there for us, laid down by God. “We do this, all of the attorneys I’m working with do this, because of our religious commitment.”

“Do you believe that we and other primates descended from common ancestors?” a British filmmaker calls out. Thompson bites his finger and says, “Do I think I evolved from an ape? No, I don’t believe my ancestor was a monkey.”

Thompson stole the lines from William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan was the lawyer, orator, statesman and progressive evangelical Christian who, 80 years ago, argued against teaching evolution in high school in the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn. Although Bryan won the Scopes trial, he is remembered for taking an intellectual pummeling on the stand by Clarence Darrow — perhaps the second most famous lawyer of the day and an advocate for evolution and modernity. While the Scopes trial set off decades of anti-evolution legislation in states around the country, it is also remembered as the beginning of the end for American creationism.

Who could have guessed that the ideologies fueling the Scopes trial would evolve enough to bring us this new version four-fifths of a century (and libraries full of evolution-supporting evidence) later? Well, Thompson could have. “Questions about the role of design in creation have been asked for thousands of years,” he says. “They haven’t been put to rest at all. They’re just getting stronger.”

Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District — the trial’s official name — was hatched in October 2004 when a small south central Pennsylvania community’s school board passed a resolution mandating that ninth-grade biology teachers launch their class by reading four paragraphs to their students. The paragraphs cast doubt on the validity of evolutionary theory and say that there are competing theories (specifically I.D.) and that copies of an I.D.-friendly textbook, “Of Pandas and People,” are available in the library for anyone who wants to learn more. Several members of the school board quit in protest when the proposal passed, and in December, 11 parents sued the board, accusing it of violating the First Amendment.

The suing parents — backed by the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the huge Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP — are claiming that I.D. is not a scientific theory, but a religious one, namely creationism, and has no business posing as science in biology classrooms.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III (a George W. Bush appointee) will have to decide, following testimony by scientists, philosophers, theologians and historians of science (as well as the plaintiffs and school board members), whether telling Dover’s ninth-graders about I.D. is exposing them to an “underdog science,” as Thompson calls it, or is promoting a particular religion.

If Judge Jones decides in favor of the Dover school board, dozens of other school boards around the country are waiting in the wings to implement I.D. into their science curricula. If he decides for the defendants, Darwin’s theory of evolution alone will continue to be taught in public schools as the scientific explanation for the diversity of life. Regardless of how Judge Jones votes, both sides have said they will appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Thompson gained fame as the Michigan state prosecutor who repeatedly charged assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian with first-degree murder, and didn’t stop pursuing him until Thompson was elected out of office, in large part for hounding Kevorkian. Thompson is also known for pushing through mandatory life sentences in Michigan for drug crimes and for prosecuting more drug offenders than anyone else. And, of course, Thompson shares with Bryan the conviction that Darwinism is perhaps the world’s most dangerous idea.

But for Thompson to prevail in his quixotic battle to convince the court that I.D. has a place in a nearby high school’s ninth-grade biology class, he will need more than confidence and religious zeal. Although divine intervention might help, what he really needs are some new and compelling arguments to help I.D. sneak around the constitutional prohibition against promoting a particular religious view in the public schools. And he thinks he’s got them.

It’s a week into the trial and Thompson is cross-examining John Haught, an expert witness for the plaintiffs. Haught, a recently retired professor of theology at Georgetown University, is the author of 13 books, including “God After Darwin” and “Science and Religion in Search of Cosmic Purpose.” Haught has argued that I.D. is nothing more than a “reformulation of the old argument for the existence of God that says, ‘Where there is a design there must be a designer.’”

The famous theologian William Paley popularized this argument in the early 1800s. Upon finding a watch, he said, it would be reasonable to deduce the existence of a watchmaker. Well, explains Haught, the I.D. theorists make the same deduction from what they call the “irreducible complexity” of certain sub-cellular structures, such as the bacterial flagellum, a little motorlike propeller that moves bacteria around.

By “irreducibly complex,” the I.D.ers mean that if you remove any part of the motor, the others will no longer serve any identifiable function at all, and so the flagellum could not have been selected for by natural selection. Irreducible complexity is the core of I.D.’s criticism of evolutionary biology, and in one version or another it has always been the central creationist argument.

