Kansas taxpayers are footing the bill to bring the Istanbul resident to Topeka as one of 23 witnesses scheduled to testify this week before a subcommittee of the Kansas State School Board in its unorthodox "trial" over science teaching standards. (Fortunately, Akyol happens to be in Washington, D.C., on other business, so Kansans are paying only to bring him across the country, not all the way from Turkey.)
Born in 1972, Akyol has a master's degree in history and writes a column for a newspaper in Istanbul. He also has identified himself as a spokesman for the murky Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, a group with an innocuous-sounding name -- it means "Science Research Foundation" -- but a nasty reputation.
Said to have started as a religious cult that preyed on wealthy members of Turkish society, the Bilim Arastirma Vakfi has appeared in lurid media tales about sex rings, a blackmail prosecution and speculation about its charismatic leader, a man named Adnan Oktar. But if BAV's notoriety has been burnished by a sensationalist Turkish media, the secretive group has earned its reputation as a prodigious publisher of inexpensive ideological paperbacks. BAV has put out hundreds of titles written by "Harun Yahya" (a pseudonym) on various topics, but most of them are Islamic-based attacks on the theory of evolution.
Turkey is a secular country that aspires to join the European Union and boasts several institutions of higher learning on a par with good Western universities. But beginning in 1998, BAV spearheaded an effort to attack Turkish academics who taught Darwinian theory. Professors there say they were harassed and threatened, and some of them were slandered in fliers that labeled them "Maoists" for teaching evolution. In 1999, six of the professors won a civil court case against BAV for defamation and were awarded $4,000 each.
But seven years after BAV's offensive began, says Istanbul University forensics professor Umit Sayin (one of the slandered faculty members), the battle is over.
"There is no fight against the creationists now. They have won the war," Sayin tells the Pitch from his home in Istanbul. "In 1998, I was able to motivate six members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences to speak out against the creationist movement. Today, it's impossible to motivate anyone. They're afraid they'll be attacked by the radical Islamists and the BAV."
Sayin is well aware of Mustafa Akyol, whom he identifies as one of BAV's many volunteers. (Akyol himself has described his role for the group as that of a spokesman.) The organization's source of funding and internal structure are well-guarded secrets, Sayin says. The Turkish government, he adds, refuses to take an interest, tacitly encouraging the ongoing effort against scientists.
"It's hopeless here," Sayin says. "I've been fighting with these guys for six years, and it's come to nothing." As a result of the BAV campaign and other efforts to denounce evolution, he adds, most members of Turkey's parliament today not only discount evolution but consider it a hoax. "Now creationism is in [high school] biology books," Sayin says. "Evolution is presented [by BAV] as a conspiracy of the Jewish and American imperialists to promote new world order and fascist motives ... and the majority of the people believe it."
The secret to BAV's success is the huge popularity of the Harun Yahya books, says a professor closer to home, Truman State University physicist Taner Edis, who was born in Turkey. "They're fairly lavishly produced, on good-quality paper with full-color illustrations all over the place," he says. "They're trying to compete with any sort of science publication you can find in the Western world. And in a place like Turkey, Yahya books look considerably better-published than most scientific publications."
The books are slick, but BAV has had plenty of help. Sayin says that creationism in Turkey got key support in the 1980s and 1990s from American creationist organizations, and Edis points out that BAV's Yahya books resemble the same sorts of works put out by California's Institute for Creation Research. Except in Yahya's books, it's Allah that's doing the creating.
In 2001, Science magazine called BAV "one of the world's strongest anti-evolution movements outside of North America," and Edis tells the Pitch that Yahya books are gaining popularity in other parts of the world, including London (which is increasingly becoming a global center for Islamic publishing) and Indonesia.
While its Turkish counterpart thrived, however, American creationism suffered repeated defeats in the 1980s and 1990s, and even some of its most ardent supporters have put their hopes in a newer movement, one that calls itself "intelligent design."
Sensitive to the charge that they're just the same religiously motivated effort with slicker packaging, the scientists and lawyers who lead the intelligent-design movement deny that their cause has anything to do with Christianity or with previous attempts to describe biblical accounts in scientific-sounding terms.
Rather than quote Genesis, intelligent-design proponents cite complex mathematical formulas and biochemical analyses to claim that nature shows the characteristics of a purposeful design that can't be explained by Darwinian theory. If such design implies a designer, they say, they make no assumption about who or what that designer is.
