Doverian doings

The York Daily Record has been doing a bang-up job reporting on the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania about teaching “intelligent design” and Of Pandas and People. Check their new special section on “Dover Biology” for a history of situation, and daily updates.

In case anyone’s faith in democracy, America, and apple pie has been quavering lately, I wanted to alert PT readers to three recent, and excellent, letters written to the York Daily Record by people from the Dover Area.

Here are the links, I will quote them below.

First, 12 members of the Biology Department at York College wrote a letter to the Dover Area School Board (Dover is just northwest of York). This letter was published in the paper and the story was reported in the York Daily Record (see “College biologists blast Dover,” Dec. 8, 2004).

York College profs disturbed by Dover

Monday, December 6, 2004

We are extremely disappointed and concerned about the recent decision by the majority of members on the Dover Area School Board to make intelligent design an official and required component of its biology curriculum. The inclusion of intelligent design in its curriculum as an “alternative” evolutionary theory reflects a genuine lack of knowledge about the data supporting evolution by natural selection. It also reflects a profound misunderstanding of the scientific process, and an equally profound disregard for the science educators and students in the Dover Area School District.

Scientific research takes place on all continents and in most countries. Despite their cultural and religious diversity, scientists from all over the world share a common methodology. Science works because there is a shared universal understanding of a scientific process that includes the following fundamental conventions.

  • Scientists systematically collect and organize information about the natural world. In doing so, we look for recurring patterns and relationships among events and processes.
  • Science probes the material world by using a repeatable and standardized methodology that makes no reference to supernatural or theistic influences. In the course of working on difficult research problems, scientists do not use concepts such as “designer” or “creator.” Instead, we assemble a coherent view of nature by persistently applying the methods of science.
  • Explanations (“hypotheses”) in biology must be testable. The invoking of intelligent design as a hypothesis to explain natural phenomena has no merit among scientists since no test can be designed that would generate observations or data to support such a mechanism.
  • Scientists attempt to construct theories that explain a large number of observed events. The theory of evolution by natural selection is the unifying theory of biology. No theory in biology is more tested, appreciated, resilient and explanatory than the theory of evolution by natural selection. And scientists from a variety of disciplines have amassed an overwhelming collection of testable, reproducible and observable data to unequivocally support this process.

The inclusion of intelligent design in any science curriculum as an “alternative” to evolution by natural selection is inappropriate. As educators, we urge the Dover Area School Board to review this disappointing decision, and include its own biology teachers in discussions concerning curricular issues. As scientists and educators, we urge the school board to exclude theism and the supernatural from its science curriculum.


Editor’s note: Two other members of the York College faculty also signed this letter, but we were unable to reach them for confirmation.

I think this letter hits most of the important points. It is, perhaps, a bit blunt, but it gets the message across. Karl Kleiner explained the rationale for the letter:

Karl Kleiner, one of the professors who signed the letter, said the letter represents the first time members of the college biology department have spoken collectively in this fashion.

He said members of the department felt a professional obligation to speak up since the issue has been raised in their own back yard.

“We’ve seen this time and again, these attacks on biology curricula across the country,” he said.

While York College itself has not taken a stance on the issue, the biologists have academic freedom to speak out, he said.

“But I don’t think we’re rocking the boat here,” he added.

In fairness, one person not in the Biology Department, but associated with it, did not sign the letter and supports the Dover Area School Board’s decision. His views are reported in a YDR story the next day.

Second, completely out of the blue, a detailed letter criticizing the science in Of Pandas and People appeared in the York Daily Record. Lew Brown, a “former science teacher at Donegal High School in Lancaster County and instructor at Penn State York,” independently reaches the same conclusion that pretty much every other serious person has reached, namely, “It’s hard to bear the scientific nonsense in ‘Pandas’.”

It too deserves quoting for posterity:

It’s hard to bear the scientific nonsense in ‘Pandas’ LEW BROWN Sunday, December 5, 2004

York County has a long tradition of political moderation with progressive attitudes toward culture, education and science. Unfortunately, the Dover school board has broken that tradition by attempting to minimize the evolutionary content in the biology curriculum and introduced an anti-evolutionary book “Of Pandas and People,” making York County the laughingstock of the educational and scientific world. With 40 years of reading on the evolution-creation debates, with a D.Ed. in science education, I have read “Pandas” and found it to be the old anti-evolutionary “creationist” literature, updated perhaps, with an alias “intelligent designer” replacing “God” or a creator and with references to the Bible or religion omitted.

Charles Darwin’s idea that higher forms of life have evolved from lower forms is considered untrue. On page IX of the introduction, the authors state “without Pandas and People you would miss a lot of interesting science,” and “The subjects here are treated in depth, and digging deeper brings deeper rewards.”

In reply, I love cutting-edge science, and I found none in “Pandas.” Frankly, I found it boring and about as deep as a thin puddle. Three quarters of the book is on basic biology, which is misinterpreted, and the rest is obfuscation, nonsense and lies or perhaps religion-based cultural insanity.

The use of the word theory for “intelligent design” or ID is totally inappropriate. Science theories, by rule, deal only with the material realm of matter and energy and not aspects of religion, such as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, devils or an intelligent designer, all parts of the spiritual realm, if it exists. Since the beginning of recorded history, people have philosophically debated the nature of Nature. Is it material only or is it material and spiritual? ID is a dogma, doctrine or belief and not an alternate theory that deserves equal time in a science class.

