Devious Design

In Texas And Other States, The Discovery Institute And Its Allies Are Trying To Sneak Religion Into Public School Science Classes

Texas resident Eddy Parker is not eager for children to learn about evolution in the state's public schools. Charles Darwin's fadmous theory, he told the Texas Board of Education in September, teaches youngsters that they are no better than vermin.

"In Fort Worth public schools, I learned that all of you are less than human," Parker said. "I was taught that maybe you came from a monkey. All I'm asking this board to do is don't allow people to tamper with children's minds. All of you here are human and a cut above roaches and rats and all such lies."

Parker was one among more than 150 state residents who signed up to address the 15-member board during a public meeting Sept. 10. Over the course of 12 hours, speakers took turns praising evolution or blasting it.

The hearing was yet another round in what has become a perennial Texas battle. Since 1991, when state lawmakers approved legislation mandating that evolution be taught in public schools, angry Religious Right activists have been trying to find ways to work creationism into Lone Star State classrooms. They haven't been terribly successful so far, but this year may be different: The Religious Right is pinning its hopes on "Intelligent Design," (ID) a new form of pseudo-scientific creationism that proponents claim is not based in religion.

The stakes are high and not just for Texans. This year, the board is considering approving 11 new biology textbooks, at a cost of $30 million. If ID proponents prevail, the repercussions could affect other states. Because Texas is so heavily populated, textbooks used there often end up in other states as well. Decisions made in Austin can easily reverberate around the country. A final vote on the books is expected this month.

The board has been under intense pressure since the biology textbook adoption process began. Given the board's conservative leanings several members frequently spout Religious Right doctrines one might think ID's acceptance in Texas is a done deal.

It's not that simple mainly because of laws in Texas governing the Board of Education. Weary of constant ideological battles over textbook content, Texas legislators in 1995 curtailed the board's power. Its members can no longer reject textbooks simply because a majority does not like what the books say about a given topic. Rather, the board may turn down books only if they fail to conform to the state curriculum, are poorly manufactured or contain errors.

Evolution opponents, led by the neo-creationist Discovery Institute in Seattle, believe this last category gives them the opening they need. The biology books up for adoption, they have argued, fail to present the weaknesses of evolution and thus do contain errors.

Many biologists in the state reject this assertion. "The Discovery Institute is pulling a bait-and-switch con game with the Texas State Board of Education, the press and citizens," Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, told Church & State. "The Institute keeps asking for flaws weaknesses and criticisms of Darwinism and Darwinian theory to be presented in the textbooks, but the books already contain this information."

Continued Schafersman, "All the biology books point out that Darwin had no knowledge of modern genetics, and that he was ignorant of evolutionary mechanisms other than random mutations, natural selection, and genetic variability. Research in the 20th century has corrected these defects in his original theory, and modern evolutionary theory is much stronger."

Schafersman and other critics argue that groups like the Discovery Institute merely represent a shift in tactics in the Religious Right's long-running war against the teaching of evolution in public schools.

"There is a clear, well-coordinated effort to undermine the teaching of evolution in Texas classrooms," Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, told the Houston Chronicle. "Intelligent design is just creationism dressed up in a laboratory coat."

In many ways, intelligent design is an idea born of necessity. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have consistently ruled against teaching traditional creationism in public schools, asserting that it is a religious, not scientific idea. (Creationism holds that the earth is only 6,000 years old, insists that God created the world in six literal days and teaches that Old Testament accounts about the creation of the world should be read as literal history.) Intelligent design was created in part to avoid this problem.

Many proponents of intelligent design say they reject the notion of a young earth and refrain from tying their ideas to Biblical literalism. Their main assertion is that life is too complex to have come about through natural processes and thus must have been created by a higher power. Although some are loathe to admit it, the higher power they are referring to can only be God. (Some ID proponents, desperate to find some other explanation so their ideas will not be viewed as religious in nature, have posited intervention by space aliens as an alternative.)

ID backers have published many books in recent years some produced by religious publishing houses but no peer-reviewed papers in respected scientific journals. Their ideas, while enthusiastically embraced by many in the Religious Right, have met with a frosty reception in the scientific community.

