Thinktank fuels debate on evolution

ByChris Dixon

Sunday,March5, 2006

Edition:FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1


InJanuary, state Sen. Mike Fair desperately needed a pair of speakersto challenge the theory of evolution.

The GreenvilleRepublican and Education Oversight Committee member lost the twoSouth Carolina university professors he had lined up for a debatewith state science educators after one of his speakers beganreceiving job threats for agreeing to participate.

The topic of thedebate was the proposed injection of language favoring "criticalanalysis" of evolutionary theory into guidelines or standards usedfor sophomore biology lessons.

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

The institutequickly lined up

Richard vonSternberg, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution, and

Rebecca Keller, aformer University of Mexico chemistry professor. Fair paid for theirtravel with his personal campaign funds.

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

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

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

These criticsalso say the institute is a front for people whose aim is to undo theteaching of evolution and replace it with a form of creationismcommonly referred to as intelligent design. The institute hascountered that it does not back intelligent design and only wantsscience teachers to "critically analyze" shortcomings in theevolution theory.

Though it hassuffered considerable legal and political setbacks in the past year,the Discovery Institute has made significant inroads into publicpolicy discussion in South Carolina. According to its spokesman, RobCrowther, it now considers the state a main focus in its war overwhat it considers the rigid scientific dogma of Darwinism.

The State Boardof Education will meet Wednesday to consider compromise languagerecommended by the Education Oversight Committee. Should the boardchange its vote, "critical analysis" will become an over-archingtheme of evolutionary biology curriculum.

The debate

In a debatefilled with loaded terms, defining "intelligent design" is fraughtwith peril. In a 2002 article on an Ohio evolution debate, a New YorkTimes reporter wrote: "In contrast to the biblical literalism ofcreationists, proponents of intelligent design acknowledge that theearth is billions of years old and that organisms evolve over time.But they dispute that natural selection is the sole force ofevolution, arguing that life is so complex that only some sort ofintelligent designer, whether called God or something else, must beinvolved."

Although mostintelligent design proponents agree that the universe is billions ofyears old, Crowther said there is not universal agreement on thesource of the intelligence or the level of design.

"Intelligentdesign theorists argue in favor of design theory based on therecognition of things like the digital information in DNA and thecomplex molecular machines found in cells," he said. "They do sobecause invariably we know from experience that complex systemspossessing such features always arise from intelligent causes."

For the pastseveral years, the Discovery Institute has said it doesn't back themandating of intelligent design, or even a mention of God in biologylessons.

This and the ideathat the universe is billions of years old has riled some Christians.In a written statement, state schools superintendent candidate KerryWood argued in favor of an elective class on the Bible as ahistorical record of mankind. Intelligent design, he argued, not onlyis unscientific, but "not specifying God as the designer has actuallycaused some to interpret the designer(s) could possibly have beenalien(s)."

Design theorypromises to reverse the materialist world view and replace it withscience in line with Christian beliefs.

These beliefswere strongly held by Discovery Institute founder Bruce Chapman. AHarvard graduate and Roman Catholic, Chapman served as a Seattle citycouncilman in the early 1970s, ran for governor in 1980 and thenserved as a deputy assistant to President Reagan and later a U.S.Ambassador to the United

Nations in the1980s.

Finding himselfback in Seattle in 1990, Chapman launched the Discovery Institute tofocus on transportation solutions for the Puget Sound. By themid-1990s Chapman had turned to intelligent design.

Now the instituteconsists of about 12 senior fellows and an additional 40 otherfellows who make speeches, write articles and act as advocates onbehalf of

DiscoveryInstitute policies. Many of those fellows are listed on theinstitute's Web site.

Critical analysisin Ohio

Early in 2002, agroup of Ohio Board of Education members launched an effort withparallels to the debate currently boiling in South Carolina. Tobolster the case for injecting critical analysis into biologyteachings, members of the Ohio education board invited DiscoveryInstitute fellows Jonathan Wells and Stephen C. Meyers to debate apair of Ohio science professors.

The fellowsargued that scientifically valid challenges to Darwinian evolutionshould be sufficient reason to include intelligent design or at leastcriticism of evolution into science curriculum.

While theintelligent design language didn't win, Ohio Board of Educationmember Martha Wise said critical analysis language reached a lessonplan by June 2004. The plans included bibliographic citations andarguments from intelligent design promoting textbooks "Of Pandas andPeople" and Jonathan Wells' book "Icons of Evolution."

