WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- A relatively new movement called intelligent design, which claims there is scientific evidence casting doubt on the theory of evolution, has succeeded in attracting attention to its views in recent years. But scientists and other groups insist the movement's tenants are not legitimate, and they are concerned its proponents harbor insidious intentions: imposing religious views on the origin of life on public school students and, ultimately, discrediting the scientific method.
In just a few years since its inception, proponents of ID, as it is called, have persuading a number of federal legislators, local school board members in various states and even textbook publishers to accept what they argue are weaknesses in evolutionary theory. The movement, led largely by the Center for Science and Culture -- part of the Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle -- currently operates at the forefront of debates over teaching evolution in Texas, New Mexico, Michigan and California.
ID asserts the complexity of living things, particularly at the molecular level, suggest design by an intelligent cause rather than the result of eons of natural evolution. ID proponents insist, however, their views are not based on any particular religion. They take no strong position on the identity of the so-called intelligent designer -- it could be God or an ancient alien civilization, ID proponents have said.
Marshall Berman, a now-retired physicist who spent 32 years at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, worries scientists and school boards across the country are underestimating the intentions of ID advocates. Berman, a past president of the New Mexico Academy of Science, urges both to do more to ensure that what he calls ID's inaccurate views are not introduced into school curriculums.
Berman worked recently to help thwart ID proponents' attempts to persuade the New Mexico Board of Education to include their ideas about the weakness of evolutionary theory in the state's educational standards. The board voted in late August not to include the ID proposals in the standards, but Berman, a former vice president of the board, said the action provided little comfort.
"This is just another battle in a very big war to stop the attack on science and society mounted by the intelligent design people at the Discovery Institute and their associates in several states," Berman told United Press International.
The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture currently is leading another effort in Texas that could have repercussions across the nation. The Texas Board of Education will vote on the state's requirements for textbooks in November and Berman is concerned some of the board members will vote to include the CSC's views on the weaknesses of evolutionary theory -- a decision that could impact education in other states because many textbook publishers base their books on Texas's standards.
Since its creation in 1996, CSC has become one of the largest and best-funded anti-evolution groups. In recent years, the center has spearheaded efforts in Kansas and Ohio to weaken the teaching of evolution -- although in 1999 it succeeded in persuading the Kansas school board to drop the teaching of evolution from its educational standards, this was later overturned.
"It's crazy but it's happening and people who underestimate the threats of (ID proponents) don't understand what their target is," Berman said. "Their purpose is to change the nature of society, and evolution is just the beginning," he commented. "This is not a joke, this is not somebody else's problem -- this is something we all need to be concerned about. Scientists, teachers, politicians -- all of us -- need to understand this."
The National Center for Science Education, a staunch defender of teaching evolution, and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, share Berman's concerns.
"The whole anti-evolution movement has really been re-invigorated by intelligent design," said NCSE spokesman Skip Evans.
The prospect of ID proponents instilling their views in areas beyond education is "a legitimate concern," Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told UPI. "It's something a lot of people aren't aware of and I think that's the other danger."
Berman's concerns stem from a document called the "Wedge Strategy," obtained by an anonymous person from the CSC in 1999. The strategy discusses ways to replace evolution with ID and do away with science as it currently exists.
According to the strategy, one of CSC's governing goals is, "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God." As one of its long-term goals, CSC wants "To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life."
The document cites several objectives CSC wants to achieve by 2003 as part of a five-year plan and the Center has met many of them, including influencing school board decisions and pushing their views into Congress and onto television programs. In April, several PBS affiliates in major markets from California to Washington, D.C., began airing "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," a program funded and sold by CSC that explains ID and criticizes evolutionary theory.
John West, associate director of CSC, defended ID as a science and not a religion-based perspective. However, he was unable to cite any current scientific research projects the center has undertaken to provide support for ID's arguments.
West declined to identify who or what the "intelligent designer" proposed by the ID might be, saying ID does not specifically address that question. The ID concept merely asserts there could be ways of detecting signs of intelligent design in living creatures, he said.
As to the Wedge Strategy's reference to replacing the scientific method with a belief in God, West told UPI the document was intended for fundraising and "is not a description of the scientific theory of design. It's a document about the relationship between science and culture."
Pressed on the document's reference to God, he said, "We do think, and make no bones about it ... things like faith are good."
NCSE and Berman countered that although CSC claims it funds scientists conducting research into ID, the organization has not placed a single study in a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal to support its assertions. Indeed, the concept has been rejected by major scientific organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as lacking any real merit or potential to contribute to evolutionary research.
NCSE and Berman also object to ID proponents petitioning school boards and textbook publishers to change how evolution is taught and presented to students.
West insisted there are weaknesses in the evolutionary theory and students would get a better education by learning about them.
This is a red herring approach, scientists respond, because the concept of evolution is not in doubt and evidence supporting it continues to mount. Berman and NCSE said although the goal of teaching weaknesses in evolutionary theory sounds innocent enough, it does not accurately reflect the views of the scientific community. ID's real goal, they maintain, is to open the door to teach creationism or the concept that God created life and humans as described by the Bible.
The Wedge Strategy seems to support such concerns as one of its listed goals is to have "10 states begin to rectify ideological imbalance in their science curricula and include design theory."
NCSE and Berman are concerned CSC has established a pattern of distorting science and politics to suit their views -- in particular in education. Last year, for example, CSC presented to the Ohio Board of Education 44 scientific papers it claimed cast doubt on evolution. However, when NCSE contacted the authors of 34 of the papers, it found nearly half of the authors said CSC's interpretations were inaccurate and they were shocked to learn CSC using their studies in this way.
CSC also issued a news release last year asserting Congress had endorsed schools teaching the "controversy" surrounding evolution when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act. In actuality, an amendment to this effect, which an ID proponent claimed to help craft, was inserted into the Senate bill by Rick Santorum, R-Pa., but that passage was not part of the final act signed into law by President Bush.
CSC said it is pleased with the progress it has made so far in achieving its goals and increasing awareness of ID. "There's a lot of interest among scholars and grad students and people who will be scholars among the next generation and lots of public interest, too," West said.
Berman fears if CSC's goal of replacing evolution with ID is realized it actually could damage scientific research. "I don't see how that could not happen," he said. "ID has no scientific value. None. It simply says 'God did it.' That's OK, but that's not the way you find a cure for West Nile virus or Ebola or AIDS."
For that reason, Berman said he thinks scientists should be doing more to prevent the ID movement from advancing their ideas in textbooks and education. "Scientists have to understand these folks are coming after them and they're coming after the whole nature of science," he said.