Backers of evolution say it is incumbent upon intelligent-design proponents to produce solid research showing evidence for their claims. So far, the evolutionists say, all IDers have offered is speculation and warmed-over attacks on evolution that were debunked long ago.

"The Discovery Institute lacks credibility as a scientific organization because it constantly distorts science in the service of its ideological agenda employing the same set of tactics made famous by intelligent design's lineal ancestor, 'creation science,'" Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, in Oakland, Calif., told Church & State.

Defenders of church-state separation are also wary because it's clear that some ID backers have a larger agenda in mind toppling the teaching of evolution in public schools and paving the way for religious theories of human origins to dominate in science classes. They consider Darwinism a threat to religious belief and see undermining it as essential to propping up fundamentalist versions of Christianity.

A leading ID proponent, Philip E. Johnson, former law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, talks openly about using intelligent design as a "wedge" to put doubts in the minds of the public about the validity of evolution.

Ultimately, Johnson sees ID as a lure to convert people to his brand of fundamentalism. Addressing a 1999 gathering of followers of TV preacher D. James Kennedy in Florida, Johnson said that evolution must be toppled so that people can then be introduced to the Bible, "the question of sin [and then] to Jesus."

Another prominent intelligent-design proponent, William Dembski, told the National Religious Broadcasters in 2000, "If there's anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ [and] the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian, naturalistic view.... It's important that we understand the world. God created it; Jesus is incarnate in the world." (For more on the religious origins of ID, see "Insidious Design," May 2002 Church & State.)

Despite this obvious religious motivation, ID seems to be gaining ground where traditional creationism failed. This is happening largely due to the efforts of the Discovery Institute, an organization funded primarily by deep-pocketed, far-right activists. Among them is Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., a California businessman who in the past has funded groups aligned with the radical Christian Reconstructionist movement. (Some sources say Ahmanson now has broken with the Reconstructionists and no longer supports their views.)

The Institute, with a budget of nearly $3 million a year, is active on several fronts. In 2002, the Institute pressured the Ohio Board of Education to insert weaknesses of evolution into state science standards. Like their counterparts in Texas, the Ohio board held open hearings and bogged down over the issue for months. Ultimately, new standards were adopted that many saw as a compromise. The standards promoted the teaching of evolution but also called on schools to teach that the theory generates "controversy."

ID critics charged that during the Ohio battle, the Discovery Institute resorted to questionable practices. In March of 2002, the Institute submitted a document to the board titled "Bibliogradphy of Supplemental Resources for Ohio Science Education" that listed 44 scientific articles allegedly buttressing its view.

The National Center for Science Edudcation analyzed the bibliography and sent questionnaires to all of the authors on it. Many replied, and most said that the Institute had distorted their findings or wrenched them from context. Some scientists were indignant to see the Institute citing their work; none of the respondents said they support intelligent design.

ID proponents were also active in New Mexico earlier this year, where the state Board of Education debated new science standards. In the end, the New Mexico board resisted pressure from ID proponents and voted 4-2 to adopt new standards that emphasize evolution but not intelligent design.

The next battlegrounds are likely to be North Carolina, where the state Board of Education has already begun reviewing science standards, and Michigan, where two state lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would require public schools to teach "the theory that life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator" whenever evolution is taught.

A minor flare-up over evolution also occurred in Minnesota this year. State Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, who admits she is a creationist, was criticized when new science standards were published containing language that some said cast doubt on the validity of evolution. Yecke agreed to remove the language, claiming that an administrative error led to an early draft of the standards being mistakenly released.

The issue might also resurface in Kansas, site of a blistering battle over evolution that captured national headlines in 2000. Although evolution backers on the State Board of Education gained the upper hand in elections that year, opponents regrouped and picked up a few seats in 2002. As a result, the 10-member board is currently split 5-5 between supporters and opponents of evolution. Opponents hope to capture more seats next year and reopen the debate.

