COLUMBUS, Ohio, Feb. 4 The latest challenge to evolution's primacy in the nation's classrooms the theory of intelligent design, not the old foe creationism will get a full- scale hearing next month before Ohio Board of Education members, who are in a heated debate over whether established science censors other views about the origins of life.
"It's a stacked deck," said Deborah Owens-Fink, a state school board member and an outspoken supporter of the intelligent design movement.
Supporters of this theory acknowledge that the earth is billions of years old, not thousands, as a literal reading of the Bible suggests. They also accept that organisms change over time, according to commonly held principles of evolution. But they dispute the idea that the astounding complexity of the earth's plants and animals could have just happened through natural selection, the force that Darwin suggested drives evolution. An intelligent designer perhaps the God of Genesis, perhaps someone or something else had to get the ball rolling, they contend.
"This is not a fringe movement," said Ms. Owens-Fink, a marketing professor at the University of Akron. "I find it intellectually intriguing."
She spoke as a member of a state school board subcommittee with a five-member majority that favors inserting intelligent design alongside evolution in the state's new teaching standards. Such an order would overrule a draft proposal by a 45-member advisory panel of science teachers. If the full 18-member state board upholds it, it would be the first major victory for the intelligent design movement, which has gained attention in recent years as creationists suffered setbacks in court.
Critics say it would make Ohio a laughingstock to rival Kansas, where school board members voted in 1999 to delete evolution from the state's recommended science curriculum and standardized tests. The board was eventually turned out by voters and evolution was restored.
Opponents of intelligent design view it as a sophisticated variation on the decades-old effort to force theism into the public schools.
"It's a shrouded way of bringing religion into the schools," said Martha W. Wise, a state board member who is the lone opponent of intelligent design on the standards subcommittee. "Personally I'm creationist: I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth," said Ms. Wise, a retired business executive. She emphasized, however, that her belief had no place in a science lesson. "I think intelligent design is a theology, and it belongs in another curriculum."
The board's science standards subcommittee has scheduled a hearing next month for a debate on intelligent design. Its proponents insist that eons of evolutionary fact should not be dismissed, but simply supplemented with what they call origins science, defined as the study of intelligent causes that are empirically detectable in nature.
"There would be a major revolt in Ohio if that were accepted," said Lynn E. Elfner, a member of the board's science advisory panel and chief executive of the Ohio Academy of Science, a nonprofit professional organization of 1,500 members.
Mr. Elfner said intelligent design was a political movement dressed in scientific jargon presenting "the old seductive argument" of being fair to both sides. "But it doesn't play well in science if the other side is not a science," he said.
The subcommittee majority's favorable view toward the movement was made clear last month at a meeting in which it gave John H. Calvert, a Kansas City lawyer who is co-founder of the Intelligent Design Network, 30 minutes to speak without giving evolution supporters an opportunity for rebuttal.
Mr. Calvert called on Ohio to establish "a level playing field" by having science teachers suggest in classes that "a mind or some form of intelligence is necessary to produce life and its diversity." Evolutionary science is elitist and unfairly "inhibits theism," he said.
Board members met here this week to hear a detailed briefing from Dr. David L. Haury, associate professor of science education at Ohio State University. Dr. Haury told them that a theory, by definition, was one of the strongest statements science can make something rigorously tested across years of experiment and peer review. While many scientists "admit to a greater reality" beyond their discipline, this hardly undermines evolution, he said.
"Science has no statement to make beyond the natural world," Dr. Haury said. "Intelligent design is about how things got started. Evolution is about how they change across time."
Board members firmly disagreed with him that the distinction was critical. "Well-credentialed scientists think it should be part of the debate," Mike Cochran, a member and lawyer, said of intelligent design.
Supporters of intelligent design claim the support of various academics and scientists, including Dr. Michael J. Behe, a biology professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who set out the theory in his book "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution." He argued that various biochemical structures in cells could not have been built step by Darwinian step.
But critics say that testing, not credentials, must ultimately verify any scientist's new claim.
"Intelligent design is a repackaging of the antievolution movement to try to withstand court challenges by avoiding the C-word," said Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which promotes the teaching of evolution.
Dr. Scott said that some scientists may have interesting antievolution theses still to be tested and proved but in the meantime they should not be used to force quasi-religious theories on science students. "Intelligent design is distinctly not ready for prime time," she said.
File Date: 02.11.02