Origins debate deeper than Darby
Origins debate deeper than Darby

By MICHAEL MOORE of the Missoulian, Jan 28, 2004 - original
Intelligent-design theory part of national push to re-evaluate coursework in U.S. classrooms

In hindsight, Curtis Brickley thinks he shouldn't have presented the case for teaching intelligent-design theory at Darby High School when he argued for changing the school's science curriculum in early December.

It's not that he has problems with its central tenet - that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause. It's just that the debate over ID theory has complicated the discussion over what he really wants - for Darby schools to adopt what he calls "objective origins" in its science curriculum.

"If I could go back and do it all over again, I wouldn't have put those things together," Brickley said Tuesday, one day before the Darby school board is scheduled to vote on the curriculum change. "I think it's sort of confused the issue."

The board, after taking more testimony and listening to some legal analysis, will decide whether to change the curriculum to include objective origins. To Brickley, a local minister, that means there's a place in science class for challenges to theories in general and evolutionary theory in particular.

"I don't think that objective origins and intelligent design are one in the same," Brickley said. "I just want us to look at evolution critically, at the evidence for it and the evidence against it. I think the policy is quite modest."

The "modest" proposal has Darby in a tizzy. The school board took public comment Monday night and will reconvene Wednesday at 7 p.m. Intelligent design has been castigated as the work of pseudo-scientists whose primary interest is putting God in the classroom, while evolution has drawn comparisons to "godless communism."

The middle ground isn't exactly heavily populated.

The reason for at least part of the great divide is the discussion of intelligent design theory, a relatively recent arrival that found its launching platform in a Berkeley law professor's 1991 book, Darwin on Trial.

The ID movement has come a long way, even though its scientific value is often dismissed in mainstream scientific circles. ID has been the topic of stories in major newspapers, and school districts have debated its inclusion in their science curriculums. All of that is part of a strategy Phillip Johnson formulated in the early 1990s.

In April 2001, Johnson wrote about the goals of what he had dubbed the Wedge Strategy: "The first was to legitimate the topic of intelligent design, and hence the critique of Darwinism and its basis in naturalistic philosophy, within the mainstream intellectual community. The second was to make the critique of naturalism the central focus of discussion in the religious world, replacing the deadlocked debate over the Genesis chronology which had enabled the Darwinists to employ 'Inherit the Wind stereotype' so effectively."

The so-called "Wedge document," a fund-raising letter from the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, has furthered the controversy surrounding intelligent design. The Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, is the primary repository of academicians working on intelligent design theory.

The Wedge document set out a list of goals which, not surprisingly, alarmed the critics of intelligent design. "Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture ("renewal" has since been dropped) seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies."

The document, in promoting its five-year objectives, also discussed having design theory incorporated into the science curriculums of 10 states.

Critics quickly saw an effort to end the country's constitutional separation of church and state, and an effort to replace it with a theocracy. Language such as this inflamed the controversy: "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist world, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

Rob Crowther, marketing and communications director for the center and institute, said critics have made far too much of the Wedge document.

"Fringe Darwinists out there have been making these spurious claims that we're theocrats and that is just preposterous," Crowther said in an e-mail interview. "They try to paint anyone who challenges Darwinian evolution as part of some secret conspiracy, which is equally ridiculous."

That said, Crowther acknowledges that many of the institute's fellows have religious affiliations. In fact, one of the institute's financial backers and board members is the conservative philanthropist Howard Ahmanson. One of the institute's critics, Peter Gegenheimer, a molecular bioscientist in Kansas, said this about Ahmanson: "Howard Ahmanson is a strong supporter of the Chalcedon ideology of Biblical Reconstructionism, which espouses a radical conversion of American society into a theocracy subservient to a strict interpretation of Old Testament law."

Crowther said that is the sort of criticism typical of the scorn heaped upon the institute by its opponents. Besides, lots of scientists have religious affiliations, he said.

"Science is science whether it be practiced by atheists, agnostics, Christians, Buddhists or whatever," Crowther said. "Our point is that attacking the presumed religious beliefs and motives rather than dealing with the science is wrong and does a disservice to the serious scientific issues being discussed."

Part of the debate in Darby is about what exactly will be taught in science class if objective origins is approved. Curtis Brickley has his own ideas, and they do nothing to appease the policy's critics.

"I want them to teach legitimate challenges to evolution," Brickley said. "There are disputes about macroevolution, about intermediate species. There are disputes about the fossil record. If there are scientific challenges, I think students ought to hear them. Kids are bright. They can handle it."

What Brickley wants to make clear is that he is not asking the school board to authorize the teaching of intelligent design. He said he is less interested in schools of evolutionary thought such as intelligent design, and more interested in particularized criticisms of particular aspects of evolutionary science.

Brickley is nonetheless attracted to intelligent design, in that it posits the possibility of mixing science and divine creation.

"I certainly like the inference of intelligent design," Brickley said. "But I am not a speaker for intelligent design, and I am not a speaker for the Discovery Institute."

Brickley said he did seek assistance from the institute as he prepared his presentation for the Darby school board, particularly the legal work of Gonzaga law professor David DeWolf, who will address the board Wednesday night. But he also said he did much of his own legwork in preparing a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation that seeks to cast doubt on current evolutionary science.

"I think my wife would say I was something of an absent father for a while as I put together that presentation," Brickley said.

Brickley does not presume to be a scientist, but he clearly believes that scientists working on intelligent design are raising legitimate questions about evolutionary science. So does Crowther, who said the institute's academic fellows are "experts" in their various fields.

Intelligent design theorists have made headway in bringing their message to the public. Discovery Institute fellows have written books and had op-ed pieces published in newspapers, and Crowther said its scientists are raising legitimate questions about evolutionary theory.

Don Christian, associate dean of the biological sciences division at the University of Montana, and Fred Allendorf, a professor in the division, dismiss that claim. They don't dismiss the effort to raise questions about evolutionary theory; they just haven't seen anything that they believe amounts to science yet.

"There is no controversy here, except the controversy they are making up," said Allendorf, who teaches a class in genetics and evolution. "In science we put forth hypotheses. There are no hypotheses in intelligent design. They simply say the other side is wrong. That's not science."

As soon as you posit a supernatural creator - be it the Christian God or extraterrestrials - you move "outside the realm of science," said Allendorf, who has urged the board in a letter to reject objective origins.

"I don't see anything wrong with talking about these things in school, but they don't belong in a biology class," he said.

Christian said the question isn't really about whether intelligent design might truly explain how the universe came into being.

"Intelligent design may exist," he said. "I have no basis to say it does or doesn't exist. That doesn't mean it's suddenly science, though. It's philosophy, which is fine. Just don't call it science."

Science moves ahead through controversy, in fact, but that controversy is tangible, Christian said. "Scientific controversy involves scientific data and ideas, and how did the scientist measure something, and did they interpret the results correctly, and can it be duplicated," he said. "Intelligent design has not entered the realm of scientific debate."

It has, however, entered into the realm of public debate, one that continues Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Darby Junior High School gym.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or 370-3330, or at