In some cases, ID proponents and their allies in traditional creationism bypass the state Board of Education and go directly to local school boards. In September, the school board in Roseville, Calif., held a two-hour hearing on intelligent design after a pressure campaign from local Religious Right activists.

The board ultimately decided against formulating a district-wide policy, leaving the question of what to teach about evolution up to local schools. (Attorneys with Americans United had warned the board not to adopt a policy promoting intelligent design in the schools.)

Proponents of good science education in public schools worry that even if ID proponents fail to persuade state education boards, they still make progress by creating a "chilling effect" that depresses the teaching of evolution. Last year, Randy Moore, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, published a study finding that many biology teachers simply downplay evolution or don't teach it at all because they either fear controversy or are themselves sympathetic to creationism.

Most alarmingly, Moore found that state standards that emphasize evolution do not always translate into good teaching in schools. Moore reported that even in the states with pro-evolution science standards rated "good, very good or excellent," some local schools continue giving evolution scant treatment.

"Although these states have the nation's highest standards for teaching evolution, surprisingly large percentages of their biology teachers spend little time teaching it, believe that creationism should be included in science classes, and question the scientific validity of evolution," Moore wrote in the April 2002 issue of BioScience magazine.

Textbook publishers are also feeling the heat. The Discovery Institute rated all of the texts under consideration in Texas, giving most failing grades and none higher than a C-, and began applying pressure directly to the firms.

Schafersman also reviewed the texts and found that their treatment of evolution ranged from adequate to excellent. But for publishers, whose bottom line is turning a profit, not providing a community service, unrelenting pressure can lead to altered textbooks.

Holt, Rinehart & Winston, one of the nation's largest textbook publishers, already produces a "Texas edition" of one biology book. While the tome includes material about evolution, it omits some information deemed incorrect by the Discovery Institute, even though biologists say the material is accurate.

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said developments like this underscore the need for increased diligence from those who support church-state separation and good science instruction. Monitoring state standards is not enough, Lynn said. In addition, parents and community activists must be aware of what local schools are teaching, what biology textbooks say and what pressures they may face from Religious Right groups.

"Creationists have learned from their mistakes," Lynn said. "Their tactics are becoming more sophisticated, and ironically, their strategies are evolving. But their bottom line remains the same: substituting dogma for science in public schools."

Lynn, himself a Christian minister, pointed out that the battle is not one between faith and non-belief. Many religious groups, he noted, accept evolution. Even Pope John Paul II, who could hardly be called a religious liberal, has endorsed evolution and publicly stated that the theory need not conflict with religious belief.

In religious circles, the split occurs between those with a fundamentalist bent, many of whom fervently oppose evolution, and moderate-to-liberal bedlievers, most of whom long ago reconciled evolution and religious belief.

This division was apparent during the Texas debate. During the public hearing, one man, Mac Deaver, who described himself as a "gospel preacher," told the board that teaching evolution leads to "ethical deterioration" in society.

But others noted that religious concepts of origins are matters of faith, not science.

"It is my deep conviction that creation flows from the hand of a creator God," the Rev. Roger Paynter of First Baptist Church in Austin told the board. "But that is a statement of faith and not something that I or anyone else can prove in a scientific experiment. To lead children to believe otherwise is a disservice to them."

Schafersman, an Americans United member, worked alongside local AU supporters and activists from the National Center for Science Education (www.ncseweb.org) to oppose intelligent design in Texas. Key to his strategy was lining up an impressive array of biology professors from Texas universities, including four Nobel Prize winners, to defend teaching evolution in public schools.

But Schafersman makes the point that scientists can only do so much. Uldtimately, he said, the fate of this issue rests with the voters.

"In Texas," he said, "extreme right-wing ideologues are elected with the sole intention of damaging textbook content because they run in a low-profile race that most voters ignore. Monitor the activities of your state's board of education if it has anything at all to do with centralized adoption of your state's textbooks or if it controls the content of your state's curriculum. Creationists tried to change the science curriculum in a number of states in recent years to add intelligent design, which was being passed off as good science, not the sophisticated type of creationism it really is."