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Move over, Darwin.
Most Ohioans think the long-standing scientific theory that life evolved by natural processes - a mainstay of high school lessons for decades - ought to share classroom space with an upstart concept that a supernatural designer guided human development.
A clear majority of the state's residents - 59 percent - favor teaching evolution in tandem with intelligent design in public-school science classes, according to a statewide Plain Dealer Ohio Poll.
The State Board of Education is struggling with the issue of what students should learn about human origins as part of its effort to revamp Ohio's much-criticized science curriculum, which educators have blasted for side-stepping the question of how life evolved.
If board members follow Ohioans' wishes, the state would be the first in the nation to put intelligent design in its curriculum.
Evolution supporters, including most scientists, deride the intelligent design idea as pseudo-science or stealth creationism, an attempt to skirt the constitutional ban on mingling religion with public education.
But most Ohioans aren't buying that argument. While they are not terribly familiar with what intelligent design entails, and they aren't heavily involved so far in the debate, the idea of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution appeals to their sense of fair play, the poll found.
"People tend to favor a compromise out of a notion of civility and tolerance," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and a specialist in the interaction of religion and politics. "Most Ohioans are willing to give both sides of the argument the benefit of the doubt."
Nancy Coleman is one. "I believe everyone needs to know about evolution - that's a given," said the banquet-catering director from Columbus, one of 1,507 poll participants. "But there is another side. There are so many of us that do believe [in a creative or guiding force]. And why leave out half? Kids are smart enough to decide what they believe."
While intelligent-design advocates insist the concept has no religious overtones, Ohioans aren't buying that, either. Two-thirds of the poll respondents believe the unspecified "designer" in intelligent design really is God. In fact, that's part of the attraction. The idea that life came about because of a purposeful being or force strikes a chord with Ohio's deeply religious populace, at least 68 percent of whom believe God created the universe.
"People underestimate what a traditional state Ohio is," said Deborah Owens-Fink, a member of the state board who favors teaching both evolution and intelligent design.
Nearly a third of Ohioans describe themselves as "young-Earth creationists" - believers in the Genesis account that God formed the cosmos and all life in six days, less than 10,000 years ago. Such a view, which pollsters say is held by roughly equal percentages of people in most other states, conflicts with widely accepted basic scientific tenets like evolution, the immense age of rocks, the fossil record and the measurement of light from distant stars indicating an ancient universe.
These most fundamental of Protestant Christians still found common ground with people of virtually every other faith and intensity of belief. All of those groups support the idea that Ohio schoolchildren should learn about the prospect of an unnamed, unidentified architect of life, the poll found.
"Most people in Ohio go to church, practice religion and believe in God. They don't see this [intelligent design] as some foreign idea planted in people's heads," said Brad Coker, managing director of Washington-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the survey.
But religion wasn't the only common denominator. Support for pairing intelligent design with evolution transcends geography, race, household income and education levels, the poll shows.
Advocates of intelligent design, who see Ohio as a bellwether for the rest of the country and have been waging an intense campaign to sway members of the state education board, were buoyed by the findings.
Believing that they lacked the support for requiring the teaching of intelligent design, the supporters earlier had suggested a compromise: Teachers would have to instruct students about the scientific evidence for and against evolution, but there would be no state mandate that such instruction specifically include intelligent design.
"The people of Ohio evidently think they should teach both," said Bruce Chapman, president of Seattle's Discovery Institute, the leading national proponent of intelligent design. Given what he described as a lack of publicity about the movement, "this is a particularly fine outcome."
Champions of evolution, the theory put forth by naturalist Charles Darwin nearly 150 years ago and bolstered by a wealth of data since, found some small comfort in a few of the poll's findings.
For example, while Ohioans want to give evolution some competition in the classroom, they think the theory is basically sound; 59 percent say it is a somewhat or completely valid account of how humans developed. Kansas, by contrast, briefly dumped evolution from its science curriculum in 1999.
But for the most part, evolutionists found little to like in the survey's results.
"This tells me that science education has a long way to go," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif., organization that defends the teaching of evolution.
