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.
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Bruce Chapman. (Seattle Channel)

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

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.

The climate was ripe for reform. And Chapman, an Illinois native who moved here in 1966, was eager to help. While at Harvard, he had visited the Bellevue home of his college roommate. Meanwhile, he had worked with fellow Harvardite George Gilder to found a magazine and a progressive Republican club called the Ripon Society. Later, they cowrote a book critical of the GOP's rightward shift. "We were pro-civil rights and opposed to the John Birch Society and the radical right," Chapman recalled.

Eager to put his ideas into action, Chapman became active in CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council), a group of young upstarts, mostly newcomers, bent on reforming city government. In 1971, barely five years after he moved to Seattle, he won a seat on the City Council.

So we meet again, Chapman as the young whiz kid at City Hall and yours truly as a Times reporter on the city beat. A radical he was not, but he certainly was a radical departure from Seattle's established order. While his older colleagues focused on balanced budgets and barking dogs, Chapman and fellow reformer (and Yale grad) John Miller pumped out a steady stream of ideas, small and not-so-small, for arts and parks, for open meetings and political term limits, for preserving Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. Some of those ideas raised hackles, particularly the proposal to tear down the ugly but functional Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Chapman was never a populist nor charismatic pol. He carried that Ivy League air of I-know-something-you-don't. And Seattle, in turn, had little use for tweedy intellectuals.

But something worked. By the mid-'70s, Seattle was America's hottest city. The ingredients had been here all along, but the turnaround was based in part on Chapman and other young leaders who had good ideas and plenty of federal dollars to spend on them.

When the opportunity arose in 1975, Chapman moved on to become secretary of state in Olympia. Ever the contrarian, he focused on eliminating his own job, one of several state offices he thought should not be elective.

In 1980, we met again. I was covering politics and Chapman was running for governor, this time on a very different platform. The progressive politics had been supplanted by a Reaganesque agenda: Crack down on crime, beef up the military, and pass a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

That campaign never took off, and he lost badly in the primary. His consolation prize was to move back East, where he joined the new Reagan Administration as director of the $250 million-a-year Census Bureau. "The finest bureaucracy I've ever seen," he said at the time.

The next time we met was in 1983, when I was in Washington D.C., covering Congress, and Chapman had been picked as a domestic policy advisor in the Reagan White House. At a chicken barbeque in his back yard, Chapman allowed that his politics had changed along with the Reagan Revolution. "I have grown more conservative on social issues," he said then, "as I have become more disillusioned with any aspect of the Great Society, the welfare state, or the endless parade of liberation movements as solutions to any problems."

The White House provided a heady opportunity to stretch his intellectual muscles. But his ultimate ambition, he said, was to go home, live in the Pike Place Market, and start a think tank.

It would be nearly a decade before our paths crossed again. I stopped off at the Washington Mutual Tower for an interview, and ran into Chapman. He was back, realizing his old ambition – sort of. He had become a one-man outpost of the conservative Hudson Institute, a one-man think tank housed in an office on loan from a downtown law firm.

And there he sat, exploring new ideas and searching for deep pockets to make them pay. In 1991, he landed a few small, private grants that allowed him to split off from Hudson and reorganize as Discovery – named for the ship George Vancouver sailed into Puget Sound 200 years earlier in 1792.

It was never easy, Chapman recalled recently. Running a think tank is "a hardscrabble existence, even for a liberal, and harder still for conservatives. It seems that people in Washington state imagine that they are not meant to play in the big leagues of public policy development."

Grant by grant, fellow by fellow, Discovery grew. Former Times writer John Hamer came on board to work on International Seattle, which asked why Seattle hadn't taken a more global approach to economics. Military expert Philip Gold arrived to write about defense and international terrorism. Paul Schell, a longtime Chapman friend, pushed the Cascadia concept, which promoted regional, cross-boundary solutions to problems.

The Cascadia idea, in turn, attracted Bruce Agnew, another progressive Republican who contributed his extraordinary ability to assemble diverse groups and consensus solutions – not to mention the occasional federal grant. It was a good partnership, Agnew recalls, but hardly lucrative. "We were dirt poor. I was drawing a salary of $12,000 and taking consulting jobs on the side."

Still, it was an authentic think tank. Discovery hosted lunchtime debates over topics such as charter schools, freeway tolls and international trade. Chapman, however, was looking for that breakout issue. In 1993, he read an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal written by a young Whitworth College professor named Stephen Meyer. Meyer was defending a California biology professor whose job was threatened because he had questioned evolution theory.

