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For three days in May, a parade of experts and advocates for intelligent design appeared in front of the Kansas Board of Education, pushing for a new science curriculum that casts doubt on the theory of evolution. Outside the 180-seat Topeka auditorium, Darwin backers boycotted the event, denouncing it as a “kangaroo court” and dismissing proponents of intelligent design as cranks and charlatans. But a key legal adviser for the witnesses inside hardly fit that mold. He was Edward Sisson, a partner at Arnold & Porter. The D.C. firm is well known for its work on progressive causes, including the landmark decision on indigent defense, Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court decision that established that poor defendants have a constitutional right to counsel. The story of its ’70s-era lawsuit against a coal company on behalf of flood victims in West Virginia is required reading in law schools. And in its pro bono work, the firm has been a faithful supporter of liberal organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I am clearly on what is the minority side,” Sisson says. But in recent months, Sisson has placed himself, and the firm, at the forefront of one of the most divisive issues in America’s culture wars, appearing on CNN and taking on clients challenging one of science’s most established theories. “So often this issue is treated as Christian Bible Belt fundamentalists seeking to insert Bible literalism into the classroom,” he says. “I see here a very credible, real debate on the merits of the math and science of evolution.” That a man from a firm with a strong liberal tradition could become an advocate for one of the major issues for the religious right is, to say the least, unusual. Sisson’s work created something of a stir inside his firm when another partner — who had helped Sisson prep for the hearings — sent around an e-mail trumpeting Sisson’s participation in the Kansas hearings. The responses were less than enthusiastic, questioning how Arnold & Porter could possibly be representing a position that many in mainstream science have dismissed as quackery. Sisson didn’t blink. He fired off a 17-page memo defending his work. The questions were dropped. “People think of us doing blue-state pro bono work, and here we were doing red-state pro bono work,” says Philip Horton, co-chair of the pro bono committee at Arnold & Porter. “I was actually happy that this case came to us. Part of the point is that we are able to represent all sides.” DECONSTRUCTING DARWIN Sisson, 50, doesn’t view his representations as anything out of the ordinary, likening his work for the scientists and experts espousing intelligent design to the firm’s legacy defending those targeted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. “I wouldn’t say that these scientists are being inflicted to the same degree as under McCarthyism,” Sisson says. “But it is similar in that people are having their character challenged because of the beliefs they have taken on personal issues.” Intelligent design holds that the earth’s complexity could not have been formed without the aid of an unseen designer. Over the past dozen years proponents of what is often labeled “ID” have pushed state school boards across the country to include criticism of Darwin’s theory in their science curricula. An important test case on intelligent design is set to hit the courts this fall. It’s a challenge to a Dover, Pa., school district rule requiring that students be informed about intelligent design during biology class. Which is why Sisson believes his work is at a critical stage. In addition to participating in the Kansas hearings, he has taken on other cases he hopes will turn the debate over intelligent design from one of religion versus science to what he believes should be viewed as competing scientific theories. The problem, from Sisson’s perspective, is that Darwin’s supporters are not “opening themselves up to cross-examination.” To that end, he helped write an amicus brief on behalf of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness of Atlanta in the upcoming appeals court case of Selman v. Cobb County School District. The appeal seeks to overturn a lower court ruling that stickers on textbooks questioning evolution’s validity are unconstitutional. “If what was going on here was really an attempt to establish Christianity in the schools, why would the Hindus be saying this?” Sisson says. That’s also why he’s taken on the case of Caroline Crocker, a 47-year-old biologist who taught at George Mason University until May. Married to an Episcopal minister, Crocker taught a cell-biology course each term until the end of 2004. That December, she claims, she was barred from teaching the course because a student had complained that she was teaching creationism. (The university declined to comment.) The complaint, Crocker claims, stemmed from a lecture she taught each semester, in which she “talked about the evidence for and against [evolution]. What I was trying to tell the students is that if we don’t open our eyes and look at the evidence, science won’t go forward,” she says. Crocker says she filed a grievance but was turned down. Sisson has sent a letter of protest to the university. Though Arnold & Porter is supporting Sisson’s work, it may have caused a headache for at least one partner. Murray Garnick represents Americans United for Separation of Church and State in two cases challenging government faith-based initiatives. Garnick has also expressed interest in working with the organization on opposing intelligent design, says Ayesha Khan, the group’s legal director. But, says Khan, “there was some concern about there being conflict.” (Garnick declined to comment.) Being an iconoclast is nothing new for Sisson. Two decades ago, as a newly minted Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, he quit a master’s program in architecture to run a small avant-garde theater company in San Francisco. For the rest of his 20s, Sisson embraced the life of the arts, hustling between openings and rehearsals, overworked and underpaid. