Seattle's Discovery Institute scrambling to rebound after intelligent-design ruling

When a federal judge stopped intelligent design from being taught in a Pennsylvania school district in December, the concept's chief advocates issued a quick and pointed response.

U.S. District Judge John Jones was an activist judge whose opinion shows he's misinformed and biased, said officials at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that promotes intelligent design as a challenge to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

The only comfort they found in the stinging rebuke was that the ruling would carry no weight beyond Dover, Pa.

They were right in that, without an appeal to higher court, the case sets no legal standard beyond the central Pennsylvania region where Jones' court has jurisdiction. But nearly five months after the ruling, the Discovery Institute is fighting to control fallout from the decision.

"Dover is a disaster in a sense, as a public-relations matter," said Bruce Chapman, a former Seattle city councilman and founder of the Discovery Institute, the country's primary supporter of intelligent design. "It has given a rhetorical weapon to the Darwinists to say a judge has settled this," he said.

Even some critics of evolution have taken the ruling as a sign that the fight to bring intelligent design into public schools may be over.

Intelligent design argues that life is so biologically complex, there must be some kind of supernatural designer involved. The concept, however, leaves the designer unnamed.

Chapman said the ruling, which equated intelligent design with biblically based creationism, has been misread by opponents and backers of intelligent design.

"We have problems on both sides," he said. "There is no doubt that many conservatives and liberals alike — if they have not studied the matter — mix up the science issue with religion."

Already, he said, an effort in Ohio to include intelligent design in school curricula failed when some state school-board members said the Dover case settled the issue.

Leading conservative commentators — including talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh and syndicated columnist Cal Thomas — say the judge's decision shows that intelligent design is a failed strategy in the effort to bring religion into the public schools.

"Let's make no mistake," Limbaugh said on his radio show. "The people pushing intelligent design believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is a way, I think, to sneak it into the curriculum and make it less offensive to the liberals."

Still, the publicity hasn't been all bad, said Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, which produces studies and reports about intelligent design.

"The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] sued to keep a few students in Pennsylvania from hearing about intelligent design, and as a result, they made sure everyone in the world heard about it," Meyer said. "And that has not hurt us."

But there is a lesson in Dover, where Chapman and Meyer said the School Board hijacked intelligent-design terminology for its attempt to bring religion into school. Chapman said Discovery told the board not to attempt to teach intelligent design. Instead, he said, the institute advocates that schools only "teach the controversy" surrounding evolution.

"We're mostly trying to stop people from doing dumb things," Meyer said.

To that end, the institute this month published "Traipsing Into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Decision," a book critiquing Jones' decision in the Dover Area School District case.

"Our role was widely misconstrued by both sides — and the media," Chapman said. "So we want to set the record straight."

Creationism versus intelligent design

Intelligent design argues that evolution leaves major gaps in understanding the origins of life, gaps that can only be explained by the presence of a supernatural designer.

Discovery Institute scientists say, for example, that the genetic code embedded in DNA is so complicated it couldn't possibly be the result of natural selection.

Creationists believe God made the universe and all life within it. The Discovery Institute says intelligent design is different in that it uses science to argue that some kind of unidentified designer must have been at work.

"Although I find it congenial to think that it's God, others might prefer to think it's an alien — or who knows? An angel, or some satanic force, some new age power," Michael Behe, a leading Discovery fellow, said in a British newspaper last year.

The ACLU teamed up with locals in Dover to sue the School Board for teaching intelligent design, which they said violated the separation of church and state.

After a six-week trial, Jones concluded the "overwhelming evidence" showed intelligent design "is a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism." He added that there was no real science to back up the concept.

Even some Christian critics of evolution didn't like what they heard about intelligent design.

Paul Chesser, an editor at a North Carolina free market think tank, the John Locke Foundation, calls intelligent design a "diluted account of Creation." He wonders why it left out God.

