HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Fictional presidential candidate Matt Santos on NBC's "The West Wing" recently discussed it, as did real-life President George Bush in the White House, not to mention "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, more than three dozen Nobel laureates and numerous school boards across the country.
A decade ago most Americans had never heard of intelligent design, or ID. But, in the last year, the term has surfaced repeatedly in politics, media and education as the rallying point for religious conservatives in the culture war over the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Although polls show about half of Americans still don't recognize the expression, the background and meaning of ID are focal points of a landmark 1st Amendment case unfolding here in Pennsylvania's capital.
A very old phrase that gained new currency about a decade ago, ID presents itself as an alternative scientific theory to evolution. It posits that some aspects of the natural world that are not yet explained by Darwin suggest design by an unnamed intelligent agent.
The prime engine propelling the dissemination of ID is the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank whose $4 million budget is heavily funded by conservative Christian donors. Discovery's Center for Science & Culture, which used to be the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, laid out its goals in a 1999 fundraising document called "The Wedge Strategy."
Determined to drive a "wedge" into the tree trunk of "scientific materialism," it said, "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialistic worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."
John West, associate director of the Center for Science & Culture, pointed out that the wedge proposal was a plan, not a scholarly document.
"That document was about more than intelligent design. It was about the larger cultural context and the anti-religious agenda of some people in the name of science," he said.
Indeed, the document went beyond the scientific debate, extending the argument into the world of politics. It equated Darwin with Karl Marx and others whom it described as viewing humans not as "spiritual beings but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry and environment."
This materialistic conception "eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art," the document said.
The Center for Science & Culture's five-year plan, much of which already has been achieved, called for funding research fellows at major universities, publishing numerous articles and books on ID, generating significant media coverage and getting 10 states to include ID in science curricula.
Discovery says it doesn't want schools to mandate the teaching of ID, but to "teach the controversy."
Most scientists say there is no controversy.
Pennsylvania is the first state to see ID included in a school district's curriculum, but Ohio and Minnesota and at least one district in New Mexico include critical analysis of evolution in their science standards. Kansas is expected to do so this fall. More than 24 state and local authorities have considered similar changes to their science curricula over the last year, according to the National Center for Science Education, a California-based non-profit group dedicated to defending the teaching of evolution in public schools.
A week ago, intelligent design made its European debut in Prague, Czech Republic, at an international scientific conference drawing some 700 people from Europe, Africa and the U.S., according to The Associated Press. Many who spoke at "Darwin and Design: A Challenge for 21st Century Science" were from the Discovery Institute, including Stephen Meyer, the Cambridge University-educated director of the Center for Science & Culture.
Of the Discovery Institute's strategy, Jerry Coyne, a professor in the ecology and evolution department at the University of Chicago, said, "They're smart people, in general, with respectable academic positions and degrees. . . . It's their media savvy, combined with their money. And they have learned a lot of lessons from the old creationists, that is to be much less evangelical."
Critics call theory `Neo-Creo'
Because ID makes no mention of the Bible or the divine, some critics call it "Neo-Creo," that is, a new version of creationism's adherence to the Genesis account of creation.
They view its secular language as a tactic to skirt the Supreme Court's 1987 decision finding creationism a religious belief and banning it from public school classrooms as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Proponents of ID particularly criticize the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection, by which all life, including humans, evolved from a common ancestor over some 4billion years, according to Darwin's theory, which most scientists laud as the cornerstone of modern biology.
Every major U.S. scientific organization and the aforementioned group of Nobelists dismiss ID and say there is no credible controversy over evolution. They consider ID a new bottle with a high-tech label for the old wine of natural theology, creationism and scientific creationism, serial concepts based to some degree on the biblical account of creation.
ID is "creationism in a cheap tuxedo," according to Leonard Krishtalka, director of the Kansas Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Not so, said William Dembski, a Discovery fellow and leading ID proponent, who directs the Center for Science and Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
"Creationism was consciously trying to model the science on a certain interpretation of Genesis. You don't have anything like that in intelligent design," said Dembski, who holds doctorates in mathematics from the University of Chicago and in philosophy from the University of Illinois and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Long before evolution, creationism or ID, there was natural theology, a popular concept based on reason and observation rather than Scripture.
In his 1802 book "Natural Theology," British theologian and philosopher William Paley made his famous "watchmaker" argument. Paley said that if one stumbled across a watch, one rationally would conclude it was designed. So, too, he said, one can look at aspects of nature and infer that they had a designer and that the designer is God.
But after Darwin's 1859 publication of "On the Origin of Species," Dembski said, "The sense that you needed a watchmaker disappeared. The watch could put itself together."
More than a century later, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University's Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, played on Paley's analogy to champion evolution in his 1986 book, "The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design."
After Darwin's publication, the term "creationism" arose in opposition to the popularity of so-called Darwinism. It asserted the biblical account of creation. But creationism suffered damaging ridicule after Tennessee's Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925.
Eventually, it morphed into "scientific creationism." Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, advanced the concept. It makes scientific claims for the six-day creation account in Genesis, an Earth age of less than 10,000 years, the simultaneous creation of all things, Noah's global flood and the non-evolutionary creation of humans.
Scientific creationism points to gaps in the fossil record, geological evidence of the effects of global flood and examples in nature that give the appearance of design, such as the human eye, as refutation of evolution. It has many supporters: In a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 53 percent of adults surveyed said "God created humans in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it." And polls consistently show a majority of Americans favor teaching both evolution and creationism.
But after the Supreme Court ruling in 1987, creationism couldn't be taught in public schools.
And it was around that time that the current ID movement began to emerge. It uses a term attributed to British philosopher Ferdinand C.S. Schiller. In his 1903 book "Humanism," he wrote, "It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design."
Whether ID is a scientific theory or a religious belief is at the heart of the 1st Amendment case Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District in central Pennsylvania, the apparent inspiration for "The West Wing" script earlier this month.
Parents of Dover students sued the district and school board over a requirement that 9th-grade biology students be informed of ID as a scientific alternative to evolution. The parents, who claim that ID is creationism in disguise, contend that such a requirement is religiously motivated, thus violating the constitutional separation of church and state and the Supreme Court's ban on creationism in public schools.
Attorneys for the school district argue ID is not a religious belief but a valid scientific theory and that the school district intended only to expose students to views critical of and differing from evolution. The case, in its sixth week, may influence how biology is taught in public schools around the country.