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and, later, on a houseboat in Sausalito. Eventually, he joined George Coates, an experimental director known for his high-tech, multimedia performances. The theater group’s work caught the eye of the U.S. State Department, which, in 1987, funded it in a tour of Eastern European theater festivals. It was on that trip that Sisson began his political drift to the right. Though he’d been horrified by the ongoing Iran Contra scandal, he was impressed that a free society could expose corruption of such magnitude. He was struck by the contrast between America and the governments in Poland and Yugoslavia. Inspired, Sisson, at 33, headed to law school at Georgetown University. After graduating, he clerked for a federal judge and then landed a job at Arnold & Porter. There he became a star associate, coordinating the Winstar litigation, a series of lawsuits against the federal government seeking damages for its involvement in bailing out savings and loans during the 1980s. But Sisson retained a penchant for unconventional and unusual ideas. So when he ran across an article claiming that evolution by natural selection might be all wrong, he took notice. “When someone comes along and says a widely held theory is probably incorrect, that’s an interesting assertion,” he says. He was influenced by another consideration: His two children, then 5 and 4, were nearing school age and he wanted to make sure what they would be taught was accurate. Sisson has never been particularly religious — he calls himself a “three times a year” Episcopalian — but he was hooked. He devoured book after book by Darwinian critics such as William Dembski and Michael Behe, as well as writings on microbiology and the history of scientific thought. Soon, Sisson struck up a correspondence with Dembski, who asked him to write a chapter for a 2004 anthology, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwin Unconvincing. A NUMBERS GAME Sisson’s office at Arnold & Porter is plastered with photos of his children. A billboard from one of his theatrical shows with Coates hangs on the wall. But during a recent interview, what Sisson really wanted to show off was his book collection. With little prompting, he began enthusiastically pulling volume after volume off his shelf. Each appeared well worn and heavily annotated. He turned to the text of The Mathematics of Evolution, a book by Cambridge University professor Fred Hoyle, which argues that the statistical probability that random processes explain all of evolution is so improbable as to be impossible. To illustrate Hoyle’s point, Sisson jumped out of his seat and strode over to a long, thin strip of paper mounted to the top of his mahogany-colored bookshelf. On it was an equation. On one side was the exponent 10 to the negative 150; on the other, a number starting with a decimal point followed by a string of 148 zeros and ending with a one. Sisson had prepared the diagram for his cross-examination of the Darwin supporters in Kansas, but because they boycotted the hearings, he never got a chance to use it. So this was his moment. “Here’s what I want to do in cross-examination,” Sisson explained, pointing forcefully to the number with 148 zeroes. “I want to say ’1.0 means certainty.’ If the chances are certain, a 100 percent positive, then it’s 1.0.” He moved his finger over a notch to the right. “If the chances are 1 in 10, then we’ve got two zeros.” And over another few spaces. “One in a thousand.” Sisson continued along the string of zeros until he reached the end of the number. There, displaying the kind of enthusiasm usually shown by sports fans after an overtime win, he declared, “But we are here,” pointing at the infinitesimal one. “This is the probability that DNA developed by chance.” Sisson began moving his hand back up the row of zeros. “Do you have any scientific explanation for a calculation that moves this one even half the distance to here? To here?” he said, going a little farther up the row. “That moves it into a range [of probability] that people normally would say, ‘You know, it could have happened that way.’ “ He knows what his critics argue. “They say you can’t calculate the probability that something happened unless you have the steps by which it happens,” Sisson says, as if repeating a well-worn refrain. But he remains unshaken in his faith that Darwin will one day be disproved. “The interesting question becomes: How could it be that everyone could be wrong?”
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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