Survival Of The Fittest

As Randy Olson sees it, scientists need to learn Marketing 101. Without it, he says, support for evolutionary theory may go the way of the Dodo bird.

Olson, a biologist turned filmmaker, says he was driven to make his new documentary, Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, by the challenges to evolution posed by school boards and legislatures in red and blue states alike. The film does not yet have a distributor but will be screened this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. “The basic message is: Why in the world are we allowing the authority of science to be undermined like this?” Olson says. “There is a long-standing tradition of what is called revisionist history, but I don’t think we have ever known revisionist science as we have in the past five years.”

What Olson envisions is a modern communications campaign to counter the theory of intelligent design. Olson pauses, considering the words “revisionist science.” “That ought to be the slogan,” he says.

Intelligent design, often called I.D., argues that life is too complex and perfectly constructed to be explained by the random workings of evolution alone. With slogans, books and films, proponents of I.D. have been winning the communications battle, largely because evolutionists fail to engage them fully, either through fear of legitimizing them or by failing to recognize the threat they pose, according to scientists and communications experts interviewed for this story.

In December, a federal judge in Dover, Pa., ruled that I.D. theory was little more than religion in disguise and could not be taught in a Pennsylvania public school district. Undeterred, 10 states—including New York and Maryland—have introduced bills since January that would require the teaching of criticisms of Darwin’s theory of natural selection or of alternative ideas to evolution, such as I.D., according to the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that defends the teaching of evolution. In November, the Kansas Board of Education voted to require the study of doubts about evolution in science classrooms.

Eugenie Scott, the NCSE’s executive director, says the marketing challenge is a formidable one. “The creationists have an emotional issue,” she says. “They are saving souls by fighting evolution. Charles Darwin did not die for our sins. So, supporting evolution will not rally the troops behind you, because the issue carries no emotional purchase.”

I.D. proponents distance themselves from the term “creationism,” because it associates their effort with religion rather than science. Indeed, language is a key weapon in the debate, and Scott admits her opponents are masters at framing the issue in the media. They may be the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows, but they have brought their point of view squarely into the national consciousness—to the point where it informs plotlines on shows like The West Wing and The Sopranos.

Creationism, driven by a literal interpretation of the Bible, suggesting that God created all life, gathered force in the late 19th century as a direct challenge to Darwin’s theory, based on empirical observation. A key part of the I.D. movement’s success has been its shift of leadership away from Biblical literalists and toward a less religious doctrine in general. Faith does not win legal battles, and I.D. has gained credibility, paradoxically, by associating itself with science.

I.D. posits an “intelligent cause” behind the creation of the universe and of living things, but does not suggest who or what the designer might be. It flatly rejects Darwin’s theory of natural selection but allows for some influence of evolution. The I.D. movement has managed to enlist some scientists to support its theory. Michael Behe, for example, a biochemist at Lehigh University, whose 1996 pro-I.D. book Darwin’s Black Box became a hit, likens the working of cells to that of a mousetrap. Remove any part of the trap, and it will fail. Just as someone had to design the trap, Behe concludes, someone must have designed the cells of living creatures.

In her book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (written with Paul Gross), Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, refers to I.D.’s use of science as the “seduction phenomenon.” She argues, the public, with little knowledge of modern science or biology, is seduced if the evidence presented seems impressive. Rather than science, Forrest writes, I.D. is actually a “serious political strategy.”

To implement its strategy in the ’90s, I.D. turned to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which describes itself as a nonprofit “secular think tank.” The institute continues to drive I.D.’s communications efforts. (To bolster its position ahead of the Dover trial last year, it hired Alexandria, Va.-based Creative Response Concepts, the PR firm that created the anti-Kerry ad “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” during the 2004 presidential race.)

The Discovery Institute created I.D.’s initial strategy document, known as “The Wedge,” which was leaked to the Web in 1999. “The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which civilization was built,” the document states. If “predominant materialistic science” can be seen metaphorically as a tree, the manifesto states, “our strategy is intended to function as a wedge that … can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.” The 20-year-goal: “to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.”

Robert Crowther, a representative for the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, says the document’s creation was an obvious step. “I don’t think the Wedge document as a communications strategy is radically surprising,” he says. “This is something people do. You have an idea, issue or product, and you set up a plan for how you are going to disseminate that.”

I.D. also has a catchy slogan, “Teach the controversy.” Crowther says it means students should study evolution but also study theories that challenge it. And President Bush, for one, agrees. “Both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about,” he said in August.

Scott at the NCSE outlines I.D.’s three basic messaging strategies: It advances the idea that “evolution is bad science” and that “evolution is incompatible with faith, so you have to choose a side,” she says. But it is the third message, what Scott calls the “fairness issue,” that is most difficult to counter—that is, I.D.’s seemingly objective goal of simply having both sides of the debate represented. This stance aligns with a basic tenet of liberal education, which demands that both sides of an issue be taught to foster critical thinking, says Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at Ohio State University. In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review last fall, Nisbet and Chris Mooney argued that journalists are inclined to be swayed by the fairness issue and are prone to present evolution and I.D. as an equal battle between two scientific theories. This does readers a disservice, the authors say.

Southeastern’s Forrest sums up I.D.’s strategy this way in her book: “The Discovery Institute’s creationists are younger and better educated. … Their public-relations tricks are up to date and skillful; they know how to manipulate the media. They are very well-funded, and their commitment is fired by the same sincere religious fervor that characterized earlier and less affluent versions of creationism.”

(The Discovery Institute reported total assets of $3.6 million to the IRS in 2004, compared with $550,000 for the NCSE.)

What are evolutionists doing to counter I.D.’s marketing efforts? Olson, for one, is frustrated by the lack of leadership in the scientific community. He wants his film to serve as a wake-up call to scientists whom he believes are too busy, too detached or too arrogant to take the I.D. threat seriously.

Generally speaking, the scientific community is comprised of fragmented, specialized groups that lack a cohesive voice in the debate, or sometimes any official stance at all. Asked to comment on the Discovery Institute’s communications tactics, a representative at the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the federal government on science issues, said: “We don’t have an opinion on this. We explain the science behind evolution.”

Asked the same question, Alicia Torres, director of media and government relations at the American Institute of Physics, wrote in an e-mail: “Science proceeds by peer review and relies on testable evidence. The evidence can be accepted by the science community if it survives peer review. Science does not deal with issues of faith.”

This is exactly the problem, says Scott. “The public doesn’t know what a peer-reviewed article is and couldn’t care less,” she says. “That certifies the creationists’ claim that we are all a bunch of ivory-tower, snooty experts.”

Donald Wise, professor emeritus of geology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says evolutionists should go on the attack with a humorous political campaign, complete with Karl Rove-like talking points. “For too long we have tried to debate this as an honest-to-God debate, but Joe Sixpack and Betsy Biblestudy get turned off,” he says. His suggested slogan? “Incompetent design.” He proposes publicizing the flaws in the supposedly perfect design of human beings—such as the sharp bend in the lower back, better suited to apes. “The phrase, ‘Oh, my aching back’ has become part of the English language,” he says. “No first-year engineering student would be dumb enough to put that kind of design into a frame, so it is either evolution or incompetent design.”

In his film, Olson focuses on other flaws in the design of living creatures. For example, when rabbits eat, the food bypasses the stomach and is excreted. Rabbits then eat the excreted material to get nutrients. In the movie, Olson shows a rabbit eating its own waste.

Others take more playful jabs at I.D. A husband-and-wife team at Zygote Games in Amherst, Mass., in honor of the Dover trial, offered a 20 percent discount on its card game “Bone Wars: The Game of Ruthless Paleontology,” which explains how scientific theories are developed. Then there is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (online at Venganza.org), which asserts that if students are to be taught alternative theories, then one of them should be that the universe was created by a flying heap of pasta.

Small efforts by some science groups have met with mixed success. To make fun of the Discovery Institute’s tactic of frequently listing the names of scientists who support the I.D. theory, the NCSE created T-shirts that list only those evolution supporters with the first name “Steve,” in honor of the well-known evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002.

Ohio State’s Nisbet says it’s not enough to get the facts out and believe the public will respond; it is time for evolutionists to frame the debate on their terms. In Ohio, he says, where the board of education voted Feb. 14 to remove anti-evolution teachings from state standards, what won the day was the threat of a costly lawsuit and trial—expenses the state might incur “all because a small interest group took control of the agenda.”

Other economic arguments can work too, he says. “If we sponsor I.D. at the state level, what kind of message does it say about our state being hospitable to scientific education?” he asks. “Will companies want to invest here, and what will it do to our schools and the ability of our students to get into top colleges?” Such a strategy could resonate nationally, he adds, because while the U.S. has always been a leader in science and technology, “other countries are catching up.”

Nisbet’s suggestion to scientists: invest long-term in science education, form a coalition and hire a PR firm that can devise strategies for messaging around these alternative ways of framing the debate.

Without a national voice to advocate on their behalf, supporters of evolution have been left to fight at the grassroots level—like Jack Krebs, a high school math teacher in Kansas and president of Kansas Citizens for Science. “From a marketing point of view, they have co-opted a lot of terms that sell well in the minds of the American public,” Krebs says. “We don’t have the catchphrases. We are not winning the PR war on this.”