I first started hearing about intelligent design more than a decade ago, while overlooking Italy's Lake Como. I was having dinner with Ed Larson, a historian and legal scholar from the University of Georgia, at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Conference Center just north of Milan, where we both had month-long fellowships. Ed was there writing a book about the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, a book that would later win the Pulitzer Prize. He was suggesting that I consider producing a radio program about the teaching of evolution. At the time, while I thought this might make for an interesting historical piece, I also felt this was a dead issue. Of course, Ed knew better. He'd seen this issue resurface multiple times in recent history.
This year, when I received the assignment from American Radioworks to produce a documentary on intelligent design, Ed was the first person I called. This time we met for lunch in Beverly Hills. I now live in Los Angeles, and Ed was a visiting professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu. By this time, most mainstream media were also interested in the debate over evolution. What might be done with this topic that would make for a novel approach? The setting for our lunch gave me an unexpected start.
Perhaps my greatest surprise in producing this documentary was that multiple key players in the intelligent design debate are based in my own state of California, most prominently, Phillip Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the seminal ID book, Darwin on Trial.
Across town in Oakland is Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, the top spokesperson for the teaching of evolution for almost two decades. Other key California influences include: the Institute for Creation Research (world headquarters for creation science) based in San Diego; Howard Ahmanson (lead funder for ID's think tank, the Discovery Institute) located in Orange County; Roger DeHart, a teacher at Oaks Christian High School in Malibu, forced out of a public schools outside Seattle for teaching intelligent design; and a charter high school in San Diego running a novel experiment in the teaching of evolution. Plus, a radio drama troupe out of Los Angeles, LA Theatreworks, was marking the 80th anniversary of the Scopes trial with a national tour of a stage performance of a play taken from transcripts of the trial.
I was also interested in visiting Biola University, outside Los Angeles, one of only two colleges teaching intelligent design. But here, I was stopped by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle research/public relations force behind intelligent design. I was told by the head of media at Biola that the Discovery Institute had called two fellows at Biola with whom I'd scheduled interviews, saying, "Don't talk to her." "You've been blacklisted," the media rep told me. He went on to say, "They're afraid you'll portray us as 'religious fanatics.'" In my 25 years as a journalist, this was a first. (The Discovery Institute had issued several press releases in the last year suggesting they'd been negatively represented on public radio.)
Ultimately, the lingering revelation of these California connections (on both sides of the debate) is that intelligent design, although a hot issue in Kansas or Georgia or Tennessee, is not an issue reserved for the Bible belt. If any of us were to look more closely at almost anywhere in the country, we'd find an impassioned debate. A debate that shows no signs of quieting.
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