Despite Criticism, 'Intelligent Design' Finds Powerful Backers

Seattle Group Works to Create National Debate Where Scientists Say None Exists

Aug. 10, 2005 —

At its office in downtown Seattle, the Discovery Institute is pursuing a revolutionary mission: to convince ordinary Americans, opinion leaders and schools to consider an alternative to evolution that its advocates call "intelligent design."

The think tank is promoting an idea that all of the nation's top biologists say has no scientific basis. But the institute insists there's a raging debate among scientists on both sides of the evolutionary divide.

"When we find information embedded in DNA, in living cells, we think that we are looking at strong evidence for a prior intelligent source," says the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer. "The theory of intelligent design is that the appearance of intelligence is evidence of real design."

An Old Debate?

Though it seems like a new debate about evolution, Ronald Numbers, chair of the Department of the History of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, describes it as more of a sophisticated attempt by the Discovery Institute to reignite an argument settled during the 19th century.

"What they're really after is to bring the supernatural back into science itself," said Numbers, "So that the authority of science in the classroom stands behind this claim that evidence of an intelligent designer has been discovered through scientific means."

The idea of intelligent design itself evolved largely through a skillful marketing campaign that has promoted the concept of a controversy many scientists insist does not exist. In "Nightline's" own survey of the country's top 10 biology departments, the verdict was unanimous -- of the nine department chairmen who responded, all insisted no scientific evidence supports the concept of intelligent design.

'Teach the Controversy'

But in opinion articles, books and high-gloss video productions alike, the Discovery Institute has suggested that scientists are, in fact, engaged in a raging debate.

"They've really in many ways won the public relations battle with a brilliant slogan," says Lawrence Krauss, director of the Center for Education and Research in Astrophysics at Case Western University. "It implies there is a controversy when in fact in science, there's no controversy.

The intelligent design strategy itself dates back to a Supreme Court decision in 1987 that banned the teaching of creationism in public schools because it violated the separation of church and state. In the aftermath of that ruling, a Discovery Institute report proposed a goal of defeating "scientific materialism" and replacing it with the "understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

Political Boost and Growing Momentum

Last week, President Bush spoke out in support of schools combining traditional evolution lessons with discussions of intelligent design. "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes," Bush said.

And four years ago, the intelligent design movement got a major political boost when Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., pushed for language in federal law asking public schools to teach criticism of evolution.

Though that language never made it into the law, the Discovery Institute used the momentum to actively encourage school districts to turn a critical eye on evolution. In 2002, it helped persuade Ohio to change its curriculum so teachers could present criticism of evolution in science classes and in May of this year, Discovery officials helped convince the Kansas state school board to do the same thing.

Now, some school boards are pushing beyond the Discovery strategy. Earlier this year, the school board in Dover, Pa., was sued for violating the separation of church and state after mandating a textbook teaching intelligent design.

Today, the Kansas Board of Education tentatively approved new standards for science education, which would encourage teachers to discuss different views on evolution. A final vote on the new standards is expected in the fall.