Most people, especially older adults, are not very well educated in science, and quite gullible to misinformation such as in “Pandas.” In politics and religion, the “Big Lie” technique is often used. If you tell a “Big Lie” often enough, many people will believe.

The “Big Lie” technique is frequently used throughout “Pandas.” On page 22 the author states, “There is no gradual series of fossils leading from fish to amphibians, or from reptiles to birds. Instead, fossil types are fully formed when they appear in the fossil record.” And on page 25, “There is still no positive fossil evidence for evolutionary descent from one taxon to the next,” and “. . . transition forms mysteriously failed to fossilize, because they never existed.”

Anybody familiar with evolution literature, even at the middle school level, would acknowledge intermediate species between major groups of vertebrates. In 1926, Gerhard Heilman wrote “Origin of Birds,” which clearly established Archeopteryx as an intermediate between reptiles and birds. It was a bird-like reptile with feathers but many bird traits. A few weeks ago, a researcher found its inner ear to be more bird-like, which indicated that it could fly rather than glide.

A living “intermediate” is the duck-billed platypus, which is a fur-bearing mammal that is poorly warm-blooded, has a skeleton with some reptilian traits and poorly developed mammary glands, which are highly developed sweat glands, and a reproductive tract that is reptilian, with egg laying.

On page 23 the authors state, “The platypus has a bill like a duck and fur like a mammal, but has never been considered transitional.” The use of the word “transitional” is pure deceit. It is true that it is not transitional between a reptile and any higher mammal, but it is an intermediate, trapped in time by its protected unusual ecological habits, coming out at night underwater, looking for crayfish. It is typical of “Pandas” to leave out vital information on every issue covered. The authors are dishonest with “sins of omission.”

A full range of fossils connects reptiles and mammals. The idea that there are no fossil connections between any two taxons is falsified by human fossils that clearly connect present day humans with apes. The large amount of fossil evidence make this a scientific “done deal,” but a deal that religious conservatives may never accept. On page 112, the authors state that “Darwinists are convinced that Homo erectus was nearly human and directly ancestral to man. Design adherents, however, regard H. erectus, as well as other hominids discussed in this section, as little more than apes . . . .” H. erectus is a human being with a skeleton, from the neck down, indistinguishable from a modern skeleton. The skull is smaller, and flatter, with big eyebrow ridges and a heavier jaw, but still a human being, who made tools.

Darwin and his book “Origin of Species” have been intensely criticized by the scientific community and creationists since publication. But the science community has been fully supportive of the fact that higher species have evolved from older ancestral species. Darwin didn’t know about genes in 1859 or DNA, mutations, exons, introns, transposons, insertions, deletions, polyploidy, nondisjunction or a host of other, then unknown, genetic concepts. His book was a brilliant synthesis, built upon the work of many scientists and particularly Charles Lyell, author of the “Principles of Geology,” who revolutionized geological thought. To “downplay” Darwin’s work is like criticizing mechanical engineers in 1859 because they didn’t know how to make cars. He created a revolution in all areas of natural science, most of which is denied by creationists.

I could write 100 pages on the nonsense in “Pandas.” The functioning of the Dover school board has to be considered as a very serious religious assault on the honesty, integrity and competence of the school’s science program and a spark which will generate other similar intellectual conflagrations throughout the country. It must be handled firmly. A similar case in Louisiana cost the state $6 million. The people in the community should write to the governor to have the board replaced and start a recall election procedure. The school administrators and teachers should work together to remove this political and intellectual blot.

Lew Brown, D.Ed,. is a former science teacher at Donegal High School in Lancaster County and instructor at Penn State York.

If I could, I would take credit for pointing the writer to the NCSE Pandas Page, but as far as I know he came up with this stuff independently. For more on Of Pandas and People, see the PT post “Panda-monium”.

Third, Jeff Brown, one of the Dover Area School Board members who resigned in protest of the school board’s decision, wrote a striking letter, “God expects us to use our brains”:

God expects us to use our brains Friday, December 10, 2004

In 1616, the astronomer Galileo was forced to recant his theory that the earth revolves around the sun because it contradicted the book of Genesis. The earth, of course, paid no attention. It continued revolving around the sun, as God had intended.

Today, we’re still hearing – on the subject of evolution – that Genesis trumps scientific evidence, forgetting that Genesis was written for people who thought it possible to build a tower to heaven.

So God simplified creation, as one does for children. But he never intended we remain children forever.

The apostle Paul wrote, “When I was a child I thought as a child,” adding that, even as a man, he saw as “through a glass, darkly.”

“The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln said, conceding they surpass the understandings of men.

But in the parable of the talents Christ tells us that those who refuse to use God’s gifts will lose them. As he’s given us brains, that means we’re expected to use them.

And so I believe in God, evolution and an earth that revolves around the sun. I believe we’re now old enough to comprehend – although through a glass, darkly – a bit more of God’s awesome plan. We may never know it all. But I believe we’re expected to try.


This is certainly a step above the usual foodfights where it is assumed that God and evolution are necessarily opposed.

Frankly, these kinds of folks are the worst nightmare of the “intelligent design” movement. It’s relatively easy to dismiss the various national scientific organizations as simply the “dogmatic Darwinist establishment.” But these sophisticated responses are coming from people in conservative central-southern Pennsylvania. These are folks who never would have felt a need to speak out on evolution or science and religion, but who were provoked when the intelligent design circus came to town. Perhaps they felt like this cartoonist: