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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Intelligent Design
Intelligent Design

Ever since the great Oxford debate in 1860 between Bishop Wilberforce and the biologist T.H. Huxley, it has been received wisdom among educated people that the Biblical story of the creation cannot be reconciled with the theory of evolution.

It would be like trying to marry flat-earthism with the discoveries of NASA.

But in the United States at least one school board, in Ohio, is considering whether something called Intelligent Design - the idea of a hidden hand behind life - should be integrated into the mainstream science curriculum.

Our religious affairs correspondent, Robert Piggott, was intrigued.

When you mention the word "evolution" in the classroom you get a ground swell of, I'd almost call it hatred.

Darwin's theory says that things are related from natural selection and gene mutation, from common ancestors and we have scientific evidence that challenges that.

Well, if it's not in the Bible then it's not true, because they say you should believe every word the Bible says. So, it wasn't in the Bible, so I don't believe it.

If you say the "E" word and it's just like you're some evil stranger who's walked in their midst wearing the horns of Satan. Today we're going to be talking about fossil evidence for evolution.

Teaching evolution at Hayes High School in Columbus means conflict for Ed Quickert. Many of his pupils come to class convinced that it's a Godless theory that strikes at the heart of their Christian faith. Ed Quickert believes you can't understand science without understanding evolution. But he's under intense pressure to change his mind.

I've had the ministers of some of the students knock on my classroom door and insist that they had the right to come in and teach the students the creation part of it. I've had students' lawyers, their parents have gotten lawyers. I've gotten phone calls at night. One of my colleagues, she said she would pray for my immortal soul because I was going to hell.

The school choir rehearses for a state-wide competition. The school, which specialises in the arts, like pupils to express themselves. This is Take Your Child to Work Day, so many biology students are absent. But those that remain are sceptical.

Well, I don't really believe in evolution, because it means that things would still be evolving. And people said we came from, like, monkeys, and I don't believe that. So I was, like, that couldn't be true. So I don't believe it.

I believe that one of the churches that I went to said that evolution wasn't, like, wasn't Christian, or something. But, so that's, like, how I was brought up. They always said that God made everything.

My grandmother's a Baptist and Baptists believe, like, we just pop into existence and all of that. I'm like, "OK, God made molecules to make this happen." That's what I believe. But they believe we just pop into existence.

Such beliefs are sustaining the latest challenge in America to the teaching of evolution. Christian campaigners fought to get creationism, the Bible's account of God creating Earth in six days, taught in science lessons in Kansas. They failed there and have moved to Ohio with another strategy attacking evolution.

All of these embryos look quite different. The problem is the drawings were faked.

Intelligent design claims only that some sort of intelligent being, not necessarily God, designed life. Jody Sjogren of the intelligent design network argues that living organisms are too perfectly designed to have evolved randomly.

Intelligent design is a theory about origins that says that some aspects of living systems are more likely to be the result of intelligent causes, rather than material processes.

In Ohio stadium, a dramatic enactment of natural selection. The footballers on the scarlet and grey sides are candidates for the Ohio State University First team. Here, too, in one of America's biggest universities the battle over evolution is also being fought. Professor Steve Rissing says new students arrive knowing little about Darwin or evolution. Above all he tells them that evolution does not rule out the existence of God.

A lot of people would like right now to tell you that evolution is this well spring of all of society's problems. You know, it's the well spring of communism and cancer and disease. It's not. Evolution is not atheistic.

Professor Rissing says intelligent design is a religious theory with no place in science lessons. Nevertheless he thinks its backers may well succeed.

Several years ago they were very active in the state of Kansas. They failed ultimately in Kansas to get the state science standards changed. But they learned a lot in the process. And learned how to talk, sounding scientifically with intelligent design. They're very smart, very, very clever and they've learned their lessons in past failures at trying to do this. And they're trying to redefine their beliefs, or redescribe their beliefs in such a way that they can get it through the courts.

Ohio is fertile territory for intelligent design. The state legislature is dominated by politicians of varying degrees of conservatism and there's a significant community of fundamentalist Christians already very sceptical about the theory of evolution. It's a fight intelligent designers seem to have a fair chance of winning.

God has been speaking to America. Ominously.

At Grace Brethren Church, Pastor Jim Custo warns a congregation of almost 2,000 that God could punish America if it backs away from support for Israel. This is Christianity on an industrial scale, a home for the religious right. Militant Christianity vehemently opposed to diluting the Bible story.

The prophesy in Zacharia goes on to say that as God brings all the nations against Jerusalem he will destroy them.

This is a home coming for Jody Sjogren. She attended Grace Brethren Church and met and married her husband here. She's come back to talk about intelligent design.

I've just, kind of, of a conversation with the Lord about this and said, "Well, we moved to Kansas and now back to Ohio, and, Lord, if it's OK with you, the next state this breaks out in I'd like not to move there."

Jody Sjogren claims that the evolution theory is atheist because it traces the first life back to a soup of chemicals on the new-born Earth. She says the fossil records show life was actually created hundreds of millions of years later. The message pleases members of the Church. There would be support for teaching about a super natural creator in science lessons.

What you're doing is looking at scientific information and drawing inferences as to origins. Now, that quickly slips into theology and philosophy. But I don't know why we're so afraid, as scientists, at walking that interface.

Micro evolution has been observed. Macro evolution, where one species changes into another, has never been observed. So, they weren't there at the beginning, yet they get to talk about their theory. Why don't we get to talk about our theory?

The identity of the intelligent designer is carefully left an open question.

Where the evidence has led me is to believe that the Bible and the God of Christianity is the creator.

The intelligent force? The ultimate designer?


But the mainstream churches all say that it's not in conflict with the idea of a creator?

Well, we have some educating to do, don't we?

At Boulevard Presbyterian Church Jerry Schwint and Perrin Peacock rehearse their wedding service. They and their minister, James Sledge, will be targets for re-education.

I'll say, following that, "We than you for the beauty of this day. For the fact that you've created us male and female, with the desire to join together in marriage."

Like most main-stream churches, this one has no problem with evolution and no time for intelligent design.

Basically, they dress up a religious idea in a little bit of scientific clothing and say, "This is an alternative to evolution." I don't see the alternative. Evolution's a scientific process. They have no process to give us, they just want to say "some intelligent being is involved."

Intelligent design has its roots in profound Christian belief, focused on the Bible and prepared to lead America on a Christian crusade in which it expects to prevail.

When you take or teach the controversy appropriate, which is what we're advocating, people want to know, "Well, what's the alternative?" and I think intelligent design theory is increasingly going to make its presence as a legitimate contender.

Even without intelligent design students may, in future, know less of evolution. Teachers are coming under intense pressure from pupils and parents to give this most fundamental of scientific theories a far more minor role in class.

You only have so many people who are willing to fight the fight and it's so much easier to sit back and let it go away.

Do you think that's happening?

I know it's happening. I know it's happening. People don't, they call it something else. They say it is "change over time." They never mention the word "evolution." They teach creation as an alternative simply so you don't make waves. As a teacher you're standing up to your eye brows in water anyway, and if someone makes a wave you drown. What we're going to do today is simulate what scientists do every day if they're trying to investigate evolution of organisms.

At Hayes High School pupils are taught that science only studies things that can be measured. It has no place for debate about supernatural forces.

Use this balance scale and you measure from here to here.

What, each one of them?


Intelligent designers claim evolution is already in the realm of religion. They say they simply want to improve science. They stand accused of seriously undermining it.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

The BBC's Robert Pigott
Changes to teaching evolution in Ohio
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