The Plain Dealer February 24, 2002

The Origin of the Human Species


by John Mangels and Scott Stephens

In Tennessee, it was put on trial like a common criminal.

In Kansas, it was shunned like an aging starlet.

But in Ohio, the venerable theory of evolution could face one of its toughest challenges yet: Having to share equal billing in the classroom with an upstart alternative that has popular and political appeal.

The Ohio Board of Education, which sets the curriculum for 1.8 million public school students, is split sharply on whether Ohio should become the first state to teach that a controversial concept called "intelligent design" is as probable an explanation as evolution for how life developed on Earth.

Breaking with the recommendation of their own science advisory, nearly a third of board members believe Ohio's children should be exposed to the concept, which contends that living things must have been "designed" by some purposeful but unknown being because they are too complex to have occurred by chance.

Most mainstream researchers reject intelligent design as unscientific conjecture, and some legal experts warn that it is a cleverly disguised attempt to breach the constitutional firewall between church and state.

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that the God-centered creationism theory of human origin cannot be taught because it is a religious belief. However, some think that intelligent design - which does not mention God although it is backed by fundamentalist Christian groups - could survive the almost-certain court challenges.

A victory in Ohio could be the "wedge" that intelligent design's supporters say they need to gain credibility and momentum in other states.

The quickening vortex of debate is snaring Ohio's executive and legislative branches, as well as its educators. The issue of intelligent design may figure in this year's gubernatorial race, since the state's chief executive appoints eight of the 19 Board of Education members.

And in the legislature, two conservative lawmakers opposed to an evolution-only curriculum have introduced a bill that would give the General Assembly, rather than educators, the final say on what children learn in science class.

While evolution's supporters here brace for Jay Leno jokes and what they see as yet another hurdle in the desperate race to remake Ohio as a progressive, high-tech state, advocates of intelligent design predict exactly the opposite.

They say presenting evolution as a less-than-certain prospect promotes academic freedom and critical thinking, putting Ohio on the cutting edge of education.

As a sign of how times and strategies have changed, those are the identical arguments that Ohio-born lawyer Clarence Darrow used in a steamy Tennessee courtroom in 1925 to defend the teaching of evolution during the infamous "Monkey Trial" of substitute biology teacher John Scopes.

Now, nearly 80 years later, "there's almost a reverse Scopes trial going on here," observes Ohio Board of Education member James Turner of Cincinnati. "I've not heard anybody say we ought to censor the teaching of evolution, [but] I've heard people say we ought to censor even the inference of intelligent design."

The head-on collision between education, politics, religion and science shaping up in Columbus has the same dramatic lure that brought throngs of spectators to tiny Dayton, Tennessee, to watch Darrow spar with William Jennings Bryan so long ago.

"I thought Inherit the Wind was a great movie, but I never thought I'd see it played out in Ohio," says Greater Cleveland Growth Association president Dennis Eckart.

State officials unwittingly gave intelligent-design backers an opening when they decided last year to overhaul the entire pub-lic education system for students in grades K-12.

With the help of expert advisers, the Board of Education is for the first time spelling out exactly what pupils are expected to learn in every subject. Classroom teaching guidelines and the state's new 10th-grade achievement test will mirror the standards.

Local school districts aren't required to follow the state's lead, but their students will have to pass proficiency tests - a powerful incentive for teachers to go along with what the Board of Education decides.

The board approved the English and math portions without incident in December. Up next were the science standards and a chance for educators to remedy what some saw as a woeful lack of teaching about evolution in Ohio schools.

Although the theory that random genetic variation and natural selection drive the development of all living things is a cornerstone of modern biology, backed by a wealth of evidence from fossils to gene scans, evolution barely rates a mention in the current science guidelines.

"Evolution is treated here as if it were not proper conversation in polite company," said a withering review of Ohio's standards by the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas Fordham Foundation in September 2000. "The E-word is avoided and the evolutionary process occupies a near negligible part of an extensive document."

The education think-tank gave Ohio an F, ranking it with perennial bottom-dwellers such as Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia.

The proposed new science standards, prepared with the advice of national and Ohio science groups and written by a panel of volunteers, aimed to fix that omission. The working document the Board of Education received in December was still weak in some areas, but evolution was "well represented" this time around, according to an evaluation by the Ohio Academy of Science.

Not everyone was happy, though. Cleveland chemist Robert Lattimer, an ardent intelligent-design supporter who joined the team writing the new science standards, felt his views were being ignored.

"They were polite and listened, but they voted eight or nine to one against," Lattimer says. The writing team was supposed to be diverse, but ended up being "totally biased" in favor of teaching only evolution, he says.

After complaining to state Department of Education staffers to no avail, Lattimer and others last November organized a group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO) to campaign for giving intelligent design equal time in the classroom.

SEAO members are working closely with John Calvert, co-founder of the Intelligent Design Network, who spoke to the Board of Education's standards committee last month.

Calvert, a Kansas City lawyer, was part of the briefly successful 1999 effort in his home state to have Board of Education members remove evolution from standardized tests. After an election-day purge of anti-evolutionists, the board rescinded the action.

