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Evolution of a think tank

A journalist comes of age with Bruce Chapman, watching him launch Seattle's Discovery Institute and the intelligent design movement.
Bruce Chapman. (Seattle Channel)

Bruce Chapman. (Seattle Channel) None

Now that we've seen the impassioned blogs and op-ed pieces, the press critiques and the legal arguments, the next big thing had to be Intelligent Design: The Movie. So along comes the 90-minute documentary formally titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opening this week on a big screen a couple of blocks from the offices of the Seattle think tank where the idea has been gurgling for years.

While the film has been almost universally panned by the critics, it's still showing at some 1,000 theaters around the country. And that is very good news for Bruce Chapman, the former Seattle City Council member whose Discovery Institute has weighed in on lots of issues, but is best-known nationally as incubator for that ever-so-contentious idea called "intelligent design."

This is the argument that Charles Darwin erred – and so does virtually every scientist on Earth – by accepting the theory of evolution. Chapman and others argue that human life is far too complex to have evolved through natural selection, so it must have been designed by, well, a very smart designer-to-be-named-later. Chapman winces at such definitions, but his own would consume more pages than he's going to get here.

However it is defined, intelligent design, or "ID," has gained some traction across the nation, particularly among religious fundamentalists, so that godfearing creationists find themselves seeking intellectual guidance from godless Seattle, Land of the Liberal Democrats, home of the unchurched. In recent years, the idea has burst into school boardrooms, courtrooms, the halls of Congress, and the White House. It has been the target of editorial crusades in journals ranging from the The Stranger to The New York Times. And each seems to ask: How in the world did this notoriously unholy city become headquarters for a fundamentally conservative crusade?

The simple answer: Bruce Chapman. With an assist by a mild-mannered philosophy professor from an obscure Presbyterian college just across the mountains in Spokane.

But there is much more to this story. I bear witness to this, because I am a recovering Discovery fellow. For a few weeks back in 2001, I worked with Chapman and Co. – not on Darwinism, but on transportation. I also am a preacher's kid who graduated many years ago from that little Presbyterian college.

In Seattle, merely acknowledging my past association with Discovery is like confessing that I have failed to recycle my beer bottles. But more of that later. Here's what I've learned about the Origin of Bruce Chapman and the rest of his Species:

When I first met Chapman, he was not Chapman. He was P.C. Circleman, the pseudonym under which he wrote an engaging urban affairs column for the staid editorial pages of The Seattle Times. This was the late '60s, when I was a cub reporter in the Times newsroom, and Chapman was a bright, articulate, slightly geeky Harvard guy with black-framed glasses who wrote the kinds of things I yearned to write. We were newcomers to Seattle, each in his own way trying to figure out the chemistry of our adopted hometown.

Seattle in the '60s and early '70s was a nice, family-friendly city run by a benevolent clique of aging businessmen who ruled from the private confines of the Rainier Club, just up the street from City Hall. The city had well-paying Boeing jobs, good schools, and a fine university, roughly equal proportions of liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans, and a housing market where a twentysomething could buy a three-bedroom fixer-upper for $15,000.

"Seattle was a real city, but it was not finished," Chapman recalled years later. "It didn't have the ethnic divisions that plagued Eastern cities. It was open and honest and genuinely bipartisan."

It was also teetering. Boeing lost its supersonic jetliner deal, went into a tailspin, and laid off thousands. There were riots around the university and the Central Area over Vietnam and civil rights. And local government was shaken by police payoff scandals that reached into City Hall.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Well Written: I have several reactions to this article:
1. Excellent article.
2. This is going to be a great comment thread.
3. Chuck Taylor is shamelessly fishing for hits on the Blog, as he should.
The dailies not only have not covered the subject, when they publish an op-ed by Chapman or one of his disciples they do not alert the reader that he is a confidant of God.

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

ID: Indefensible Distraction: This informative article on Chapman, his Discovery, and Intelligent Design (ID means what its various proponents say variously it means) is quite spooky. The article is spooky because it's yet another illustration of how and why ID is creepy. ID oozes in everywhere, a kind of intellectual Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In an age of total dependence on science and technology (which not even scientists and technologists fully understand, it's suicidal to blather"it's a free country and everyone's entitled to one's opinion" (the subtext of this article).

This is not correct. It is insidious know-nothingism.

You are "entitled to your opinion" if you've done your homework and know whereof you speak, distinguishing between assertions for which you have credible evidence and assertions or beliefs for which you have no or little credible evidence. ID proponents merely assert, and then write opinion screeds arguing in support of their assertions.