"I saw the issue at first as an example of political correctness run amok," Chapman recalled later. "Only later did I see it as an issue in science, and sense the implications."

Once again, Chapman teamed up with his Harvard soulmate, George Gilder, who had become a neo-conservative superstar. They sat down with Meyer and decided that "Discovery should become the home to the scientific critique of Darwinism, and home as well to intelligent design as an alternative theory."

Thus was born what they now call the Center for Science and Culture. In the years to come, that work attracted millions of dollars in support from conservative foundations, starting with the Ahmanson family in Southern California.

Critics argue that intelligent design was a crass marketing strategy to get the big bucks Chapman needed to support his other habits. But those closest to Chapman credit him with far more integrity.

"I don't agree with him on ID," said Bill Ruckelshaus, the widely respected former Reagan cabinet officer and former Discovery board member. "But Bruce feels very strongly about it, and it didn't make sense to try to talk him out of it."

Chapman embraced the meat along with the rich sauce, the idea, and the dollars that followed. In addition to helping pay the bills, ID helped explain his deep disillusionment with the entitlement programs and liberation movements, which he believed had divided and "demoralized" American politics – all in the name of social sciences that are rooted in evolution theory.

"Darwinism is crucial not only to materialism in science, but in our culture, which is why all this is so incendiary," he argues. "People care about their world view. For most real Darwinists, evolution is their religion."

Whatever the motives, Chapman had found his breakthrough. He hired staff, bought computers, and rented bigger offices to accommodate them. Intelligent design was on its way to becoming an intellectual jihad in the nation's culture war. Armed with a growing array of new books, issue papers, videos, and DVDs, the Science and Culture campaign openly aspired to drive a "wedge" (Discovery's word) into the heart of Darwinism, to "defeat materialism" and replace it with intelligent design.

Seattle barely noticed. To this day, neither daily newspaper has attempted a thorough look at Chapman and his crusade against evolution.

It was the summer of 2001 before I again encountered Chapman. This time he offered me a job. The Cascadia Project had a Gates Foundation grant to come up with ideas for unraveling Seattle's transportation gridlock. After 30-plus years of newspapers, I was ready to move on.

Some of my friends were appalled. Hadn't I heard about, as one put it, the "Flat Earth Society"? Even Chapman felt he should warn me that his Science and Culture efforts might run against Seattle's sensibilities.

I wasn't disturbed. Journalists, like think tanks, should be willing to rethink conventional wisdoms. I'd ruffled feathers with pieces that questioned the economics of recycling or the mortgage tax deduction. I'd been attacked by ideologues ranging from Lyndon LaRouche to Rush Limbaugh. Discovery should take on big issues, and what's bigger than the question of who we are and where we came from?

So, in the summer of 2001, I became a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which worked out of an odd, corridor-shaped office on the third floor of an older office building overlooking the main post office. Chapman had a private office at one end, Agnew at the other. The rest of us peons sat between them, at metal desks cluttered with paper and PCs. Mine was a few feet from the copy machine, which seemed to run 'round the clock, spewing out paper dealing with technology or transportation or, yes, evolution.

At the other end of the hall were the Science and Culture folks – a half dozen enthusiastic twentysomethings, some of them recent graduates of Whitworth College (now Whitworth University). They appeared to be very busy at whatever they were doing, and I didn't ask.

I did, however, enjoy chatting with Philip Gold, the curmudgeonly and dry-witted military writer who worked nearby. We were entertained by the ID kids' grumblings toward the dreaded "Darwinists" - a term that seemed to have replaced "reds" in the conservative lexicon. Gold offered an ID motto: "God does not play dice with the Universe; He plays Scrabble."

My amusement was arrested one day in September, when Discovery launched its attack on public television. My first clue was a new banner headline on the Web site home page: "PBS Evolution: Last Gasp of a Dying Theory."

Public TV, I learned, was about to air a seven-part documentary series on Darwin and evolution theory, and the ID folks didn't like it. The series failed to report the gaps in Darwin's theory. Worse still, it failed to mention intelligent design. The Science and Culture staff had counterattacked with a book-length response, educational curricula, canned op-eds, and press releases that helped explain why that office copier had been running nonstop. The kids down the hall were most pleased with themselves at having one-upped the misguided Darwinists.

I probably over-reacted. Go ahead and take on PBS, I argued. Take it on for the interminable fundraising or for those mindless folk music retrospectives. But for a program about evolution?

And if evolution is a "dying theory," how come it got a seven-part series on TV and intelligent design didn't? The reality: Like it or not, evolution is alive and well, accepted by virtually every legitimate scientist on Earth.