To opponents, it's a coy act. Most of ID's leading lights are devout Christians. Earlier this year, the Pitch put it directly to one of the movement's local point men, University of Missouri-Kansas City professor of medicine William Harris: Did he believe the "designer" was the Christian God?
Harris admitted that, for him, that was true. But intelligent design itself had no opinion on the matter, he said. "I know Muslims who equate that designer with Allah," he told us.
Which is why Kansans are paying to bring Mustafa Akyol to Topeka.
Harris included Akyol on a list of witnesses whom he wanted brought in to testify on behalf of intelligent design in this week's hearings.
Harris says he hasn't heard of BAV. Told of the group's harassment of bioligists in Turkey and evolution's defeat there, he replies, "Great! Congratulations! I mean, that is the point, once people start to see science more objectively."
Edis says there's little question why Akyol is on the list of witnesses.
"It's perfectly bizarre, in that Akyol really has nothing to contribute in terms of substance to the whole thing," Edis says. "I think it's fairly blatantly obvious the only reason he's coming in is to present the case that this isn't just a Christian thing."
"It's stupid," Sayin adds. "Akyol's not a scientist at all. He's just an activist."
But imagine the pride that Akyol must feel. (We wanted to ask him about it directly, but Akyol didn't answer our e-mail.) After getting a leg up from American creationists, BAV sparked a revolution in its own country and is now so successful that it's been asked to send an emissary to return the favor.
So let's review.
In order to make up its mind over what sort of biological concepts should be taught to Kansas schoolchildren, the state's school board is using taxpayer money to fly in a nonscientist associated with a group that terrorized Turkish professors who dared question that the proliferation of life on Earth was a miracle of Allah.
Was it just six years ago that the state's school board put us through the same thing, minus the Turkish connection?
Back then, board member Steve Abrams of Arkansas City boldly disregarded the science teaching recommendations that a standards committee had made and instead moved to adopt creationist language he'd cribbed from a California Christian group. Before the world's laughter had even had time to settle down, it seemed, incensed voters tossed out several conservative board members in the next election and the evolution-centered teaching standards were restored.
But when conservatives regained control of the school board last fall, there seemed no question that, once again, Abrams and his allies would be determined to deal evolution a blow. Several things are different this time, though.
In the past six years, the intelligent-design movement has made gradual gains advancing its agenda, which was spelled out rather nakedly in a document that surfaced in 1999. The "wedge strategy," penned by members of the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design think tank in Seattle, detailed a long-term plan that would introduce ID concepts through a concerted media campaign. Beginning with simple ideas that sounded logical -- that structures in some species seemed too complex to have been created through random processes -- ID would be like the "thin edge of a wedge" that would eventually overwhelm Darwinism and transform society.
Meanwhile, Abrams has learned his lesson from the debacle six years ago. Once again, science standards are on the table in the state, and a committee of 25 scientists and educators has delivered a set of teaching standards that sensibly recommend the teaching of evolution for the school's children. A minority group of eight members of the standards committee, led by UMKC intelligent-design advocate William Harris, has forwarded a different set of standards critical of evolution.
Guessing which set of standards Abrams and the other five members of the school board's conservative majority will adopt is the easiest game in the state. There's simply no question that the board is eager to adopt Harris' evolution-bashing standards.
So what's the holdup? Abrams seems to be delaying the inevitable because he wants to avoid repeating the controversy of 1999, when he acted too boldly for the taste of Kansas voters.
This time, he wants there to be at least the appearance that evolution is getting a fair hearing.
So Abrams has called for exactly that -- a hearing. Over three days this week, some of intelligent design's biggest names will be in Topeka speaking to a subcommittee of the board -- Abrams and two of his most conservative colleagues, Connie Morris of St. Francis and Kathy Martin of Clay Center. Then, next week, Abrams will give evolution its turn. (Scientists are boycotting the event, though -- more on that later.)
Naturally, when word of Abrams' plan was first announced, the hearings were immediately compared to the famous 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial in Dayton, Tennessee. And the analogy fits.
John T. Scopes was a substitute science teacher who agreed to take part in an attempt to overturn a Tennessee anti-evolution law. There was little doubt about his guilt -- he admitted to teaching evolution in defiance of the law and eventually was fined $100. But everyone involved had no illusions about what Scopes' prosecution was really about -- a chance for pro- and anti-evolution forces to debate the theory in a showdown between two of the country's most high-profile figures, lawyer Clarence Darrow and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. As memorialized in the play and movie Inherit the Wind, the trial's high point was Bryan's day on the witness stand, when Darrow called him to testify as an expert on the Bible. Although the testimony was ultimately thrown out by Judge John Raulston, Bryan's defenses of some of the more mythical stories from the Bible was high theater.