And what about their presumption that human intelligence is adequate to understand how and why "reality" is apparently "designed"?

italics "Know thyself, presume not God to scan:
The proper study of Mankind is Man"
--Alexander Pope
Charlton

Posted Tue, Apr 29, 11:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Rebutting BC through history: Thank you for writing about the evolving history of Bruce Chapman. There are others who have a history with this man too. The perceptive social commentator and historian, the late great Walt Crowley, rebutted Chapman's "Intelligent Design" sermonizing in the P-I and on KVI radio.

Looking through family papers I found series of memorandums between Walt Crowley and my husband Howard Stambor. The following is a sample.

Walt Crowley - "Thank you [Howard Stambor] for your letter to the Post Intelligencer... we have to get Chapman off the pages of the P-I."

"It appears that every Friday we are to be treated to 800 words of platitude by Bruce Chapman about what he either misunderstands, does not know, or does not want to know. I was pleased to see Walt Crowley's rebuttal published on November 20."

Mr. Chapman is quick to see demons and conspiracies in science. His "Intelligent Design" article makes it clear that his paranoia is fueled by his religious belief. In both articles, he both misunderstands and misrepresents the nature of the science that he caricatures. Mr. Chapman appears to be obsessed by "darwinism," but he does not have any insight whatsoever into the insights that Darwin's thinking can offer for understanding human behavior. It also appears objectionable to Mr. Chapman that science does not condemn and make the same moral judgments that he does.

Mr. Chapman's contribution to your editorial pages is destructive because he lends support to many people who find comfort in rejecting critical thinking about important issues. The 20-column inches you provide to him every Friday, as he uses them, are destructive because consistently rejects rational thinking and retreats into personal moralizing. Please pull the plug on him." (Howard Stambor, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Letters to Editor 11/28/97)

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 12:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Pomo Relativism: You were doing fine right up until you descended into pomo relativism, saying

We live in a big, open country accustomed to grappling with big, open questions. There is plenty of room for Darwin and Creationism and intelligent design.

Problem is, the question of evolution isn't open. At least not to those who spend their lives studying it. The question of the evolution of life -- the common descent of all living things on earth -- is no more open than the question of whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa. Whether the mechanisms invoked by the theory of biological evolution -- natural selection, genetic drift, and so on -- can account for the diversity of life on earth isn't an open question. They can. Not every instance has been accounted for, but there's no principled reason to suppose they can't. There's debate about the relative importance of the several mechanisms, but no doubt that they operate as advertised.

Understanding evolution is critical for understanding everything from the science underpinning medicine to feeding the growing population on earth to dealing with invasive species to epidemiology to the invention of novel enzymes and proteins. Creationism and intelligent design contribute precisely nothing to either the science or its practical applications. My company depends on the validity of evolutionary mechanisms; if they didn't work we'd be out of business tomorrow. And know what? We wouldn't hire someone who doesn't know a whole lot about evolution and its mechanisms, not for religious reasons but for competence reasons.
RBH

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Ben Stein Jumps the Shark: I always liked Ben Stein. I have no idea whether he needs the paycheck, or he really believes in this stuff, or is just having fun tweaking some people's noses; but it's sad to see him tarnishing his credibility as one of the few Hollywood intellectuals by appearing in this film. I agree with the author that the theory of evolution is solid enough to withstand attacks of the type that the intelligent design folks throw at it, but that doesn't mean that I applaud someone who helps propagate this nonsense just for the fun of being contrarian.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

thanks: Thanks for the attaboy. How can you get more topical than the question of who the hell we are and how we got here. As for Chapman as Divine Confidant, I certainly agree that most of the ID movement speaks for Him, but Chapman is, ironically, the exception; for him, it is an intellectual crusade.

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 7:05 p.m. Inappropriate

entitled?: Not sure I'm following you. I believe Chapman, like you and I, is entitled to that opinion whether or not it is well reasoned and defensible. In fact, in this age of the blog, the majority of opinions I read are neither of the above, but their owners remain entitled to them. What a racket!

Posted Wed, Apr 30, 11:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice Reporting: Ross is right, Chapman does have a right to his opinions. The rest of us have a right to disagree and keep ID out of biology class, where it doesn't belong.

Chapman also has a right to free speech through his PR tactics, which have helped take down two GOP Senate candidates sympathetic to ID, one an incumbant in Pennsylvania, and another a promising challenger (at first, it seemed) here in Washington. In the case of ID, his PR tactics have backfired big time. Who is next? John McCain saying we should teach a philosophy debate in a science class? One suspects the play has already been made.

I think it would be interesting to know how much of that Gates Foundation money has actually been spent on transportation. Chapman has been missing in action on the topic for many years now.

We know the Gates grant paid a large share of Chapman's salary and a good portion of the salaries of others who seemed preoccupied with ID, not transportation.

Perhaps Discovery or the Gates Foundation would be happy to post the book keeping on a web site somewhere?
Tarl

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