Experts on both sides of the debate over whether public schools should teach "intelligent design" (search) as an alternative to evolution (search) — a question already before a federal court — sparred in front of a state legislative panel.
The House Subcommittee on Basic Education (search) heard testimony Monday on a bill that would allow local school boards to mandate that science lessons include intelligent design, a concept that holds the universe must have been created by an unspecified guiding force because it is so complex.
The legislation is sponsored by only a dozen lawmakers, and its prospects of passing the General Assembly are unclear as lawmakers try to meet a June 30 state budget deadline.
But a federal judge will consider the issue this fall, when a lawsuit against the Dover Area School District is scheduled to go to trial. The suit alleges that the school board violated the constitutional separation of church and state when it voted in October to require ninth-grade students to hear about intelligent design during biology class.
Michael J. Behe, a biological sciences professor at Lehigh University, told the subcommittee that intelligent design has no religious underpinnings. Critics argue that it is a variation of creationism, the biblical-based view that regards God as the creator of life.
Behe said intelligent design merely contends that evidence of complex physical structures shows that design, rather than evolution, is responsible for an organism or cell.
Some lawmakers struggled to understand the concept.
"I've always viewed evolution as sort of the ultimate design. It would change and adapt and accommodate to whatever the situation was," said Rep. P. Michael Sturla. "When did the intelligent design occur, in your theory?"
Behe had no answer.
"Questions like, 'When did the designing take place?' ... are all good questions. We'd love to have answers for them, but they are separate questions from the question, 'Was this designed in the first place?"' Behe said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (search), one of the groups that filed the federal lawsuit, contends that allowing intelligent design to be taught would undermine the state's science standards, which specify the teaching of evolution.
"How many new biotechnology companies will want to locate here in Pennsylvania if our students are being taught a watered-down version of the complexities of evolution?" asked Larry Frankel, legislative director for the state's ACLU chapter.