In the boldest strike against the teaching of evolution in more than a decade, the school board of this one-stoplight farming town has tilted its textbooks against virtually the entire scientific establishment - and brought home a lesson from this month's presidential election.
By mandating that ninth-grade biology teachers include "intelligent design" in their instruction, board members set a precedent last month. Never before has a school district decided to offer intelligent design, which suggests that only the action of a higher intelligence can explain the complexities of evolution. Moreover, say observers, it is a sign of what's to come.
Religious conservatives have battled against evolution theory in classrooms since the Scopes trial of 1925. Now, they are finding fresh purpose in the conservative resurgence so evident on Election Day, as well as in a new strategy of attacking evolution without mentioning God. The result is a handful of high-profile cases nationwide that challenge Darwin's place in the curriculum and presage a new offensive in America's culture war.
"We're seeing a growing number of these cases," says Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., a group that seeks to protect evolution education. "Certainly, with the greater confidence given to the religious right in the last election, we see no end in sight."
Near Atlanta, in suburban Cobb County, the local school board demanded that teachers put stickers inside the front cover of middle and high school science books. They read, in part: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." In rural Wisconsin, the Grantsburg school board voted last month to allow teachers to discuss various theories of creation in their classrooms, opening the door to intelligent design.
Together with the decision by the Dover school board, the flare-ups point to an emerging trend - an escalating batttle against the teaching of evolution which has been building slowly for nearly two decades.
Since the United States Supreme Court in 1987 outlawed the teaching of creationism in public schools on the grounds of separation of church and state, anti-evolution activists have all but dropped divine creation and instead focused solely on discrediting Darwin.
That they are finding traction - especially in places like Dover - is not surprising.
In Pennsylvania, a state where Red and Blue teeter in an almost perfect equilibrium, Dover is clearly on the Red end of the seesaw. While Sen. John Kerry scratched out a narrow victory in Pennsylvania in the Nov. 2 election, York County - which includes Dover - gave President Bush 65 percent of its votes.
Traditionally agrarian, traditionally Republican, this is a town of small brick and clapboard houses, framed by autumnal arrangements of pumpkins and hay bales, and set amid rolling hills. It is a slice of the Midwest in the mid-Atlantic - the image of wheat-waving countryside perched on the edge of York's suburban sprawl.
And today, a text known around here simply as the "panda book" has made Dover the local stage for a national drama.
The book's full name is "Of Pandas and People," and it is the newest addition to the Dover science curriculum.
It is not mandatory reading, says district superintendent Richard Nilsen, adding: "The teachers have a [different] biology book, and when they get to the origins of life, they state that if anyone wants to look at another book, they give them the 'panda' book."
Those who take it will learn about intelligent design. Intelligent design steers clear of the claims made by creationists: that the world is roughly 6,000 years old and that life was created in its present form by God. Intelligent design accepts an ancient Earth and even embraces evolution.
But where most scientists see a series of fits and starts - evolutionary trials and failures - eventually leading to life as we know it, proponents of intelligent design see the guiding hand of some greater wisdom.
For example, natural selection is not enough to explain the "eerie perfection" of the genetic code, says John Calvert of the Intelligent Design Network, an advocacy group in Shawnee Mission, Kan. Something so flawlessly "designed" could not be the product of random actions, he says.
Proponents of intelligent design make no claim to knowing the source of this order. No scientist "can use science to get to what that intelligence is," says John West of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which backs intelligent-design research.
But for much of middle America, it's easy enough to fill in the blank.
"The book's going to be a good resource for children and parents who try to believe in God and be religious," says John Workman, whose daughter is a sophomore at Dover High. "God should always be in the country, and in the schools."
To critics, his words provoke a collective "I told you so." Intelligent design, they say, is merely creationism in a lab coat. Dr. Scott calls it the evolution of creationism: "They're trying to find a strategy that will stand up in court, and they only have a chance if it is something as far away from religion as possible."
Yet even Scott acknowledges that Mr. Workman has hit upon something deeper - a desire among many Americans that the cold facts of science not quench the spark of faith. It is the tendency of science to say, "God had nothing to do with it," she says, and for students therefore to think, "I can't listen to what the teacher is saying or I'm sinning."
Intelligent design, it seems, would at least have science and spirit shake hands. Barbara Tubbs, for one, supports the curriculum, but only because it is optional.
"[I believe] we came from God," says Ms. Tubbs, the mother of a freshman whose class is due to study evolution - and to be offered the panda book - in January. "But I wouldn't want to push it on anybody."
Yet a fair amount of pushing might be required. Even here, intelligent design has rankled school board members. At one tumultuous meeting, a supporter of the change reportedly asked an opposing member whether she was "born again." After the plan passed, two board members resigned. In Cobb County, meanwhile, several parents have sued to make the district remove the "evolution is a theory" stickers.
For their part, scientists don't feel that they can budge. Evolution is a theory only in the scientific sense of the word - like the theory of a sun-centered solar system, they say. The fact is, in contrast to the uncertainty about evolution among average Americans, scientists are nearly unanimous in their acceptance of it.
To them, teaching anything else in classrooms as "science" is an adulteration of the word.
Moved in large part by cases like those in Pennsylvania and Georgia, National Geographic recently ran a cover story headlined: "Was Darwin Wrong?" The first page of the article answered: "No."
"Science has to be based on facts," says William Allen, editor of the magazine. "When you are talking about creationism and intelligent design, there is no scientific basis." Like many others, he agrees that a discussion of different creation theories could be suitable for social studies or comparative religion - just not science class.
And to Dover parent Holly Martz, that sounds about right. Intelligent design, she says, is "intertwined with religion," and says if it is taught, the variety of religions should be taught. " If they present all the views, that's fine."