Think Tank Fuels Debate on Evolution

Chris Dixon
The Post and Courier
March 5, 2006
Print ArticleIn January, state Sen. Mike Fair desperately needed a pair of speakers to challenge the theory of evolution.

The Greenville Republican and Education Oversight Committee member lost the two South Carolina university professors he had lined up for a debate with state science educators after one of his speakers began receiving job threats for agreeing to participate.

The topic of the debate was the proposed injection of language favoring "critical analysis" of evolutionary theory into guidelines or standards used for sophomore biology lessons.

So he turned to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, for help.

The institute quickly lined up Richard von Sternberg, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution, and Rebecca Keller, a former University of Mexico chemistry professor. Fair paid for their travel with his personal campaign funds.

"They came to my rescue in a dramatic way," he said.

In South Carolina and several other states where evolution controversies have flared, the Discovery Institute has helped fan the flames.

Despite its relatively small size and an annual budget of little more than $4 million, even many of the group's critics agree that the institute has had a remarkable impact.

These critics also say the institute is a front for people whose aim is to undo the teaching of evolution and replace it with a form of creationism commonly referred to as intelligent design. The institute has countered that it does not back intelligent design and only wants science teachers to "critically analyze" shortcomings in the evolution theory.

Though it has suffered considerable legal and political setbacks in the past year, the Discovery Institute has made significant inroads into public policy discussion in South Carolina. According to its spokesman, Rob Crowther, it now considers the state a main focus in its war over what it considers the rigid scientific dogma of Darwinism.

The State Board of Education will meet Wednesday to consider compromise language recommended by the Education Oversight Committee. Should the board change its vote, "critical analysis" will become an over-arching theme of evolutionary biology curriculum.

The debate

In a debate filled with loaded terms, defining "intelligent design" is fraught with peril. In a 2002 article on an Ohio evolution debate, a New York Times reporter wrote: "In contrast to the biblical literalism of creationists, proponents of intelligent design acknowledge that the earth is billions of years old and that organisms evolve over time. But they dispute that natural selection is the sole force of evolution, arguing that life is so complex that only some sort of intelligent designer, whether called God or something else, must be involved."

Although most intelligent design proponents agree that the universe is billions of years old, Crowther said there is not universal agreement on the source of the intelligence or the level of design.

"Intelligent design theorists argue in favor of design theory based on the recognition of things like the digital information in DNA and the complex molecular machines found in cells," he said. "They do so because invariably we know from experience that complex systems possessing such features always arise from intelligent causes."

For the past several years, the Discovery Institute has said it doesn't back the mandating of intelligent design, or even a mention of God in biology lessons.

This and the idea that the universe is billions of years old has riled some Christians. In a written statement, state schools superintendent candidate Kerry Wood argued in favor of an elective class on the Bible as a historical record of mankind. Intelligent design, he argued, not only is unscientific, but "not specifying God as the designer has actually caused some to interpret the designer(s) could possibly have been alien(s)."

Design theory promises to reverse the materialist world view and replace it with science in line with Christian beliefs.

These beliefs were strongly held by Discovery Institute founder Bruce Chapman. A Harvard graduate and Roman Catholic, Chapman served as a Seattle city councilman in the early 1970s, ran for governor in 1980 and then served as a deputy assistant to President Reagan and later a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s.

Finding himself back in Seattle in 1990, Chapman launched the Discovery Institute to focus on transportation solutions for the Puget Sound. By the mid-1990s Chapman had turned to intelligent design.

Now the institute consists of about 12 senior fellows and an additional 40 other fellows who make speeches, write articles and act as advocates on behalf of Discovery Institute policies. Many of those fellows are listed on the institute's Web site.

Critical analysis in Ohio

Early in 2002, a group of Ohio Board of Education members launched an effort with parallels to the debate currently boiling in South Carolina. To bolster the case for injecting critical analysis into biology teachings, members of the Ohio education board invited Discovery Institute fellows Jonathan Wells and Stephen C. Meyers to debate a pair of Ohio science professors.

The fellows argued that scientifically valid challenges to Darwinian evolution should be sufficient reason to include intelligent design or at least criticism of evolution into science curriculum.

While the intelligent design language didn't win, Ohio Board of Education member Martha Wise said critical analysis language reached a lesson plan by June 2004. The plans included bibliographic citations and arguments from intelligent design promoting textbooks "Of Pandas and People" and Jonathan Wells' book "Icons of Evolution."

Biologists have gone on record debunking these books and most other intelligent design-related texts as religion masquerading as science. Even the author of "Pandas" admitted to the Wall Street Journal in 1994 that his motive in writing the book was religious in nature. "Pandas" also had been written in draft form with the words "creation," "creationism" and "creation science." These words were replaced with the term "intelligent design" after a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that the teaching of creation science was unconstitutional.

