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Nicholas Matzke: from chat rooms to the courthouse, taking on intelligent design

Now a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology, Nicholas J. Matzke was a public information officer at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) back in 2005. As such, he played a key role in NCSE’s participation in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial that pitted intelligent design (ID) proponents against supporters of evolution. In particular, Matzke was central to the trial’s focus on the evolution of the immune system and the cross-examination of ID proponent Michael Behe. He recalls that episode, described in this month’s Origins essay looking at the evolution of the immune system, in an e-mail interview (edited for clarity) with Science‘s John Travis.

Q: Was it obvious to make the origin of the immune system a focal point of the case? I read that previous online debates with ID proponents led to the choice.

N.M.: Yeah, partially. The fuller story is that for several years, 2001-2004 or so, a number of us “Internet creationism fighters,” of which I was one (as a hobby, before I worked at NCSE), would get on various UBB bulletin boards and newsgroups (and blogs starting in about 2004) and debate the ID guys. We were the people associated with, etc. (Later, this group became the Panda’s Thumb bloggers.) Anyway, these debates were long and covered just about every topic in more detail than almost anyone could want. After doing this for years, we got a sense of not just where and how the IDists were wrong (since they are wrong on just about everything), but areas where they are spectacularly, obviously, blatantly, embarrassingly wrong. E.g., Behe’s irreducible complexity (IC) argument is the favorite ID argument. And it is true that in 1996, some of the biochemical systems Behe used as examples had not received much attention in terms of their evolution. However, the immune system had received lots of attention even in 1996, and much more by 2005, primarily because (1) it is medically crucial, so there are many more researchers/funding/studies on it, and (2) much of immunology going back to the beginning has relied on comparative studies in animals, so there has been an explicit evolutionary context for 100 years in that field.

The amount of work is relevant because the IC argument always goes like this: 1. ID guy: Natural selection can’t explain an IC structure because all of the parts would have to come together at once. 2. Evo guy: Here are some systems with only some of the parts but they still have some function, so your argument doesn’t work. 3. ID guy: That doesn’t explain how these systems arose, we need to see peer-reviewed publications giving detailed, testable explanations. 4. Evo guy: Here is a peer-reviewed publication on the topic. 5. ID guy: It’s not detailed enough, I need to see every single mutation and selection event detailed or I will still say that ID was responsible, not evolution.

At this point, the ID guys have (a) given up on their original IC argument and (b) demanded an impossible, ridiculous amount of detail for the evolutionary explanation, while providing no details or tests of their own explanation. It looks ridiculous from the outside, but ID guys, including Behe, made these moves so regularly that it was pretty predictable.

So, in 2002 this began to become obvious when Matt Inlay wrote it up in an essay for (“Evolving Immunity“). We then jumped Dembski with it in 2002 or 2003 on his own Internet forum at and observed the above progression. Then we posted a bunch of references to articles on the topic and challenged Dembski to provide as much detail for the ID explanation. Here was Dembski’s response:

“ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories.”

A similar episode happened with Behe in 2005.

In spring 2005, Eric Rothschild began preparing for Behe’s deposition in the Kitzmiller case, which was happening in May. I gave him all this background and said if we wanted to pick one system to challenge Behe on, it should be the immune system. We poked him a bit on it at the deposition and got the expected replies.

So then, before the trial, I assembled the stack of books (from the UC Berkeley biosciences library) and articles on the evolution of the immune system and made a big exhibit for Eric to use. Eric asked the questions and got the expected replies, so when Behe started making noises about how the science “wasn’t detailed enough,” Eric started piling books and articles on the stand, and asking Behe if it was good enough for him. The rest is history…

Q.: You have called the Behe cross-examination on immune origins a “turning point” in the trial. Why do you say that?

N.M.: Well, it was kind of the ultimate Behe defeat amongst a long string of defeats during the Behe cross. I think Eric’s whole cross was a “turning point” in that Behe’s direct testimony was the one big chance the defense had to come back after the plaintiffs had been beating on ID for 3 weeks during the plaintiffs’ case.

It was kind of a turning point for the whole ID argument over the last decade or two because it really exposed for all to see that ID was mostly boasting and dissembling, compared to the substance (physical substance, in the case of the immune system exhibit!) of the evolutionary science.

It was very gratifying to have my very obscure hobby turn into a key skill in an internationally recognized court case. It was kind of like the movie Galaxy Quest, where the Trekkie nerd gets told that the spaceship and aliens from the Star Trek-esque TV show are all real, and his nerdy knowledge saves the day.