The biology of I.D. had been hammered by the plaintiffs’ expert scientific witness days before. Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller argued that I.D. can never be science because it resorts to supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. Miller, who described himself as a devout Catholic and a believer in God, did not claim that there are no supernatural forces in the world, only that they are not the business of science.

“Science deals with natural causes for natural phenomenon,” Miller testified. “Intelligent design is a science stopper” because “it lets scientists off the hook” precisely when things get tricky, which is also when they get interesting — that is, when a naturalistic cause isn’t obvious. But, Miller insisted, “just because you don’t see at first how something could be the product of natural selection doesn’t mean it couldn’t be. Such challenges should spur a scientist to look deeper, not tell him it’s time to retire and just attribute something to the work of an intelligent designer.”

Haught’s main job on the stand is to talk about the history and theology of I.D., which he says is a direct descendent of creation science (also called special creationism), which in turn is a descendent of the kind of primitive, young-earth creationism debated in the Scopes trial.

Young-earth creationism, Haught explains, takes Genesis literally, posits that the world is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, and claims that animal fossils are left behind by the Great Flood. Special creationism accepts a more realistic geological age for the earth and acknowledges the influence of micro-evolution (subtle change within a species). However, special creationism still holds that God created all species separately and pretty much as they are now.

Both theories have been rejected as science by U.S. courts. In 1982, a federal court declared unconstitutional an Arkansas law requiring that evolution and young-earth creationism be taught side by side. The court said creationism was religion and couldn’t be taught as science. In 1987, in a Louisiana case, the Supreme Court declared creation science to be religion, and deemed unconstitutional a Louisiana law mandating teaching it in the public schools wherever evolution was taught. Almost immediately I.D. was born, adopting more sophisticated versions of the old creationist arguments and replacing all references to God with an unspecified intelligent designer.

As Thompson begins his cross-examination, he instinctively looks, and grins, at the jury box, where the press is sitting.

“Just because you can trace an idea back to antiquity does not in and of itself make that idea invalid, does it?” Thompson asks Haught.

“No,” Haught says.

“Because a theory belongs to an individual of a certain faith doesn’t make that theory invalid does it?” continues Thompson.

No, says Haught, pointing out that many evolutionists hold various faiths or no faith at all.

“It would be a fallacy to say that a scientific theory was invalid just because it comes from one particular tradition or another, wouldn’t it?”


Thompson reads from Haught’s book “Deeper Than Darwin,” in which the theologian writes that proponents of I.D. are often highly trained and skilled scientists, that they are no more or less intelligent than their counterparts in evolutionary biology, and that they are neither stupid nor insane.

All true, acknowledges Haught.

Thompson goes to another of Haught’s books and reads a section in which the theologian criticizes Robert Pennock, a Michigan State philosopher who had testified against I.D. two days earlier. In the passage, Haught takes Pennock to task for “misleading the public by conflating ID and creationism.”

“And yet you have said today that they are the same. Are they the same or not?” asks Thompson.

“They are not exactly the same,” says Haught, his lips trembling, clearly perturbed.

Thompson reads the final sentence from an early edition of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

So, Thompson asks, should Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” be kept outside the science classroom because it talks about the Creator with a capital “C” breathing life into early forms?

“No,” concedes Haught.

Thompson then gets Haught to agree that several luminary evolutionary biologists draw metaphysical conclusions from their studies of evolution. “Yes, [Richard] Dawkins, [Edward O.] Wilson, and [Stephen Jay] Gould carelessly conflate their science with materialist ideology,” says Haught. (Materialism is the belief that reality is composed only of matter and nothing supernatural exists, except in imaginations.)

“Should their work be banned from science classrooms?”


The shape of Thompson’s case is beginning to emerge and Judge Jones, suddenly sitting up attentively and tipping his head toward the lawyer, seems to be taking notice. The court, and more broadly the scientific establishment, Thompson argues, must evaluate the scientific claims of I.D. on their merits, not condemning them by association with their religious roots or boosters. And those I.D. claims, he is implying, are already engaged by evolutionary scientists in debate. And that engagement itself is proof of a scientific controversy worthy of teaching in schools.

Perhaps feeling overconfident, Thompson takes aim at the Goliath of modern evolutionary genetics. He wants to show that the correlations between different species’ genomes — humans and chimpanzees, for example, which share 98 percent of their genes — say nothing about the evolutionary relationships between organisms.

“Let’s say I have some bolts, and from them I make both a plane and a car. Yes, they have the same parts, but that doesn’t mean the car came from the plane does it?”

