Stakes were high Monday at a meeting of an Ohio Board of Education panel. Up for discussion: whether high school biology students should be told about potential problems with Darwinism and evidence that life on Earth was planned.
About 1,500 parents, teachers and students showed up for the meeting, which was moved to an auditorium to accommodate the crowd. They listened to the pros and cons of a concept known as intelligent design, which said there's evidence that some form of intelligence purposely designed nature.
The board must revamp the state science curriculum by December, and some Ohioans want it to include intelligent design alongside Darwin's theory of evolution in curriculum guidelines for statewide testing.
Stephen Meyer of Seattle's Discovery Institute, the leading intelligent design think tank, told the board that rather than make intelligent design part of the curriculum it should merely encourage teachers to cover the disagreements about Darwinism.
"We just want the discussion opened up, because we feel the evidence is running strongly in our favor," Meyer said after the hearing.
Whatever the board decides, the Ohio discussion has brought new attention to the fledgling intelligent design movement, a small academic faction that flexes considerable brainpower.
Proponents say evolution is typically taught to mean life emerged on Earth spontaneously, and that only undirected natural selection produced the varied life forms. But, they contend, the best evidence indicates that scenario is fantastically unlikely.
Intelligent design arguments touch on everything from the fine-tuned structure of the universe described by modern physics to the information encoded in DNA to make their point.
But Lawrence Krauss, physics chairman at Case Western Reserve University, told the board "intelligent design isn't science."
Another opponent, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, warns intelligent design would bring religion into biology classes, even though advocates scrupulously avoid naming the intelligence they see behind the universe.
"Look, it's God, not a little green man," Scott said. "We know that."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press signaled intelligent design's growing importance in January, issuing an 805-page anthology titled "Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics."
That book title depicts intelligent design as a variant of creationism, which reads Genesis literally and said the Earth was formed thousands of years ago (rather than billions), all species appeared immediately and a flood engulfed the globe.
Yet intelligent design actually insists on none of that. And while creationists are mostly conservative Protestants, intelligent design theorists come from a wider range of faiths and some are nonreligious.
One is Lehigh University microbiologist Michael J. Behe. His "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution" (1996) examines intricate processes such as blood clotting and the motion of the bacterial flagellum.
Darwinism cannot explain such things, he argues, because interrelated parts that are useless by themselves must appear and function together. He calls this "irreducible complexity."
Like Behe, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller is a churchgoing Roman Catholic who believes in "a reality that transcends the material."
But Miller, who testified Monday, also is a Darwinist who calls Behe's approach "factually wrong" because supposedly useless "bits and pieces" of biology can have other uses. Intelligent design is a collection of "half-truths that don't amount to a coherent theory," Miller said.
Miller also raises a theological objection. If God purposely designed 30 horse species that later disappeared, he asserts, then God's primary attribute is incompetence.
"He can't make it right the first time. I don't think the Almighty works that way," he said.