The debate over teaching students about the genesis of life is heating up again, with a Seattle organization emerging as one of its key figures.
Started in 1996, the Center for Science and Culture, inside the non-profit Discovery Institute in downtown Seattle, is a relative newcomer in the decades-old tussle over evolutionary theory.
But its heft is considerable. The center spends more than $1 million a year on polls, advertising and research — trying to debunk parts of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory and promoting “intelligent design,” which holds that some complex features of the universe cannot be explained by science.
“They’ve kind of crystallized the ID movement,” said Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education. “They are unquestionably a major force. They have tended to have most of their effect just by sort of inspiring the masses, so to speak.”
Proponents of intelligent design, which emerged as a national movement in the 1990s, believe nature is too complex to be explained by natural selection. Though proponents stop short of identifying God as the mastermind behind intelligent design, the scientific mainstream views the theory as little more than a thinly veiled incarnation of creationism.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said religious conservatives have seized on intelligent design as an issue that can gain traction at the local level, through school boards and parents.
Intelligent design advocates see the issue as “easy to confuse people about and therefore easy for them to win,” he said.
“They’re trying to isolate this as if this was on really shaky ground and other things — plate tectonics, gravity — those are the real theories. It’s a very misleading — although very clever — approach to this whole issue.”
The ‘monkey trial’ of 1925
The debate over teaching the origin of life dates back to the 1925 “monkey trial,” in which a Tennessee teacher was prosecuted for violating state law by teaching evolution. In recent years, teachers have shifted to an approach that incorporates the intelligent design argument while poking holes in Darwinian theory.
John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said the Center for Science and Culture believes teachers should be able to present criticism of Darwinian theory.
“The Discovery Institute does not — does not — favor trying to require the teaching of intelligent design, and we are not pushing for the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, period,” he said. “We advocate teaching more about evolutionary theory.
“That means all of the evidence that favors it … but students also need to know the areas of the theory which have legitimate scientific controversies.”
The Discovery Institute started in 1990 with a focus on technology policy and regional development. Founder Bruce Chapman, a former Seattle City Council member who also worked in the Reagan administration, became interested in intelligent design after reading a 1993 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Meyer, who has a doctorate in the philosophy of science and is now a senior fellow at the institute.
The center has eight employees and an annual budget of about $1.2 million, which comes from a variety of sources. West declined to be more specific, saying he is concerned that supporters will be harassed by the pro-Darwinism faction. Roughly 84 percent of the budget is spent funding biologists and other scientists conducting research on intelligent design.
Center enters the debate
West said the center became involved in the curriculum debate after Burlington-Edison High School teacher Roger DeHart landed in hot water over teaching intelligent design in his biology classes.
District parents complained, and school authorities in 1999 ordered DeHart to stop teaching intelligent design. He was later reassigned to teach earth science and eventually left the district to teach at a private Christian school in California. “The level of intolerance,” West said, “is just beyond belief.”
Danny Rock sees criticism of Darwinian theory as a worthy classroom topic. A psychology and world history teacher at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Rock teaches his students about the debate over intelligent design and evolution.
“From the social sciences perspective, there’s an immense value in having students talk about those differences and wrestle with what they think about those differences,” he said. “If we live in a pluralistic society and a democratic society, then we need to be about the encouragement and the nurturing of opposing viewpoints.”
Doug Cowan, a biology teacher at Curtis High School in University Place, believes he’d be remiss if he didn’t address the evolutionary controversy in class. “This is what science is about,” said Cowan, who uses Discovery Institute materials in his classes. “You put theories to the test. To suppress evidence to protect a preconceived notion — that to my mind is wrong.”
The source of intelligent design, however, is off-limits.
“You don’t teach that in school because then you bring in stuff that’s metaphysical,” he said. “And the law does not permit that.”
Scott sees the Darwinian debate as irrelevant. “In the world of science, you don’t get scientists sitting around at their conventions and writing articles for journals debating whether evolution took place, any more than historians are debating whether the Holocaust took place,” she said.
If the debate is occurring in science classrooms around Seattle, it’s below the school district’s radar.
Steve Wilson, chief academic officer for Seattle Public Schools, said he hasn’t heard any concerns about science teachers veering into risky realms. Teachers are free to raise the evolution debate, he said, but “would have to be very careful not to leave a perception that you’re endorsing anything other than evolution.”
Spate of evolution-related bills
While some anti-evolutionary activists say they are being persecuted, teachers on the other side of the issue are also feeling the heat.
A study released by the National Science Teachers Association last week found that 31 percent of teachers polled said they feel pressured to include creationism, intelligent design or other alternatives to evolution in their science classes.
Thirty percent said they also felt pressured to de-emphasize or omit evolution-related topics from their curriculum, saying that most of the pressure — 18 percent each — is coming from students and parents, rather than administrators or principals.
The Discovery Institute’s Web site provides guidelines for teaching about intelligent design, materials including a video on how to “teach the controversy” legally, and a “truth sheet” refuting claims by Scott’s organization that the institute misrepresents evolutionary theory.
West thinks the current educational debate has been renewed by a requirement in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act that requires states to develop science standards, rather than a reinvigorated push for teaching intelligent design. Legislators in nearly a dozen states, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, have introduced bills that would restrict the teaching of evolution or introduce a religion-based alternative.
But the other side is pushing back.
Last month, following pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, a school district in Arkansas agreed to remove stickers it had placed on science textbooks that describe evolution as a “controversial theory” and suggest that “evolution alone is not adequate to explain the origins of life.”
In December, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of parents against a school board in Dover, Penn. The board made a controversial decision last fall requiring that biology teachers present intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory.
The Discovery Institute responded with a press release distancing itself from the Dover school board, calling its policy “misguided.” Lynn thinks the action is an indication that the pro-design movement is worried.
“This case in Pennsylvania is going to nail the coffin shut on this whole approach to teaching intelligent design,” he said. “Intelligent design will ultimately die when this case is ultimately resolved, because it will be exposed for what it is — religious doctrine masquerading as science.”