Scott credited intelligent-design backers' strategy of packaging the concept in Ohio and elsewhere "as an equity issue as opposed to a science and religion issue."
"The scientific community is definitely on the defensive," she said. "We need to get more information to citizens about what intelligent design is. It's important to recognize the essential unfairness" of the intelligent-design position - unfair because it uses political appeals to get around its scientific failings and because it promotes only a sectarian Christian view of creation, Scott said.
Patricia Princehouse, a board member of the pro-evolution group Ohio Citizens for Science, said people "need to ask themselves if they really want science teachers giving their children religious propaganda disguised as science."
While evolution supporters have painted intelligent design as creationism disguising itself to clear legal hurdles, most Ohioans disagree. Asked if intelligent design is just a way to slip religion into schools, 56 percent answered no.
Yet the counter-argument from intelligent-design backers - that teaching evolution leaves no room for God and is tantamount to promoting state-supported atheism - didn't have support either. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents disagreed with the suggestion that teaching evolution is an attempt to remove God from society.
Although the majority of Ohioans don't see hidden agendas behind either movement, they do have fairly strong feelings about who should determine what their children are taught about human origins and where they should receive that instruction.
More than half of the respondents identified parents as most competent to make that decision, followed by scientists and science teachers, religious leaders and school boards - preferably their local school board rather than the state Board of Education.
"I'll bet that if you asked who's competent to teach about cell division or the origin of the Himalayan Mountains, people would say teachers and not parents," Scott said. "And yet if you're talking about this existential question of human origin, people don't recognize this as a scientific topic."
People aren't totally comfortable with challenging evolution in the science classroom. Given a choice, the poll found, Ohioans would rather have their children presented with beliefs that differ from evolution in their homes, in religious settings or in a class other than science.
That opinion is seemingly at odds with the notion that evolution and intelligent design belong together in science class. But what appears to be a contradiction could simply be a matter of making the best of a less-than-ideal situation, said Green, the political scientist. He likened it to the prospect of a teenage son or daughter buying a car: Ideally, you might not want them to have any vehicle. But if they are going to have car, it may as well be a safe one.
"It may be that a lot of people would just as soon these issues be raised at home or at church, but that given the controversy, the compromise [to teach both] makes sense," Green said. "In a practical sense, it's the second-best option."
Ohioans are not especially worried that their bargain will hurt the state. About three of every four respondents said including intelligent design in the curriculum would have either a positive effect or no effect on the state's reputation or its ability to attract new business.
In fact, many believed the inclusion would actually enhance the quality of instruction and the public's confidence in schools.
"It would show Ohio has a willingness to be progressive on this issue and do something that people want," said Robert Lattimer, an ardent intelligent design supporter who organized a group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans. "It's public education, and the public should be involved in what's taught in schools."
But former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, the Democrat who is challenging Gov. Bob Taft this November, said adopting intelligent design would place the state "back to the Scopes Monkey Trial' and not moving toward the 21st century."
"There are scientists and engineers and mathematicians across the country we're trying to attract to Ohio," Hagan said. "It undermines the very effort we're trying to do to attract people to this state."
Taft won't disclose his position on the evolution/ID debate, saying it is a matter for the state education board to decide.
While the public appears to strongly endorse adding intelligent design to the curriculum, that could change, political analysts said.
"Support for [intelligent design] might go down when people find out who is pushing it - the white, conservative, evangelical community," said Mason-Dixon's Coker. "Politically, the danger could be that as people learn about and find out about where it's coming from, they might back off."
But time for such a widespread education effort is growing shorter. The state education board plans tomorrow to resume discussing what to teach about the development of life. The team of advisers writing the science curriculum guidelines that the board will vote on in December is wrapping up its work and will submit a final draft by summer's end.
"If we need to educate all of Ohio about all of science in the next three months, there's probably not" enough time, said Princehouse, of Ohio Citizens for Science.
Instead, the evolution supporters, like their intelligent design rivals, will focus on lobbying those who will make the final decision, Princehouse said. "We'll just have to talk to the various board members and help them make the right decision."
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© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Copyright 2002 cleveland.com. All Rights Reserved. File Date: 6.09.02
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