But we don't expect those kinds of fireworks this week. In fact, the Kansas hearings may be a crashing bore.
Intelligent-design advocates have dressed up their arguments in scientific-sounding speech, but their objections to evolution have been around since Charles Darwin first published his theory in 1859. Intelligent-design proponents will claim that evolution is a failed theory that's being abandoned by scientists. (It isn't.) They'll say the news media suppress the huge controversy that is actually raging over evolution in scientific circles. (We aren't, because there isn't one.) They'll claim that evolution requires scientists to give up their religious beliefs and adopt an immoral, materialistic belief system. (It doesn't.) And if we're really lucky, they'll try to explain to nonscientist school-board members how the proteins in the flagella of tiny bacteria inspire their theories.
We figure that Martin's, Morris' and even Abrams' eyes will begin to glaze over during the first hour of 24 hours of testimony scheduled this week.
They will, however, provide the ID folks with exactly the stage and publicity they so crave.
If there were ever any question what a farce the "trial" is, Kathy Martin removed all doubt a couple of weeks ago, when she gave an interview to the Clay Center Dispatch.
"We are not going to give up until the standards say what we want them to say," Martin told the paper. "Evolution has been proven false. ID is science-based and strong in facts."
Just to show off her stellar science credentials, Martin explained, "Man has changed and evolved, but we are not going to change back into monkeys." Her other statements regarding evolution, which included making outdated distinctions between "microevolution" and "macroevolution," came right out of the creationist playbook.
But Martin went way off-message when the Dispatch reporter asked whether ID was just Christian creationism in disguise. Her answer could only have given ID proponents fits: "Of course this is a Christian agenda. We are a Christian nation. Our country is made up of Christian conservatives. We don't often speak up, but we need to stand up and let our voices be heard."
Moreover, the former schoolteacher argued, "Why shouldn't theology be taught in the classroom? Morality ought to be taught in every class. Prayer ought to be allowed. Whenever a child wanted to pray in class, I prayed with them. All children believe in God. Even little children whose parents don't take them to church believe in God."
Her comments have kicked up quite a little firestorm, Martin admitted when the Pitch called her last week. Claiming she was quoted out of context by the Dispatch, Martin says she's tempted to stop giving interviews altogether.
She says she didn't mean that intelligent design was a Christian agenda; the rise of religion in American politics was the Christian campaign she was referring to. "We were talking about the whole issue of people getting out of the pews and taking part in politics," she says. "Perhaps that's why I was elected."
But she did repeat her claim that evolution has been disproved. When the Pitch asked if she thought that most biologists would agree with that statement, she answered, "Yes, I think they do. They just don't want to admit that it's happening."
Scientists tend to be pretty intelligent folks, so the world's biologists have seen right through Abrams' ploy. Kansas Citizens for Science, an organization of scientists, public-school biology teachers and others opposed to the Abrams maneuvers, called a boycott of the hearings and asked that scientists turn down invitations to participate.
Despite getting personalized invitations, then, scientists have told the Kansas board to go stuff itself.
"As I am sure you are aware, the state of Kansas has made itself the laughingstock of the scientific world over this issue," wrote Oxford University professor and well-known author Richard Dawkins to the state board after he got his invitation. "The very idea of 'representatives from both views' presupposes that there are two views to represent.... For real scientists to share a platform with the biological equivalent of flat-earthers would be to give them the credibility, respectability, and above all publicity that they crave. I am sorry, but count me out."
No other scientists have taken the bait, either. But that doesn't mean the anti-evolutionists won't face opposition.
Pedro Irigonegaray, a civil rights lawyer with a high profile in Topeka, says his involvement in the new monkey trial began when he received a call from the Board of Education.
After scientists turned down requests to take part, the board wondered if Irigonegaray would step in to represent evolution's side in the debate.
"I love the study of science," Irigonegaray tells the Pitch. "And it seemed strange to me that it would even be an issue, but, having been asked, I couldn't imagine saying no."
Irigonegaray says his first step was to find out what the Kansas scientific community thought -- was there really a controversy about evolution? He got an emphatic no from the scientists he contacted.
"My interest focused then on why are we going through this?" he says. "What's the purpose here, and who's paying for this?"
