Should intelligent design be mentioned in biology class? In a federal courtroom in Dover, Pennsylvania, this fall, lawyers, scientists and parents debated that question. On Tuesday, voters ejected the school board members who introduced the proposal, but a judge has yet to rule in the case.
Intelligent design is the idea that life is too complex to have evolved through Darwinian evolution. It's stirring up controversy not only in high school classrooms but at universities and scientific research centers as well. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, it's part of a broader clash between religion and science in popular culture, academia and politics.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:
Everything about Richard Sternberg is careful: his wrinkle-free, button-down shirt; his spotless apartment; his deliberate, sometimes halting sentences. And so Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health, is puzzled to find himself smack in the middle of the culture wars. First, he wants to set the record straight.
Dr. RICHARD STERNBERG (Scientist, National Institutes of Health): I'm not an evangelical. I'm not a fundamentalist. I'm not a young Earth creationist. I'm not a theistic evolutionist.
HAGERTY: Sternberg was, however, the editor of an obscure scientific journal loosely affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, where Sternberg is also a research associate. Last year he published in the journal a peer-reviewed article by Stephen Meyer, a proponent of intelligent design, an idea which Sternberg himself believes is fatally flawed.
Dr. STERNBERG: Why publish it? Because evolutionary biologist are thinking about this. So I thought that by putting this on the table, there could be some reasoned discourse. That's what I thought, and I was dead wrong.
HAGERTY: At first he heard rumblings of discontent but thought it would blow over.
Dr. STERNBERG: Come on, you know, how big a deal can it be? My goodness.
HAGERTY: A pretty big deal, as it turned out. Sternberg says his colleagues and supervisors at the Smithsonian were furious. He says--and an independent report backs him up--that colleagues accused him of fraud, saying they did not believe the Meyer article was really peer-reviewed. It was. Eventually Sternberg filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, which protects federal employees from reprisals. The OSC launched an investigation. Ultimately, it could not take action because Sternberg is not an employee of the Smithsonian. But Sternberg says before closing the case, the special counsel, James McVay, called him with an update.
Dr. STERNBERG: As he related to me, `The Smithsonian Institution's reaction to your decision to publish the Meyer article was far worse than you imagined.'
HAGERTY: McVay declined an interview, but in a letter to Sternberg, he wrote that officials at the Smithsonian worked with the National Center for Science Education, a group that opposes intelligent design, and, quote, "outlined a strategy to have you investigated and discredited." Retaliation came in many forms, the letter said. They took away his master key and access to research materials. They spread rumors that Sternberg was not really a scientist; he has two PhDs in biology from Binghamton University and Florida International University. In short, McVay found a hostile work environment based on religious and political discrimination. After repeated calls and e-mails to the Smithsonian, a spokesman told NPR, `We have no public comment, and we won't have one in the future.'
Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says her group did consult with Smithsonian officials, and the museum's concerns were valid.
Ms. EUGENIE SCOTT (National Center for Science Education): Clearly people were annoyed. They were frustrated. They were angry. They were blowing off steam. Some people probably did speak intemperately. Their concern was that somehow the Smithsonian would be associated with supporting the creationist cause by being associated with this journal that published a creationist paper.
HAGERTY: Anyway, she says, echoing the comments of a Smithsonian official, Sternberg did not really suffer.
Ms. SCOTT: He didn't lose his job. He didn't get his pay cut. He still has his research privileges. He still has an office. You know, what's his complaint? That people weren't nice to him. Well, life is not fair.
HAGERTY: The Sternberg case is probably the best documented battle in the war between the vast majority of scientists and a tiny insurgency promoting intelligent design. The secular perspective of most scientists, however, is sharply at odds with the religious perspective of most Americans, and that's adding passion to the debate in academia and in places like Dover, Pennsylvania. A recent Pew Forum poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe either in the biblical creation account of life or in a god who guided the process.
Michael Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University and one of the founders of the intelligent design movement, wonders why scientists don't let the research play itself out instead of dismissing it outright. After all, he says, when the big bang was first proposed, many scientists rejected that, too, because it smacked of the supernatural.
Professor MICHAEL BEHE (Lehigh University): And if there was a big bang, didn't there have to be a big banger? A lot of physicists did not like the theory because of it, and, nonetheless, the big bang theory is a firm part of modern science because it's consistent with the data.
HAGERTY: But Everett Mendelsohn, an historian of science at Harvard University, says intelligent design has done little to assert a positive, testable theory of how life developed. It mainly points out the gaps in evolutionary theory and says that only a designer could have created such complexity. Mendelsohn agrees with intelligent design proponents, who note that scientific revolutions occur when scientists challenge the orthodoxy. Look at Galileo and the Catholic Church. But, he says...
Mr. EVERETT MENDELSOHN (Harvard University): Just because someone is challenging an orthodoxy doesn't mean that it's scientifically revolutionary. It may mean that it's just wrong-headed.