“Uh, no,” says Haught, pausing to consider what Thompson could be driving at.

Thompson pauses too, turns again to the jury box and smiles triumphantly. He concludes that it is therefore easy to see that it is only mere conjecture that humans and other primates share genes just because they share an evolutionary lineage.

The jury box of reporters and many courtroom spectators seem dumbfounded. How could Thompson so confidently reveal such a basic misunderstanding of the role of genomics in analyzing and confirming evolutionary relationships? There are moments in the trial when even a science-abiding secularist can be seduced by parts of Thompson’s ethical and philosophical arguments that I.D. deserves a fair hearing in the public schools. But time and again, Thompson’s insistence that I.D. is science and not religion, and therefore by law can be taught in science classes, does not appear to be making any converts in the courtroom.

Later, anthropologist Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, who was in the courtroom, says it was all she could do to keep from cracking up. “Thompson was not even wrong,” Scott says. “He missed the boat completely. We didn’t need genomics to demonstrate evolution. But having genomic sequences of different species nails down the big idea that the more recently that two forms shared a common ancestor, the more alike they are in anatomy, biochemistry, embryology, behavior and genetics. And it does so beautifully and quantitatively.”

When court adjourns for the day, Thompson drags his rolling suitcase filled with briefs to the aging Harrisburg Hilton, a few blocks from the courthouse. We settle down in the lobby for an interview.

“Did you see me show that there’s no scientific evidence for man coming from an ape?” he asks enthusiastically. “I shouldn’t have. But I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted to do that.”

I figure it’s best to change the subject. I tell him that in profile he looks quite a bit like Bryan. It’s a bit of a stretch, but not entirely untrue.

He laughs disarmingly, delighted. “Frederick March, the actor in the movie ‘Inherit the Wind,’ or the real William Jennings Bryan?”

The real Bryan, I say.

He hits me gently on the shoulder and laughs again, clearly pleased.

I ask Thompson why this battle matters so much to him. He pauses, putting his hands together as if in prayer. “If you are nothing but an accident of nature, then nothing you do is dependent on objective truth,” he says. “You can set your own rules. There is no life after death. There are no set moral codes. If you go to bed, and if you die its OK, you’re just another piece of matter bouncing around and you’ll change into something else. That’s why, even if 100 million scientists say we are unplanned, that we’re just purposeless beings in this universe, the general population won’t buy it. And neither will I.”

He then reiterates his notion that I.D. is an underdog science that shouldn’t be relegated to theology just because current science hasn’t caught up with it. He compares I.D. to the Big Bang Theory, which was once unpopular and thought to have been religiously motivated.

“Einstein thought the Big Bang was wrong because it didn’t fit his metaphysics,” says Thompson. “But he was the one who was wrong. Should it have been illegal to discuss the Big Bang in schools just because it was consistent with Christianity?”

As he did in court, Thompson tells me that I.D. theorists are real scientists. “They are distinguished scientists doing credible experimental work, and they have found evidence of intelligent design in the empirical data that they see,” he says. “If the evidence suggests design, well … should they ignore it?”

Early this week, Michael Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and the person who put “irreducible complexity” on the map with his 1996 book “Darwin’s Black Box,” appeared on the stand for two days. He explained that natural selection could not explain the existence of DNA or the immune system. He insisted that ID is not based on any religious beliefs but “is based on observed, empirical, physical evidence from nature, and it is definitely science.” When asked if the designer was God, he said yes, but added, “I concluded that based on theological, philosophical and historical facts.”

As we talk, Thompson bristles at the notion that I.D. is and always will be excluded from science. “What is science, and what is not science, is merely a convention,” he says. “It can be challenged and changed at will by scientists themselves. And scientists are the products of their culture, too.”

Doesn’t he find it a little odd that a champion of unchanging and absolute moral values should take such a relativist stance on science? He shrugs off the question.

“Look, scientists don’t sit there and ask, ‘Am I doing science or not?’ No scientist is going to say, ‘This is empirical truth about the wrong subject so I’m not going to study it.’ No, they look at whatever the empirical data is, and draw conclusions from it.”

“So you want to change the definition of science to include the supernatural?”

“Yes,” he says, “we need a total paradigm shift in science.”

Gordy Slack is the author of "The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA." He is currently writing a book about epilepsy.

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