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Chemical Eye on the para-Scopes Trial
by Preston MacDougall


October 28, 2005

Eighty years ago, Tennessee science teacher and football coach (surprise, surprise), John T. Scopes, was found guilty of teaching evolution in a high school biology class. At the time, this was illegal under state law. His conviction was overturned, however, because his $100 fine was double the limit on fines that Tennessee judges could impose.

jpg Preston MacDougall

What many have dubbed "the Scopes Trial in reverse," is currently being argued in Pennsylvania. Eleven parents of high school students in Dover are suing the School Board in their district over its mandatory teaching of "Intelligent Design" alongside Darwin's theory of the evolution of species, which is covered in all modern biology textbooks.

I prefer to refer to it as the para-Scopes Trial. In chemistry lingo, the prefix "para" means "opposite", as in para-benzoquinone, which is the prototype in the quinone family of molecules. These molecular species are characterized by two oxygen atoms that are doubly-bonded to carbons - each pairing is called a "keto group" - that are situated on opposite sides of a nano-scale carbon hexagon.

Another key feature of this species is that the carbon atoms on the oxygen-free sides of the hexagon are doubly-bonded to each other. Their third bonding partner may be a hydrogen atom, but it could be a carbon that starts a so-called side-chain. These side-chains, or branches, are what differentiate one quinone from another.

It is, however, the unique chemical properties of the hexagon itself that give rise to the biochemical significance of quinones. At the appropriate time and place - Not now keto! - they can be converted to hydroquinones, which are powerful anti-oxidants.

Natural anti-oxidants, such as Vitamin E, are chemically related to para-benzoquinone. You might be surprised to learn that quinine is not. Quinine is also a biologically active organic compound, and a particularly beneficial one if a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite has just bitten you. And its name sounds a lot like quinone. But, other than that, there is no link between them. As far as I know, no biochemists are even searching for a missing link. Their structures are just too different.

This brings us, rather indirectly, to one of the star witnesses that the defense has called to the stand in the para-Scopes Trial - Michael Behe. Dr. Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, which happens to be in Pennsylvania.

Behe's book, "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution", is often brought up in discussions about what should be taught to biology students regarding the origin of species. I read it five years ago, just out of curiosity. I wasn't particularly interested in the so-called theory of Intelligent Design. You have to have faith in God, and I do. Biochemistry and evolution are two subjects that fascinate me, and I had never seen a book about tension between these subjects, so I bought it.

It would be quite ironic if Dover Books had published it, but Simon and Schuster did so in 1996. If you read this book, you will learn what is meant by the phrase "Intelligent Design". You will also see that the Biblical account of creation is not put forward. Dr. Behe knows that highly redundant geochemical evidence points to the earth's age being measured in billions of years, not thousands.

He also steers clear of the question of who, or what, is doing the designing when he says "Inferences to design do not require that we have a candidate for the role of designer." The point of his book is to zoom-in on the molecular differences between even closely related species - "microscope down" into bodily fluids, blood in particular, examining the clotting enzymes and other highly complex nano-scale molecular machines that are essential to life, but can't be bought as dietary supplements.

It is here, at the molecular level, that Behe sees reason to doubt the conventional theory explaining evolution of species. The gaps in the structures and functions of essential molecular species, such as enzymes, many of which must be crossed simultaneously, seem, to him, impossibly spanned by a mechanism of genetic mutation and natural selection.

That said, I do not think that such material has a place in a high school biology classroom. Teachers should take the advice of Hippocrates, just as physicians do: "make a habit of two things - to help, or at least to do no harm."

All high school students should be taught the foremost experimental facts in all the sciences, and then the prevailing theories that best account for them. To do otherwise is to do harm to their potential for advancement in modern society.

On the other hand, colleges and universities are revered as "marketplaces of ideas", and I am disappointed that the juxtaposition of biochemistry and evolution, when they may seem to be in conflict, is often treated as a sort of taboo. This is harmful because such tension richly resonates with questions, and questions are what break up clotted thinking. Questions pump science forward.

Curiously, evolution of species is a theory even though the plaintiffs in the para-Scopes Trial say that it is not. And Intelligent Design is not a theory, even though the defendants, not to mention our President, say that is. No amount of jawboning or gavel-pounding will change this. Though, there is one theory that both sets of extremists seem to agree on - the slippery slope theory.

According to the prevailing attitude for all of science, scientific theories must be falsifiable. The "biochemical challenge" that Dr. Behe outlines does not disprove evolution of species, it only presents some difficult questions. Shedding even some light on these questions will take extensive research in biochemistry and molecular biology. Such studies typically employ large teams of researchers, and are excellent training for biotech careers. However, young chemists and biologists, who are eager to participate but are not well-educated in evolutionary biology, will find that they have a knowledge gap.

In the meantime, the para-Scopes Trial is a state matter, as no policies of the School Board promote a particular theology. Unfortunately, people are making a federal case out of it.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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