"What it's been is the evolution of terminology," Wise said. "A little wedge here, then in Kansas, South Carolina, Utah, and all over the United States. That's Discovery's modus operandi."

Pennsylvania controversy

In late 2004, a local school board in Dover, Pa., voted 6-3 to teach high school students about "gaps/problems in Darwin's theory of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design." The board also recommended that students read "Of Pandas and People."

That December, the Dover board was taken to court by 12 parents who were represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the National Center for Science Education.

Although the Discovery Institute publicly said the Dover board's intelligent design language was too strong, it sent two of its most prominent fellows, Michael J. Behe and Scott Minnich, to argue the case. Behe is the author of "Darwin's Black Box," a book that makes a scientific case for intelligent design.

During cross-examination by attorney Eric Rothschild, the Discovery Institute 's most widely cited scientist admitted that acceptance of intelligent design was directly related to a person's religious beliefs and that despite earlier claims to the contrary, "Darwin's Black Box" hadn't been subject to review by any reputable scientific journals.

"I think what cross examination revealed is that behind some fancy terms like 'irreducible complexity' and a whole lot of writing, there is really nothing going on scientifically with ID, " Rothschild said.

In November, all intelligent design proponents in the largely Republican Dover district lost re-election to Democrats.

On Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a sweeping rebuke. In a 100-page decision, the Bush appointee found that intelligent design was disguised creationism and described Discovery Institute arguments as "bafflingly inane." He ordered the Dover school board to throw out intelligent design and to pay what will be significant legal fees for the case.

Though the Ohio school board voted 9-8 to preserve its critical analysis language and lesson plan in January, by Feb. 13, the Dover precedent was enough to persuade members to vote 11-4 to remove both.

"It's an outrageous slap in the face to the citizens of Ohio," Discovery Institute senior fellow John G. West told The New York Times. "The effort to try to suppress ideas that you dislike, to use the government to suppress ideas you dislike, has a failed history. Do they really want to be on the side of the people who didn't want to let John Scopes talk or who tried to censor Galileo?"

Influences in S.C.

The Discovery Institute's two speakers, von Sternberg and Keller, met Jan. 23 in Columbia to tell Education Oversight Committee members why South Carolina's highly regarded science guidelines should carry critical analysis language pushed by Fair.

In the audience, the Discovery Institute's Washington, D.C., office manager, Logan Gage handed out a press release titled

"South Carolina Has Historic Opportunity to Adopt Science Standards for Critical Analysis of Evolution."

"We just wanted to observe what was going on firsthand," he said.

Taking the podium, Keller asked, "Where did we come from, how did we get here? These are both scientific and philosophical questions, and science, religion and/or philosophy have something to say about these two questions. The teacher's viewpoint may differ from the student's, but it is not the job of the teacher to judge between various viewpoints."

Von Sternberg added: "To present the theory as complete and sufficient for teaching evolution is inaccurate, and thus misleading."

State educators Mary Lang

Edwards, a biology professor at Erksine College, and Karen Stratton, science coordinator for the Lexington 1 School District, argued that critical analysis is already present in science teaching and that state science teaching standards had to be testable and use the scientific method.

When both cited their own strong religious faiths and a belief that religion should be kept out of science instruction, they later were scolded by several Republican members of the Education Oversight Committee including Rep. Bob Walker of Landrum, who argued that the debate over critical analysis had nothing to do with religion. Earlier in the meeting though, Walker had declared that "Somehow the Bible has become a point where it's no longer any good and that concerns me - it tears my heart apart."

On Feb. 13, the Education Oversight Committee voted 10-2 to reject compromise language offered by the Board of Education. The oversight committee wants stronger language favoring critical analysis.

It was the first time since the nonpartisan committee's 1998 founding that any part of the hundreds of standards for any subject had ever been returned unapproved.

Although their arguments for critical analysis or intelligent design often seem quite similar to the Discovery Institute's, several Education Oversight Committee members including state superintendent candidate Bob Staton, Susan Marlowe and Karen Iacovelli claim little knowledge of the organization.

"The Discovery Institute is irrelevant," Iacovelli said. "What is relevant was the fanaticism on behalf of higher education in this state to stifle free speech."

The offices of Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and U.S. Rep Bob Inglis, who heads a research subcommittee of the House Science Committee and has said he favors critical analysis, also professed little familiarity with the Discovery Institute.

But last August, Inglis attended a Greenville intelligent design conference headlined by three institute fellows while DeMint gave the opening speech.

Fair said the Discovery Institute hasn't had anything to do with critical analysis language but said he wouldn't hesitate to turn to the institute for further information and help in his biology crusade.

"They are the only game in town if you're interested in going to the classroom for intelligent design," he said.

"There is no better group to go to if you're interested in learning about intelligent design and its public policy consequences. They're an unimpeachable source of information."