Irigonegaray says he was stunned to learn that the board had set aside $40,000 to pay for the anticipated travel expenses of witnesses -- $20,000 for each side. "At a time when our children's education is at stake because we don't even have a budget, our board was going to spend $40,000 to conduct a debate without a purpose," he says. "So I objected."
The board reacted by lowering the amount of travel funds to $5,000 for each side, but Irigonegaray says he won't spend any of the money allotted to his side. "I won't take a penny that I think is stealing from Kansas children."
Irigonegaray, in fact, will call no witnesses at all. "We're not calling scientists to debate evolution. That's not going to happen. To debate whether evolution is true is to debate whether the Earth is round or flat. There's no argument. It [intelligent design] is a minority view of a religious group asserting that all other Christians are wrong."
"Pedro will keep it to legal, not scientific issues," says Steve Case, an assistant research professor at the University of Kansas who served on the standards committee and helped write the majority-backed, pro-evolution guidelines. He says he's glad that Irigonegaray has taken on the role of opposing the anti-evolutionists and will question the legality of the procedure. "It's an intelligent-design forum on the state dime, and it probably violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. It's evangelism, and it's a clear preference for one Christian view over another Christian view," he says.
But if Irigonegaray hopes to inject some legal reality into the farcical procedures, he'll run into ID's own local legal attack dog, John Calvert.
Calvert and Harris are the principals behind the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network, which works to convince school boards around the country that evolution is on the run. Calvert was involved in the adoption of anti-evolution changes that were written into Ohio's school standards three years ago. And he and Harris have kept up a full-court press on the Kansas board.
"I think you're going to hear about the scientific controversy," Calvert tells the Pitch, describing what he expects to happen in the hearings. "There is a scientific controversy about evolution. The problem is, if evolution was treated like any other science -- objectively -- there wouldn't be a problem."
Talking with Calvert and his partner Harris, you hear that word -- objectivity -- a lot. It's no wonder they use it frequently -- who could be against scientists being objective? But ID adherents speak less frequently about what it is that they want scientists to be so open to: explanations for the proliferation of life that are outside the normal realm of science. That is, a supernatural designer that has put its stamp on the natural world.
Clever use of language is a hallmark of ID, which has had a slick, legalistic gloss from the start. Many credit Phillip Johnson, a lawyer and former Berkeley law professor, with sparking the movement in 1991 with his book Darwin on Trial. Evolutionists have complained that Johnson used well-worn legal tricks by distorting the writings of scientists through selective quotations to create an impression that evolution itself was losing favor with the scientific community. Not true at all, biologists say -- the distortions in Johnson's book have been exposed since its publication.
Johnson had played on the fact that evolution has, well, evolved since Darwin's The Origin of Species was published nearly 150 years ago, and scientists do have disagreements over its details. It's the nature of science, after all, that any theory can be rocked by the newest discoveries -- and can be completely overthrown if new evidence demands it. But despite the claims of ID proponents, evolution's central tenets are more strongly supported by the world's scientific community today than at any time in the past.
Those tenets are often confused and conflated by creationists and the mainstream press, but they remain the cornerstone of many different scientific fields. The first states that life-forms change over time. It was Darwin's insight that one of the processes producing that change -- natural selection -- relies on variations arising in organisms that are selected for their survival benefit through pressures applied by local environments over succeeding generations. Second, the fossil record and anatomical studies suggest that all species on Earth share common ancestors and can ultimately be traced back to a single common ancestral organism.
Over billions of years, that process of variation and selection has produced an astonishing array of life. But such spans of time are alien to the human mind, which measures time in seconds, hours and (a relatively few) years. From the start, Darwin's theories were met with the understandable skepticism that random variations over time could really produce something as complex as a human eye, to take a classic example -- and one that Darwin himself addressed.
Nine years ago, the new darling of evolution's skeptics became the flagellum, the hairlike thing that helps bacteria move. Michael Behe, a biochemist and devout Catholic at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, argued in his book Darwin's Black Box that certain biological structures, such as the flagellum, were simply too complex -- "irreducibly complex" in Behe's lingo -- to arise from Darwinian forces.
Take away any of its components, Behe argued, and the flagellum would be useless. How could it have evolved gradually if it had no use until it was fully assembled?
Behe, although he agreed that Darwinian theory could account for most of the history of life and development of new species, claimed that evolution couldn't explain the flagellum and that, therefore, the flagellum was evidence that some intelligence had designed it.
But it didn't take long for biologists to find plausible explanations for how the flagellum could have evolved. In fact, they've identified two very different paths, either of which could have resulted in the complex structure.
