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Intelligent design has local roots

By Betsy Mason, Contra Costa Times, January 29, 2006

In the battle over teaching intelligent design in public schools, the national spotlight has been on the front lines far from California in places such as Kansas and Pennsylvania. But key soldiers on both sides of the fight live in the Bay Area.

UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson is regarded as the father of intelligent design. He became interested in evolution in 1987 when he came across books on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Though the theory had been embraced by the scientific community, Johnson was convinced that evolution simply couldn't explain how all life came to be.

Johnson has stepped back from the main fray in recent years, but his ideas and strategies still guide the movement. He proposed taking God and the Bible out of the debate and rephrasing the argument in a way that could gain traction in academic circles.

On the other side, the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit organization with around 4,000 members and an annual budget of $600,000, tracks evolution battlegrounds and assists in legal battles to keep intelligent design out of science classrooms.

The center's work on a case in Dover, Pa., that drew national attention helped lead a judge to conclude that intelligent design was essentially creationism in disguise.

The case stemmed from a school district's requirement that teachers read a statement in biology class about gaps in evolutionary theory and point students to the pro-intelligent design text, "Of Pandas and People."

The book's history, uncovered by members of the Oakland center, proved critical to the outcome of the case. While combing through the center's archives, staff member Nicholas Matzke noticed a 1987 advertisement for "Of Pandas and People" that referred to the upcoming book as a creation and evolution text.

So lawyers subpoenaed early drafts of the book. The first version was called "Creation Biology," and drafts up until 1987 were full of references to creationism. But the wording changed after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 struck down a Louisiana law banning the teaching of evolution. References to creationism in the Pandas drafts after 1987 had been almost entirely replaced by intelligent design.

"Once we figured that out, it was really a slam dunk," Matzke said. "How much clearer could the evidence be?"

"It was the single most powerful piece of evidence that we had in the case," said plaintiff lawyer Stephen Harvey.

Interestingly, Johnson, the father of intelligent design, disagreed with the Dover school board's mandate to include his theories. "It's premature," he said. "The issue should get started in the universities before it goes down into the high schools."

But even without Johnson on board, the defendants' strategy to separate intelligent design from creationism and frame it as a scientific theory is directly out of Johnson's playbook.

Johnson has been on a two-decade campaign. His 1991 book "Darwin on Trial" attempts to refute evolutionary theory and is considered one of the intelligent design movement's seminal works.

"His work inspired a lot of people," said Casey Luskin of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, whose Center for Science and Culture is a major driving force behind the intelligent design movement today.

It's not just his work, it's also his tactics that guide the movement.

"He's one of the first guys to think about the issue strategically," said Dennis Wagner, executive director of the intelligent design group Access Research Network. "He said, 'If you're going to win the battle in the public square, this is how it's got to be framed.'"

It's likely that backers of intelligent design and members of the Oakland center will face off again over what should be taught in public school science classrooms.

For the center's executive director, Eugenie Scott, a vocal defender of evolution who some consider the scientific community's point person in the debate, the issue is simple.

"Advocating religion in the public schools is unconstitutional," Scott said.

In the Oakland center, staff members track evolution battlegrounds on a U.S. map that is well peppered with multicolored thumb tacks. The bulk of the tacks pierce eastern states, but the West is not bereft of perforations. California has a dozen tacks, some close to home. There are lawsuits in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville and against the University of California and the NCSE itself.

But it is the tack representing Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District that dominated the attention of the center for most of 2005.

For the trial, the NCSE assembled expert witnesses, including evolutionary biologist Kevin Padian of UC Berkeley, who is also the president of the center's board. Padian's research refutes a central idea of intelligent design -- that some creatures appeared on earth fully formed, rather than evolving slowly over generations.

He testified about how scientists work, how research gets published in peer-reviewed journals, what it takes for the research to be broadly accepted, and how intelligent design doesn't meet these standards.

"Intelligent design is a false controversy because it is purveyed as science, but it has absolutely no standing as science," Padian said. "About the worst thing a teacher can do is stir up false controversies in the name of critical thinking."

But Johnson felt the judge's decision went beyond the issue before him. "He jumped into the philosophical and scientific controversy and became an advocate for the Darwinist side," he said. "I don't think that this is the kind of issue for a federal judge to decide."

The Dover decision is a major blow to intelligent design backers, but it won't be the final word. "We will continue to do our best to bring the question of what is true to the fore," Johnson said.

The first hint of a new strategy may already be cropping up in California. In the rural Central Valley town of Lebec intelligent design was being taught in a high school philosophy class. Parents sued earlier this month and the school board pulled the class. Johnson and Wagner think social studies class is a good home for intelligent design in the near term.

"I think that's the place to start the dialogue," said Wagner. "I hope we can find a way to frame the issue so that everybody is comfortable talking about it."

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