Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Discovery Institute funding

Heir spends family fortune to discredit evolution theory
Scott Stephens - Cleveland Plain Dealer - 12/23/02 - original story
If you can't imagine how an ultra-conservative California savings and loan heir could be linked to the shaping of Ohio's new science standards, you probably have never heard of Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson.

For years, the reclusive philanthropist and evangelical Christian has channeled millions from his family's fortune to a variety of causes designed to discredit and defeat Darwin's evolution theory that living things share common ancestors but have changed over time.

Some of those millions have gone to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the nation's best-known, best-organized and best-funded proponent of intelligent design - the concept that living things have been "designed" by some purposeful but unknown being because they are too complex to have occurred by chance.

Critics of Discovery use Ahmanson's funding as a club to pummel the institute.

Discovery, despite criticism from some of the nation's top Darwinists, had a prominent role in this year's origins debate in Ohio. Discovery President Bruce Chapman, who founded the institute in 1990, meets those blows with a mixture of anger and amusement.

"I think the materialists had better get some better material," said Chapman, who founded Discovery in 1990 after serving as director of the U.S. Census Bureau and as an assistant to former President Ronald Reagan. "A lot of our foes are pretty ruthless. They'd like us to go away but what they're reduced to is slurs against the people giving us grants."

If 2002 was any indication, the Discovery Institute isn't going away anytime soon. Senior fellows from the institute were invited to sit elbow-to-elbow with evolutionists at high-profile debates involving intelligent design this summer in Columbus and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The issue has captured the public's imagination and landed the institute on the front-page of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as well as on CNN.

Some believe Discovery scored its biggest victory earlier this month when Ohio adopted science standards that require students to examine criticisms of biological evolution. The Ohio Board of Education explicitly stated it wasn't pushing intelligent design, but Discovery fellows hailed the new standards as a historic victory, a triumph of democracy and academic freedom over the rigid edicts of the science establishment.

But the institute, which has a $2.5 million annual budget, has plenty of work not connected to intelligent design, including public transportation, technology, Social Security reform and the environment.

"I was very much impressed by both the range and the quality of their work," said University of Washington Professor Herbert Ellison, who served on the institute's advisory board. "Their ideas and opinions have had considerable impact in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, and across the country and abroad."

Still, Discovery's most visible impact has been with intelligent design. Often derided as stealth creationism, the concept has shown some legs in the ageless argument about the origin and development of life on Earth.

Through its Center for Science and Culture, Discovery has tried to position itself as a scientific rather than creationist player.

Instead of embracing biblical literalists who believe God created the Earth in six days or that Adam and Eve shared the planet with dinosaurs, Discovery has offered up reputable scholars with impressive academic pedigrees, including Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, Baylor University mathematician William Dembski and University of California-Berkeley molecular and cell biologist Jonathan Wells.

Behe's Darwin's Black Box, which theorizes evolution cannot explain the complexity of cells, and Wells' Icons of Evolution, which argues that evolution textbooks are filled with mistakes, are two of the movement's defining books.

"An important thing about them is the big-tent approach," Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, a leading Darwin defender, said. "Within the guts of the movement, you can find rather nasty arguments between the Biblical literalists and the intelligent-design advocates. They [intelligent-design supporters] say, 'We might disagree on things like the age of the Earth and the fossil record, but we have a common enemy.'"

To some of those enemies, that's a distinction without a difference.

Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and director of the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education, noted wryly that Discovery recently shortened the name of its "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture" to "Center for Science and Culture" to make itself sound more "scientific." She said the name change doesn't mask the fact that the institute's contributions to science have been nearly nil.

"They weren't being taken seriously as a science organization," Scott said.

Scott and others say the institute's efforts to be accepted as a serious player are also being undercut by the source of its money.

Ahmanson, whose family made billions in the savings and loan business, was associated at times with Christian Reconstruction, a radical faction of the Religious Right that sought to replace American democracy with a theocracy based on biblical law and under the "dominion" of Christians. For years, the Orange County multimillionaire served on the board of the Chalcedon Foundation, the movement's think tank.

Ahmanson gave Discovery $1.5 million to help start its Center for Science and Culture. Fieldstead & Co., which is owned by Ahmanson and his wife, Roberta, has pledged $2.8 million through 2003 to support the institute's work.

Discovery Institute adviser Phillip Johnson, arguably the nation's best-known anti-evolutionist, dedicated his 1997 book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, to "Howard and Roberta." Johnson said his relationship with Discovery is limited.

"I'm very loosely connected," he said during an October visit to Northeast Ohio. "I don't direct it and I don't take any money from them."

Discovery also received $350,000 from the Tennessee-based Maclellan Foundation. Foundation officials were quoted publicly as saying the grant was to help researchers prove that "evolution was not the process by which we were created."

Ahmanson rarely grants interviews, and calls to him and to Maclellan Foundation executive director Tom McCallie were not returned. Chapman said linking the institute to the radical Christian Right is a ploy not unlike the red-baiting antics of former U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

He also said evolutionists have put Discovery in a classic catch-22: The institute is frozen out from publicly funded research grants and excluded from science publications, and then criticized for its lack of "serious" research in peer-reviewed journals.

So Discovery fellows have followed the lead of an unlikely role model who also drew heat for publishing his findings in a book rather than scientific journals.

"They criticized Charles Darwin for the same thing," Chapman said.

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