Just because Behe himself couldn't imagine how the flagellum arose naturally, scientists point out, is no reason to believe that supernatural intervention is responsible for the flagellum's complexity.
In the standards that Harris and Calvert want the Kansas board to adopt, there's no mention of flagella or proteins, but there is a lot of discussion about naturalism and how it has led scientists astray. In fact, ID proponents, as part of their "wedge strategy," want to turn naturalism into a dirty word. Scientists, they say, are required by evolution to give up their religious beliefs by siding with a philosophy that denigrates anything having to do with religion or morals. Evolution's disregard for anything but naturalistic explanations has led to a corrupting materialism that has pervaded modern culture, they argue.
"The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating," reads the Discovery Institute's "wedge" document, ID's strategic program. "Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology."
Because scientists look for natural explanations of nature, in other words, mankind is on a greased road to hell. The same attitude is found in Harris and Calvert's discussion of the anti-evolution standards that they want the Kansas board to adopt.
"Naturalism is the fundamental tenet of nontheistic religions and belief systems like secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism and scientism," they write.
But what Harris and Calvert are talking about is philosophical naturalism, not the more practical kind of naturalism at the heart of science, which says only this: To understand nature, a scientist considers natural -- not supernatural -- causes.
KU biology doctoral student Josh Rosenau, who has closely watched the Kansas School Board's process, offers an example of what scientific naturalism means: "This winter, my downstairs neighbor's pipes froze. I wasn't aware of this. I just knew that my water wouldn't run," he tells the Pitch. "I could have concocted wild fantasies about supernatural forces seeking to punish me with dirty dishes and unbrushed teeth. But I didn't, and no one would. I assumed there was some natural process at work. I started by calling my landlord. He came, checked the pipes and thawed them. If that didn't work, I would have called the city and asked them to look into it. They would have checked that other pipes hadn't burst or frozen. They wouldn't have started offering sacrifices to the gods of plumbing."
Science works the same way. And whether you're trying to understand why your pipes are clogged or how the giraffe developed its long neck, looking for natural causes in no way requires you to give up your religious beliefs. Evolution -- and science in general -- is neutral to personal beliefs.
That's the message of Brown University's Kenneth Miller, who, in Finding Darwin's God, counters the intelligent-design movement's charge that to use science is to accept atheism. Miller is a Christian who says his understanding of evolution only deepens his faith. The two are not contradictory, he writes -- and to insert religion into science does a favor to neither.
When the Pitch asked Calvert how he could explain the fact that a scientist like Miller had no problem accepting evolution while also being a Christian, the lawyer said that Miller just "wants to keep his job."
Which is the classic ID comeback -- the scientific community, you see, is participating in a massive conspiracy to keep the big man upstairs down.
Over the next few days, intelligent design will get a boost like never before, thanks to the Kansas School Board. Harris' list of witnesses includes some of the movement's big guns: Behe, the champion of the flagellum; Charles Thaxton, a chemist who co-authored one of the first books in the genre, The Mystery of Life's Origins; and Jonathan Wells, a fellow of the Discovery Institute who penned the anti-evolution book Icons of Evolution. Harris has also called in the movement's martyrs: Roger DeHart, a high school teacher who refused to stop teaching intelligent design in his classes and was reassigned, and Nancy Bryson, a college professor who was removed from a leadership position after she gave an intelligent-design lecture at the Mississippi University for Women. (The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the school later reinstated her, saying that she had been taken out of the position for other reasons, but the timing did look unfortunate.) Such witnesses will no doubt be a hit with the three-member board subcommittee, which will likely soak up arguments that a vast conspiracy of evolutionists threatens academic freedom and prevents an "objective" teaching of origins science.
But Case, the KU professor who helped write the pro-evolution standards, says he's personally looking forward to some of the more colorful witnesses on Harris' list.
"Most of these people will go off on religious rants," Case says, which will make it obvious that ID's claim to be religiously neutral is a calculated dodge. "Except for Behe and the Discovery Institute people, the rest will go off on religious topics. We're glad they're coming."
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter whether the witnesses betray their real religious program. With folks like Kathy Martin in control, there's little doubt which way the board will vote once the dust settles.
When Mustafa Akyol flies home to Turkey, where evolution is already thoroughly defeated, he can feel comforted in the knowledge that he's done his little part to see to it that, back here in the United States, a thin wedge has been put in place that could, with the right push, send us on the same path.