As it happens, nobody noticed that PBS series, let alone Discovery's critique, because that very week jetliners were crashing into tall buildings and changing everything. A few weeks later, I resigned. If the world is going to hell, I would go out as a journalist, not a senior fellow.

Discovery has done just fine without me. Agnew and the Cascadia Project attracted a $9 million Gates grant, so regionalism is no longer the poor stepsister to anti-Darwinism. Agnew and Chapman are providing a much-needed, independent forum where regional solutions can be promoted without political repercussions. There have been conferences on freight rail and how to separate it from passenger rail, on how to use electronic tolls to pay for new highways, on hybrid electric cars. And Cascadia gets credit for promoting a variation on Chapman's 30-year-old idea to tear down the Alaska Way Viaduct.

ID, however, gets most of the attention. The last time I saw Chapman was in December 2005, when he was anxiously awaiting word from Pennsylvania. In the previous few weeks, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones had presided over a lawsuit challenging a small-town school board that had decided intelligent design should be part of its science curriculum. The board members were old-school creationists, guided not by Discovery but by the Book of Genesis, Chapman explained. He and others had pleaded with the school board to back off.

However, during the two-week trial, two Discovery fellows testified on behalf of intelligent design.

Eventually, the churchgoing judge, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a scalding decision, declaring that ID "is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory." So the school board's edict violated the required separation of church and state.

Discovery responded with a lengthy critique of the ruling.

But Judge Jones reflected the opinion of most scientists, says Dr. Keith Benson, who taught history of science at the University of Washington for some 20 years. Chapman's critique of materialism – the view that every phenomenon in the natural world can be explained by natural forces – is fair grounds for a philosophical discussion, Benson says. "But it was not Darwin who started the movement toward materialism. That began with Isaac Newton. It happened first in astronomy and physics, and Darwin applied it to biology."

Yes, there are gaps in evolution theory, he adds. In Origin of Species, Darwin wrote about the problems with his own theory. "There are gaps in every scientific theory. Physicists can't fully explain gravity."

Benson is a Ph.D. historian of science who studied biology at Whitworth, the same little college that sprung Stephen Meyer and much of the ID staff. Benson's biology professors taught evolution. And they still do.

"We teach the best biology we know," explained Dr. Lee Anne Chaney, a Ph.D. biologist who has taught there for 25 years. "And that is why intelligent design is not in our curriculum. That's not because we don't think God created the universe. My personal belief is that God is wise enough to make a world that changes over time, and that is infinitely more complex than we can ever grasp completely. But we don't teach Creation as science, and ID is not science because it does not lend itself to rigid experimentation."

I am not a scientist, nor a philosopher. I am not particularly religious, nor am I hostile to religion. For these and other reasons, nobody has asked my advice on all this. But here it is anyhow:

To Chapman and friends: Go for it. Challenge conventional wisdoms. Question authority, including scientists. We all understand that the scientific establishment, universities, and the media are equally susceptible to an intolerant groupthink. So keep looking for flaws in evolution theory. That's what think tanks are supposed to do.

But dump the wedge strategy, and spare the public schools. They have plenty to worry about without outsiders telling them how to teach biology. Besides, the Pennsylvania decision suggests that it's unwise to start an important discussion and hand it over to small-town school boards and their lawyers.

And, for god's sake, spare us the argument that ID is not a religious undertaking. That may work for Chapman and a few more leading ID proponents. But intelligent design walks and quacks like religion. And virtually every ID adherent I've encountered, including those nice kids who ran the copy machine, turns out to be a sincere, thoughtful Christian, which requires no apology – even in Seattle.

To the rest of the world: Cool it. Wedge strategy or no, intelligent design is not a threat to science as we know it. The movement consists of a small cadre of critical thinkers like Chapman, some conservatives with deep pockets, and a dedicated staff of kids armed with a Web site and, now, a new documentary film. This also might describe Greenpeace, except Greenpeace has more members, deeper pockets, and slicker videos.

ID should not be foisted on our schools. But if my kids' biology teacher had decided to set aside some time to talk about the controversy, I would hope they would have stayed awake, taken notes, and brought it home to the dinner table: Why is it that scientists subscribe to evolution theory, but the majority of Americans don't? Discuss.

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. Most of us are too busy living our lives to spend much time and energy on it. And, when we do, it all swirls into an intellectual mud.

Which, according to most world religions, is more or less how it all began.

An earlier version of this piece was published in Washington Law and Politics in 2006.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.