When Hannah Maxson started an intelligent design club at Cornell University last fall, a handful of science majors showed up for the first meeting. Today, the high-profile club boasts more than 80 members.
Until recently, the nationwide debate over whether intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution was centered primarily in public elementary and high-school science classes. In Dover, Pa., for example, parents won a legal fight against a school board decision to teach intelligent design in biology classes. A new school board formally ditched the intelligent design curriculum Tuesday (Jan. 3, 2006).
Now the discussion is spilling over onto university campuses. At nearly 30 public and private universities across the country, students have started clubs aimed at promoting intelligent design. The clubs, sponsored by the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (IDEA), a small, nonprofit organization based in San Diego, have been gaining members and visibility.
Proponents of intelligent design say the theory, which says the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher being, is a scientific one. Opponents -- including most of the nation's scientific establishment -- put their weight behind Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, and dismiss intelligent design as a religious idea based on the biblical creation story in Genesis.
When Cornell's interim president, Hunter R. Rawlings III, denounced intelligent design as "a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea" in a speech in October, Maxson, a 21-year-old junior and president of the Ithaca, N.Y., school's IDEA club, responded with a press release. Rawlings' comments were a "gross misstatement," she said, and "an insult to people of faith throughout America."
Suddenly, Maxson, a self-described "bookish" chemistry and math major, found herself and her club in the spotlight. "Before, we were just basically a science club," she said. "Now, we have to defend our ideas everywhere."
During one recent week, she was scheduled to speak about intelligent design at a campus discussion, make a presentation to a biology class and give an interview on local radio.
Intelligent design clubs at other universities have also been gaining momentum and attention. The first IDEA club meeting at George Mason University, a public school in Fairfax, Va., drew 20 people. At the group's most recent meeting, where a scientist guest speaker offered his criticisms of intelligent design, 90 people attended. So did CBS News, said Salvador Cordova, a 42-year-old engineer and George Mason alumnus who founded the club last year.
Josh Norton, a 22-year-old math major who is president of the University of California at San Diego's club, said his group was meeting every week in order to plan an all-day conference on intelligent design for the spring.
Casey Luskin, 27, founded the first IDEA club in 1999, at the University of California at San Diego. Luskin, then a college junior, had become interested in intelligent design after taking a biology seminar that taught about the theory. When Luskin graduated with a master's degree in earth sciences in 2001, he founded the IDEA Center to help other students start their own clubs.
If a high-school or university student contacts the IDEA Center about starting an intelligent design club, the center will provide a curriculum with suggested discussion topics, books, videos and a bibliography of sources.
Recently the center helped start clubs at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. A few high schools, including one as far away as Kenya, have also started IDEA chapters.
The organization is "very grass-roots," Luskin said. Its seven staff members volunteer part-time. They operate on a budget of a few thousand dollars, which comes from individual donations, he said.
The group's advisory board includes Michael Behe and William Dembski, fellows at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a think tank that is the driving force behind the intelligent design movement. Luskin himself recently started working at the institute as a program officer concerned with public policy and legal affairs. Still, he stressed that the IDEA Center remains independent and receives no funding from the institute.
But Victor Hutchison, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Oklahoma, who attended some IDEA club meetings on his campus, said he could not separate the clubs from the broader intelligent design movement, spearheaded by the Discovery Institute.
"I find that they are espousing exactly the talking points of the creationist Discovery Institute," said Hutchison, who described himself as "an evolutionist" and "a person of faith."
The way Hutchison sees it, the clubs fit into what he calls Discovery's larger plan "to attack evolution and replace it with their religious viewpoint of creationism," or the biblical story of creation, and eventually "establish a theocracy."
The IDEA Center says intelligent design is a scientific concept, not a religious one. But students came to the meetings with their Bibles, Hutchison said.
The IDEA Center also requires its club presidents to be Christian. Luskin explained that as a Christian group, "we wanted to be totally open about who we thought the designer was." But, he added, "this belief about the identity of the designer is our religious belief; it's not a part of ID theory."
Hutchison nevertheless sees the requirement as a contradiction. "It just proves they are lying when they say it's not religious-based," he said.
For Hutchison, the campus IDEA club could be a land mine. Recently a faculty member tried to "sneak in a course on intelligent design" by e-mailing IDEA club members to generate support, Hutchison said. After opposition from other faculty, the teacher backed down, he said.
Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based group dedicated to keeping evolution in public school classrooms, downplayed the significance of the IDEA clubs.
"I'm not sure that they really have been springing up in such a major way," Branch said. "Certainly, if you compare them to number of (college) juggling clubs that there are, there must be many more juggling clubs."
Still, IDEA clubs are making waves. At Cornell, Maxson holds her weekly meetings and continually raises the subject of intelligent design with friends over dinner, even if she feels that the university environment is "hostile" to her ideas.
"Sometimes," she admits, in a quiet, hesitant voice, "you sort of wonder, `What have we gotten ourselves into?'"
- Religion News Service, January 11, 2006