Biologists havegone on record debunking these books and most other intelligentdesign-related texts as religion masquerading as science. Even theauthor of

"Pandas" admittedto the Wall Street Journal in 1994 that his motive in writing thebook was religious in nature. "Pandas" also had been written in draftform with the words "creation," "creationism" and "creation science."These words were replaced with the term "intelligent design" after a1987 Supreme Court ruling that the teaching of creation science wasunconstitutional.

"What it's beenis 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."


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

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

Although theDiscovery Institute publicly said the Dover board's intelligentdesign language was too strong, it sent two of its most prominentfellows,

Michael J. Beheand Scott

Minnich, to arguethe case. Behe is the author of "Darwin's Black Box," a book thatmakes a scientific case for intelligent design.

Duringcross-examination by attorney Eric Rothschild, the DiscoveryInstitute's most widely cited scientist admitted that acceptance ofintelligent design was directly related to a person's religiousbeliefs and that despite earlier claims to the contrary, "Darwin'sBlack Box" hadn't been subject to review by any reputable scientificjournals.

"I think whatcross examination revealed is that behind some fancy terms like'irreducible complexity' and a whole lot of writing, there is reallynothing going on scientifically with ID, " Rothschild said.

In November, allintelligent design proponents in the largely Republican Doverdistrict lost re-election to Democrats.

On Dec. 20, U.S.District Judge John E. Jones delivered a sweeping rebuke. In a100-page decision, the Bush appointee found that intelligent designwas disguised creationism and described Discovery Institute argumentsas "bafflingly inane." He ordered the Dover school board to throw outintelligent design and to pay what will be significant legal fees forthe case.

Though the Ohioschool board voted 9-8 to preserve its critical analysis language andlesson plan in January, by Feb. 13, the Dover precedent was enough topersuade members to vote 11-4 to remove both.

"It's anoutrageous slap in the face to the citizens of Ohio," DiscoveryInstitute senior fellow John G. West told The New York Times. "Theeffort to try to suppress ideas that you dislike, to use thegovernment to suppress ideas you dislike, has a failed history. Dothey really want to be on the side of the people who didn't want tolet John Scopes talk or who tried to censor


Influences inS.C.

The DiscoveryInstitute's two speakers, von Sternberg and Keller, met Jan. 23 inColumbia to tell Education Oversight Committee members why SouthCarolina's highly regarded science guidelines should carry criticalanalysis language pushed by Fair.

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

"South CarolinaHas Historic Opportunity to Adopt Science Standards for CriticalAnalysis of Evolution."

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

Taking thepodium, 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 twoquestions. The teacher's viewpoint may differ from the student's, butit is not the job of the teacher to judge between variousviewpoints."

Von Sternbergadded: "To present the theory as complete and sufficient for teachingevolution is inaccurate, and thus misleading."

State educatorsMary Lang

Edwards, abiology professor at Erksine College, and Karen Stratton, sciencecoordinator for the Lexington 1 School District, argued that criticalanalysis is already present in science teaching and that statescience teaching standards had to be testable and use the scientificmethod.

When both citedtheir own strong religious faiths and a belief that religion shouldbe kept out of science instruction, they later were scolded byseveral Republican members of the Education Oversight Committeeincluding Rep. Bob Walker of Landrum, who argued that the debate overcritical analysis had nothing to do with religion. Earlier in themeeting though, Walker had declared that "Somehow the Bible hasbecome a point where it's no longer any good and that concerns me —it tears my heart apart."

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

It was the firsttime since the nonpartisan committee's 1998 founding that any part ofthe hundreds of standards for any subject had ever been returnedunapproved.

Although theirarguments for critical analysis or intelligent design often seemquite similar to the Discovery Institute's, several EducationOversight Committee members including state superintendent candidateBob Staton, Susan Marlowe and Karen Iacovelli claim little knowledgeof the organization.

"The DiscoveryInstitute is irrelevant," Iacovelli said. "What is relevant was thefanaticism on behalf of higher education in this state to stifle freespeech."

The offices ofRepublican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and U.S. Rep Bob Inglis, who heads aresearch subcommittee of the House Science Committee and has said hefavors critical analysis, also professed little familiarity with theDiscovery Institute.

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

Fair said theDiscovery Institute hasn't had anything to do with critical analysislanguage but said he wouldn't hesitate to turn to the institute forfurther information and help in his biology crusade.

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

"There is nobetter group to go to if you're interested in learning aboutintelligent design and its public policy consequences. They're anunimpeachable source of information."

Reach Chris Dixonat (843) 745-5855 or


The DiscoveryInstitute describes itself as a nonpartisan public policy think tankconducting research on technology, science and culture, economics andforeign affairs.

More information isavailable on its Web site,