"Why do Christians wage combat over taking Christ out of Christmas but employ weak dodge-and-parry tactics when educating their kids about life's beginnings?" Chesser wrote in a column headlined "Cowering Christians."

Columnist Thomas, a former spokesman for the conservative Christian political group Moral Majority, said the court decision shows that academic debates, lawsuits and alternate explanations are not the way to fight the secularization of the United States.

"It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs," Thomas wrote.

Hugh Ross, president of Reasons to Believe, a group that says it provides "Bible-based and scientifically testable evidence to support the accuracy of the Scriptures," considers himself a Discovery Institute ally. His California foundation promotes old-earth creation concept. Ross believes the universe started billions of years ago with the big bang, as many cosmologists theorize, but said God intervened throughout history to create all life on Earth.

Ross said the Discovery Institute is hampered by its attempt to walk a middle ground between evolution and creationism. By doing that, he said, "you make theology weak and you make science weak."

His advice: Acknowledge that God is the designer. "We're just saying, 'You guys need to go a lot farther than you're going. You've got to quit ducking the issue.' "

Seeking middle ground

Chapman said his interest in academic freedom led him to expand the Discovery Institute's mandate in 1996 from transportation, technology and education to include a challenge to evolution.

He was bothered that teachers were reluctant to discuss intelligent design in public schools and that university researchers weren't encouraged to study it.

And while he promotes intelligent design with fervor, he said he wants to build a dispassionate middle ground in the debate between creationism and evolution.

"It's a very narrow path," said Brian Ogilvie, who teaches the history of science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is writing a book on the history of various intelligent-design arguments.

When intelligent-design proponents speak to Christian audiences, "there's no question about who the designer is," Ogilvie said. "They've adopted the strategy of saying one thing to the faithful and another one to the scientific community."

Discovery Institute funders, including the Maclellan Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn., have open religious agendas. Another donor, the Stewardship Foundation of Tacoma, says it "provides resources to Christ-centered organizations whose mission is to share their faith in Jesus Christ." Its founder, the late David Weyerhaeuser, was also interested in science, Meyer said.

Leading Discovery Institute fellows also are clear they think God is the designer.

Chapman said he asked Discovery fellows not to testify in the Dover case. But Scott Minnich, a microbiologist, and Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor, did and were asked in court who they thought the designer was.

"The designer is in fact God," Behe testified.

Minnich, said he thought the intelligent agent is the God of Christianity. He added that was his "personal opinion, but that's not based on a scientific conclusion."

William Dembski, a leading Discovery Institute fellow, has written that intelligent design "opens the path for people to come to Christ."

Chapman said the scientists were discussing their personal religious beliefs, which shouldn't be confused with the Discovery Institute's conclusions based on scientific evidence.

That distinction can be hard for people to understand.

"You can be so nuanced people lose the point," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a public-interest law firm that represented Dover school-board members against the ACLU.

"They can't understand what you're doing and why you're saying what you're saying, and that might be the problem with the Discovery Institute," Thompson said.

Critiquing the judge

The Discovery Institute's new book is 123 pages of critique and references aimed at disputing Jones' decision.

At the heart of the criticism is the institute's position that Jones blindly accepted Darwin's theory while ignoring what it says is scientific evidence of intelligent design.

Chapman said that to criticize intelligent design because some of its promoters are religious is unfair, given that atheism among "Darwinists" goes unmentioned.

He said the judge tried to cripple debate over evolution and make it appear there was a "diabolical plot" to undermine the Constitution.

Chapman explains Jones' logic this way: Criticizing Darwin's theory amounts to intelligent design in disguise. And because intelligent design is a way to sneak creationism — and therefore religion — into schools, that criticism isn't allowed.

Jones, in his decision, anticipated the critique from intelligent-design supporters.

"Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge," he wrote. "If so they have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or

Hear the debate

Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and Peter Ward, a paleontologist and professor at the University of Washington, will debate intelligent design and evolution today at Town Hall, Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street. Seattle Times reporter David Postman will moderate the discussion. It's at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $5 at the door.