Ohio is in the bull's-eye now. The Board of Education, which hopes to make a decision by December, began discussing the issue last month.

Unlike in Kansas, there appears to be a consensus that evolution should be included in the state's science curriculum. But there is also a group of board members - at this point, a minority - who want an alternative theory as well.

Although the board has not voted on the issue, member Michael Cochran last month proposed ordering the science-standards writing team to prepare a second, alternative draft. The new draft would describe evolution as an assumption and would include intelligent design as another possible scientific explanation of how life developed.

Board members Deborah Owens Fink, James Turner, Richard Baker, Marlene Jennings and Sue Westendorf spoke in favor of Cochran's proposal, though Turner and Owens Fink say they remain undecided.

Before any action though, the board wants to hear from its legal advisers and from experts on both sides of the debate. In the next few weeks, the educators will be briefed by the Ohio attorney general's office and by several evolution and intelligent-design advocates. They will seek public comment later this year.

The argument over what government-run schools should teach children about how life unfolded has festered for most of the last century.

To mainstream scientists, the answer is simple: Lessons should be about the explanation that best fits the available evidence and that can be verified through experiments. The explanation has to come from the natural, physical world, since supernatural forces or beings don't lend themselves to scientific testing.

Hands down, the best explanation for how we got here is evolution, according to most scientists doing work in related fields.

The idea first promoted in 1859 by British naturalist Charles Darwin that living things came from a common ancestor and changed over time is widely accepted within the scientific community. Teaching anything else is confusing, contradictory and a waste of students' time, the theory's supporters believe.

"Evolution tells us what did happen. It's the single most powerful idea any human has ever formulated," says Bruce Latimer, a noted physical anthropologist and director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

But to those Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and its creation story, it is God, not random natural forces, that shapes living things and guides their development. Thus, evolution is an affront to their faith, and its teaching in public schools amounts to a government-endorsed threat to religion and morality.

"If nature reflected the character of its creator, then the God of a Darwinian world acted randomly and cruelly," writes University of Georgia historian Edward Larson in Summer for the Gods, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Scopes trial and its aftermath.

Further, to some Christians, discounting God's role in human creation and chalking up our existence to chance implies that there is no divine oversight - that anything goes. Evolution's critics fear it undermines the values that hold society together.

"I worry that evolution is a springboard to atheism," says Robert Lattimer of SEAO, the group that is leading the intelligent design effort in the state.

SEAO is quick to point out that it does not advocate creationism in the classroom. Intelligent design doesn't take a theological stand.

"It is pointless to try to inject creationist language into state-adopted science standards, since that battle has already been fought and won by the evolutionists," SEAO's literature acknowledges, referring to federal court rulings against teaching God-centered explanations for human origin.

Besides, various Christian groups strongly disagree on the degree and nature of God's involvement in the creation of life. Intelligent design, which emerged as a national movement in the 1990s, tries to avoid these sticky theological and legal controversies by not attempting to define who the intelligence doing the designing of life is.

It could be God, or something or someone else. Everyone's beliefs are accommodated, and science is no longer a direct threat to religion.

"You'll find a few design advocates who don't propose a supernatural designer," Lattimer says. "The majority think the designer is God, of course. But the theory doesn't say that."

SEAO is a project of the American Family Association of Ohio, and its network of supporters includes other conservative Christian organizations such as Eagle Forum and the Christian Home Educators of Ohio.

It's that strong Christian background presence that prompts the critics of intelligent design to label it "stealth creationism," a clever way of skirting the legal restrictions.

"This is dressing creationism in new clothes to sneak it past the courts," says American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio legal director Ray Vasvari. "It's rather clearly to draw students to the brink of that conclusion [that the designer is God] and leave them there. It's a trivial step from where they stop to scientific creationism, which the courts have banned from public classrooms."

"We're not ashamed or apologetic that we hold to Judeo-Christian values," responds American Family Association state director Barry Sheets. But the designer's identity "is outside the realm of education."

"We see this not as a religious issue, but of wanting to make sure students in public schools get the information they need," Sheets says. "We're just asking for there to be a legitimate and balanced look at all of the valid scientific theories" for human origin.

But is intelligent design really science?

It's a crucial question, because the Supreme Court's last ruling against teaching creationism left open the door for schools to offer alternatives to evolution as long as they are "scientific theories" intended to improve science education.

The problem for intelligent design's backers is that scientists, not lay people, determine what science is.

The prevailing, long-standing definition of a scientific theory is one that bases its explanation on processes in the natural world that can be observed, repeatedly tested by experiment, and rejected or accepted based on the ability of other scientists to independently verify the outcome.

Intelligent design can't meet all those criteria, but its proponents insist there are biological "fingerprints" left by a designer, and that they can be scientifically quantified and tested.

For example, Baylor University mathematician William Dembski has developed predictive formulas he says can sift through information and tell the difference between randomness and complex patterns designed by an intelligence. Using this mathematical filter to assess the components of living cells shows they are too complicated to have come about by chance, Dembski contends.