HAGERTY: Darwinian evolution is the organizing principle of biology, he says, and there's a real danger to calling such an accepted theory into question.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: We would not, at this point, come into schools and say, `What I want to do is teach an alternate set of grammar. It really is just as good as the grammar we're using.' Where would you leave students? You'd leave them absolutely disabled by what may be a cranky idea.
HAGERTY: And there's another danger, says Ken Miller, a biologist at Brown University. He believes the larger goal of the intelligent design movement is to redefine science itself.
Mr. KEN MILLER (Brown University): What the intelligent design movement seeks to do is basically to say that supernatural forces can be brought into the scientific sphere, and we can use them as explanations for natural phenomena. That's pushing science back to the age before the scientific revolution, more than 400 years ago.
HAGERTY: So what should be done about those scientists who favor a designer's hand? Miller says their ideas should not be squelched, but they should not be immune to criticism either. But today some professors who favor intelligent are being publicly humiliated and sometimes punished for their ideas. For example, Guillermo Gonzalez, an untenured professor at the University of Iowa, says 120 of his fellow professors signed a petition this fall protesting his views on intelligent design. When he travels, his lectures draw protesters. Michael Behe, who has felt no pressure himself because he already has tenure, gives this advice to young scientists who prefer a designer to Darwin.
Prof. BEHE: Keep your ideas to yourself, until you at least get tenure, because otherwise you have an excellent chance of losing your position.
HAGERTY: NPR talked with 18 university professors and scientists who subscribe to intelligent design. Most would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs. One untenured professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia wrote that talking to NPR would be, quote, "the kiss of death." Another said, `There is no way I would reveal myself prior to obtaining tenure.'
Tom Sharkey says these fears may be exaggerated. Sharkey heads the institute overseeing biology education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of the nation's top research universities. He says if a professor voices these views, even in class, that in and of itself won't be a career-ender. But, he says, it might indicate a misunderstanding of science.
Mr. TOM SHARKEY (University of Wisconsin at Madison): If you're not doing science properly, that is a problem. You won't get grants. You won't get papers published. Then you will fail at getting tenure, not because your department members will say that they're voting against you based on your religious beliefs but because you won't be successful in science.
(Soundbite of crowd)
HAGERTY: It's Tuesday evening at George Mason University in northern Virginia, and about two dozen students wander from dinner to the student union building. These students are part of a very small countermovement on some 30 universities around the country.
(Soundbite of meeting)
Unidentified Woman: Welcome to IDEA, which stands for Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness.
HAGERTY: They settle in for the lecture, some with Bibles placed next to their notebooks. Tonight's guest is Dr. Caroline Crocker, who used to teach cellular biology here. Now she's returned as something of a cause celebre. Crocker spends about a half-hour detailing what she sees as the flaws in evolutionary theory. Then she sends a warning to these potential scientists, most of whom are also Christian.
(Soundbite of lecture)
Dr. CAROLINE CROCKER (Intelligent Design Proponent): So is it OK to question evolution? Well, let me tell you from personal experience, people lose their jobs for doing it. So it is a--is it OK? Yes. Is it safe? No.
HAGERTY: Crocker believes she's living proof. About a year ago she was teaching her cell biology class when she arrived at the section on evolution.
Ms. CROCKER: I gave one lecture on the evidence for and against evolution, and at the end of the lecture I said to students, `Well, you need to make up your own mind. Think about it for yourself.'
HAGERTY: A student complained to her supervisor that Crocker was teaching creationism. Her supervisor, she says, told her she would not be teaching the cell biology class in the spring as a disciplinary measure. Her supervisor declined to comment. Later, Crocker learned that her contract was not renewed. She believes it was because of that class. A spokesman for George Mason would not comment on the circumstance surrounding Crocker's departure because it's a personnel issue, but, he said, it's not unusual for a contract to lapse.
After Crocker's talk on this Tuesday night, students told similar stories of ridicule by their peers and even teachers when they expressed doubts about Darwinian evolution. Jessica Young(ph), a senior, is majoring in biology.
Ms. JESSICA YOUNG (Student, George Mason University): It does get overwhelming having it crammed down your throat every day in biology classes. I had--my animal biology professor said the same thing: `This is not a theory; this is a fact. This is--evolution is a fact.' You know, it's comforting to know that there are other people who question evolution.
HAGERTY: For Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, these students with their Bibles are Exhibit A in the case against intelligent design. It has a religious agenda, she says, because it singles out the origins of life for scrutiny.
Ms. SCOTT: You know, we don't know everything there is to know about the theory of gravitation. We don't know everything there is to know about atomic theory. And yet nobody says that we should be presenting the strengths and weaknesses of atomic theory. People would look at you funny if you made that suggestion. But this is what happens all the time with evolution.
HAGERTY: The judge in the Dover trial is expected to rule in the next few weeks. The culture wars will rage on long after that. As for Caroline Crocker, she's received plenty of moral support, but no one has offered her a university teaching job. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
NORRIS: You can find the Office of Special Counsel letter regarding the Smithsonian Institution and Richard Sternberg and more stories about the debate over intelligent design at our Web site, npr.org.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.