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The Kitzmer vs School District case: religious instruction in US Schools

03 March 2013, 12:59

The Kitzmer vs Dover School District case:  Separation of  State and Religion at Educational Institutions in the USA:

This court case was referred to in a comment made to one of my articles. The background to the case, in terms of the Constitution of the USA, the testimony of experts and the final verdict are lengthy deliberations that cannot possibly be replied to in a comment.  I, therefore, thought it may be of interest  to present in an article the context in which the verdict was made.

During the 1920’s the controversy surrounding the theory of evolution  favoured opponents of  Darwin’s theory and lead to criminal prosecution of teachers  who taught the theory of Darwinism to schoolchildren. During the 1980’s and thereafter, however, the pendulum had swung the other way and resulted in court battles between fundamentalist Christians and those parents who did not want their children to be indoctrinated with religious views that they, the parents, did not share.

In 2004 a legal action was precipitated by a decision of the School Board of the Dover Area, Pennsylvania, which required that students in Biology classes will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Origins of Life was not taught. 

The parents of several children at the Dover School objected that intelligent design (ID), which they saw as  a reflection of  religion as revealed in Genesis, the first book of the Bible,  should be taught at school  as an alternative to, and alongside the evolution theory of Darwin.  In fact the First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  . In response to the First Amendment  "Fundamentalist organizations were formed to promote the idea that the Book of Genesis was supported by scientific data. The terms 'creation science' and 'scientific creationism' were then adopted by these Fundamentalists as descriptive of their study of creation and the origins of man”, a view that did not find favour  in more progressive and knowledgeable circles, where it was held that ‘creation science’ is still at heart a religious message. The matter considered by the court was, therefore, whether an objective Dover citizen would perceive the Conduct of the Dover School Board  to be an Endorsement of Religion.

It was argued that, in  fact,“School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” And therefore “at a minimum, the pertinent inquiry is whether an "objective observer" in the position of a student of the relevant age would "perceive official school support  for the religious activity in question”. An earlier ruling during 1982 in the State of Arkansas  was  that the court concluded that creation science "is simply not science" because it depends upon "supernatural intervention," which cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable. These considerations resulted in the banishment in schools of any teaching  that may be interpreted as supporting the evolution of species as being guided by  a deity, ie GOD. A statement that ID amounts to fraud was not contained in the judgement.  Although some proponents of  ID were at pains to state that  ID does not  advocate that the intelligent designer is God, this perception remained. In particular opponents of ID  could point out that “the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity”.  This had profound implications for the concept of ID since the God of Christianity can be viewed as  a personalized entity  that man created in his own image. By contrast, Spinozists would argue that God is a part of Nature, but then Spinozists are a vanishingly small part of the US population.

Ironically, while this debate and court battles were carried on concerning  the subject matter that, in terms of the First Amendment  of the United States Constitution, should be taught in State sponsored schools, ID  proceeded at a rapid pace in Universities and in the private sector, where the new science of Genetic Engineering had gained a strong foothold, with numerous applications in Research Laboratories, Medicine and Agriculture.  This is, for example,  illustrated in the major advances  made in the care of diabetics by firms such as Genentech.  Rather than being dependent on insulin isolated from animals, the gene encoding human insulin could now be  introduced into Escherischia coli, the workhorse of Genetic Engineering, and  the real hormone that corresponded exactly to human insulin, isolated from these organisms on a large scale. Moreover, by changing the coding information in the insulin gene, variants could be produced to provide diabetics with a range of long acting and short acting insulins, the latter being administered immediately before a meal in order to suppress the spike in blood glucose resulting from the intake of food.  Man had thus become an Intelligent Designer himself, despite being part of the natural world and not in any way “supernatural”.  Early sorties into Genetic Engineering were limited to the overexpression within bacteria of existing poteins, or variants in which a very limited number of amino acid residues were exchanged to ascertain their function in the catalytic event. 

More recently more ambitious projects were undertaken at the University of Washington, such as to design enzymes that “can break and make carbon-carbon bonds which could potentially enable scientists to break down environmental toxins, manufacture drugs, and create new fuels.” Using computer graphics a number of protein structures were decided upon, the corresponding genes ordered (there are facilities that synthesize genes) and these were expressed in bacteria to obtain the corresponding proteins. Approximately 50% of  these synthetic enzymes were active and the most active one accelerated the target reaction by 104-fold.  Nonetheless, the leading scientist, Dr Baker, said: “While that’s an impressive feat compared with earlier enzyme design attempts, the synthesized enzymes pale in comparison to naturally occurring ones. “It’s not very good at all,” said Baker. “Naturally occurring enzymes can increase the rate of reactions by much, much greater amounts”–as much as a quadrillion-fold.

See:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_engineering , http://www.technologyreview.com/news/409718/enzymes-built-from-scratch/

Yet, One may well ask whether we are the only Intelligent Designers in the whole Universe?  There is too little information available to us to be able to answer such a question.  It is, however, evident from the above that the statement,  “ Intelligent Design is simply not science”  is nonsensical. What  is “neither testable nor falsifiable” is whether God exists, and this in the context in which God is perceived within the Bible Belts of the USA. 

As regards the transition from a world in which genetic information was encoded in RNA to one in which DNA became  the prime carrier of this information , very little information is available.  This transition to the “DNA world” that exists today would, however,  have required the participation of  a ribonucleotide reductase, a reverse transcriptase and a thymidylate synthetase. An argument was presented, but not experimentally  substantiated, that an intermediate form of  2’-methylated  RNA, in which the selfcleaving activity of RNA is prevented by methylation of the 2’-ribose position, could have afforded a more stable RNA in the RNA world and that this methylated RNA could then serve as the coding gene for a large protein such as ribonucleotide reductase. Still, where did three genes, or four if we count the methylase in, suddenly appear from?  Funding for research projects that would address this kind of question is hard to come by since there are no immediate applications of such knowledge for the betterment of mankind.

See Anthony Poole et al :Methyl-RNA: an evolutionary bridge between RNA and DNA?Chem Biol. 2000 Vol.7, Issue(12):R207-16 and references therein.

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