According to intelligent design backers, something that contains a large amount of specialized information, such as the assembly instructions coded in human DNA, doesn't result from chance any more than hieroglyphic carvings are the result of wind or erosion.

The bulk of intelligent design literature, though, focuses on exposing the flaws of evolutionary theory, rather than spelling out a model of how intelligent design accounts for human development.

"It lacks the most basic parts of science: A testable hypothesis you can make measurements on, and data that supports that hypothesis," says Steve Edinger, an Ohio University physiology instructor. "The way intelligent design works ?is to look at part of an animal or plant and say, I don't know how this could have evolved naturally; therefore a supernatural creator must have made it.' "

Anthropologist Eugenie Scott, who directs the National Center for Science Education, puts it this way: "Scientists may be believers or nonbelievers, but when they're in the lab, they stick to natural processes. We can't put God in a test tube."

Intelligent design's advocates say mainstream science's unwillingness to consider their concept amounts to closed-mindedness and censorship. They portray the scientific community as sharply divided over evolution and propose that the definition of science ought to be changed to do away with its arbitrary "natural world" limits.

"We feel that science isn't a search for the natural explanation, but the best explanation," says Mark Edwards of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. "You don't have to accept [intelligent design]. You just have to say there's ?a dissenting opinion. To not tell that is bad education, not science."

The public shouldn't be fooled by such arguments, counters John Staver, director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University and a veteran of that state's brush with anti-evolutionism three years ago. There is no widespread scientific controversy, and no conspiratorial bias.

On evolution, "the scientific community is as unanimous as they are about anything," Staver says. "Nobel Prizes are won by people who overthrow the prevailing theory or make a startlingly new discovery. If the scientific community got the sense there was anything to the intelligent-design argument, you would have scientists by the carload working on this."

Faced with that opposition, intelligent-design advocates have turned to the public and politicians, who are likely to be more sympathetic to pleas for equal time and appeals to fair play. Polls show that most Americans oppose teaching only evolution in the classroom, and that most don't think it is a completely accurate account of how humans developed.

The brilliance of the strategy is that it puts evolution's supporters on the defensive, at least rhetorically. It forces them to advance the unpopular argument that democracy and free speech shouldn't dictate what is taught in the classroom. Without context, statements that God is irrelevant in science don't play well in a country whose motto is "In God We Trust" and a state that extols "With God, all things are possible."

"The equal-time argument is the most popular and successful argument they've had," says anthropologist Scott, whose Oakland, California-based National Center for Science Education tracks intelligent design efforts nationally. "They don't have science, but they have the American sense of fairness."

As members of the Ohio Board of Education are discovering, it takes a hefty understanding of science to even begin to sort through the evolution/intelligent-design debate.

"The problem is, it's difficult to say politely that you can't make the choice until you know a whole lot more than you do," says Mark Wilson, a College of Wooster paleontologist who teaches a course to help students respond to creationist arguments. "That does sound arrogant, and scientists should be concerned about sounding arrogant."

But public skepticism of evolution shouldn't be used to justify teaching unscientific alternatives to it, says Case Western Reserve University physics chairman Lawrence Krauss.

"That a significant number of Americans don't believe in evolution tells us we should do something more to teach science, not less," says Krauss. "We scientists owe it to ourselves to become as evangelical as they [intelligent-design advocates] are."

Wryly noting that chaos is also a theory, board member Joseph Roman of Fairview Park, co-chairman of the standards subcommittee, last month implored his colleagues to listen, ask questions and learn before making a decision.

"We need a common vocabulary," Roman says. "We want to have a couple of sessions to educate ourselves and make sure we're as informed as possible. We want to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard."

One person who does not want to be heard is Governor Bob Taft. He says he has no intention of being dragged into the debate.

"I'll leave that to the Board of Education and to the educational experts," he says.

But Taft's Democratic challenger, former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, pledged that he would make sure a board candidate had a firm commitment to teaching evolution before appointing that person to fill a vacancy.

"This is not Kansas. This is Ohio," Hagan says. "The debate doesn't surprise me because there is a faction in Ohio that would like to impose its theological views on the rest of the state. But honorable people who believe in theology, as I do, can and should make the distinction between science and religion."

The task of making that distinction could land with the Ohio legislature. At least that's State Senator Jim Jordan's intention.

The Urbana Republican is the sponsor of one of two bills that would require the legislature to approve whatever science standards the board develops.

Jordan says he is using the same strategy he used in 1998 to nix a sex-education program he and many of his constituents found offensive. In that case, the state was forced to give back nearly $1 million in federal health education money because parent groups were afraid the money would be used to teach children about condoms and masturbation.

"We've done it before," notes Jordan, who says he favors teaching alternative theories along with evolution. "We think it's appropriate to look at this stuff, especially when value judgments are being made."

Others view legislative involvement as the worst-case scenario. Roman says he fears that the focus on evolution - a minute portion of a 100-plus-page draft - will divert attention from establishing science standards that will prepare Ohio students for the new century.

"Instead of beginning a debate on exciting science standards, we're focusing on one small piece," Roman says. "That, to me, is the tragedy of what's going on."


© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

File Date: 03.03.02