Darwin hits back

WE SEATTLEITES are suckers for national media attention, but even the most boosterish among us may admit to qualms about our latest claim on the spotlight: as a mail-order nursery for an attractive yet noxious intellectual weed called Intelligent Design—a supposed scientific alternative to the Godless materialism of evolutionary theory as taught by Charles Darwin and his followers.

Intelligent Design has been rattling around the back alleys of academe for a decade, but it really got going about five years ago when Seattle's Discovery Institute embarked on a well-funded campaign to propagate it: publishing numerous books on the subject by salaried Institute "fellows" and hosting a highly publicized congressional seminar on the subject. The movement's big breakthrough came in April, when, in the wake of the state of Kansas' restoration of Darwin to the curriculum, both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times and ran prominent articles on the Institute's campaign to give anti-evolutionism intellectual credibility.

Intelligent Design drives mainstream scientists crazy because it presents its arguments as scientific, yet it refuses to phrase them in the only way scientists recognize as valid: as assertions subject to disproof. Instead it appeals to emotion and intuition. Given the sheer complexity of the natural world, and living things in particular, proponents say, how can anyone believe that Mind and Will were not required to give shape to Creation?

Today's advocates of this idea have no better evidence to support it than Saint Augustine did in the 5th century, but they do their best to veil this weakness by finding people with reputable scientific credentials to act as spokespersons capable of dazzling a lay audience with myriad conundrums drawn from materialistic science itself. The argument boils down to "I've got a Ph.D. and I believe it, so why shouldn't you?"

The only answer a scientist can give to that argument is: "Having a Ph.D. doesn't prove that what you say is right; in the long run a scientist's credibility depends on just one thing: whether he or she can come up with evidence capable of convincing other scientists. You are not qualified to judge a scientific question if you're not willing to accept scientific rules of what evidence is and then work through the evidence yourself. The opinion of the man in the street doesn't count."

Put that way, the argument sounds distressingly "elitist." And unfortunately, outside the realm of the lab and the scientific journal, the opinion of the man on the street counts for quite a lot. So reputable scientists tend to keep their elitist mouths shut and hope the whole issue will blow over, however much they disapprove of the intellectual shenanigans of the Discovery Institute and its "fellows," funded by millions donated by conservative Christians like the McCallies of Tennessee and the Ahmansons of southern California.

FORTUNATELY, there are other people with money, and some are willing to spend it to counter the covert Christian campaigners of Intelligent Design. Some of the most committed—and monied, for that matter—are also based right here in Discoveryland. On Sept. 24, the Public Broadcast System will kick off a seven-part, 8-hour mega-series bravely titled Evolution, supplemented by simultaneous publication of a companion book by one of America's most respected science writers, a massive educational campaign to supply study materials to schools across the country, and an interactive Web site to tie the whole sprawling project together.

You could pore for hours over the background materials in the Evolution Project's CD-ROM publicity package and still not notice who put up the numerous millions to make it possible. Only in the small print will you learn that the production of the NOVA Science Unit of Boston's WGBH was financed by Clear Blue Sky, the film production arm of Paul Allen's Bellevue-based media conglomerate Vulcan Northwest.

With discretion unwonted in an Allen enterprise, Clear Blue Sky has already made a considerable mark in the independent film scene since its foundation in 1997, having backed Julie Taymor' extravagant film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus starring Anthony Hopkins, John Sayles' Latin American revolutionary drama Men with Guns, and, currently in theaters, the John Turturro/Emily Watson vehicle The Luzhin Defense.

Blue Sky has also funded two recent documentaries by the -Up director Michael Apted, but Evolution is by far its most ambitious educational project yet. If properly designed, programs like this become part of the permanent "lending library" of American education, cycling endlessly on educational cable channels, serving as materials for classroom and distance-learning programs.

Up till now, substantial Allen money has not been directed toward traditional educational goals. With this one project, the Allens deserve a place among the nation's Pews and Annenbergs: families committed to building America by making Americans smarter, better informed, and harder to fool. The Discovery Institute's Darwinian disinformation campaign will still appeal to those looking for pseudoscientific support for their private ideologies. But in persuading a dispassionate public that they've got something more than propaganda to offer, they've now a formidable opponent to contend with.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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