Reports of the National Center for Science Education

The Foundation for Thought and Ethics

The Foundation for Thought and Ethics
Reviewed by
John A. Thomas

Readers of NCSE Reports know that a new creationist book, Of Pandas and People, is making the rounds. Scott Brande has described the efforts of Haughton Publishing Co. to get Pandas adopted in Alabama as a supplementary text (NCSE Reports 9(6):5 and 10(1):8). Pandas presents the "intelligent design" version of the origin of species in an attractive wrapper without any explicit sign of religious creationism (see review, NCSE Reports 10(1):16).

Those curious about the origin of Pandas itself might wonder why the book's copyright is held, not by the publisher, but by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) of Richardson, Texas. "Haughton Publishing Co." is the assumed name of Horticultural Printers, Inc., a large Dallas printing firm mainly serving the agricultural industry. Haughton has no other books in print, nor does it have in-house writers or science advisors. Pandas is entirely the creation of FTE.

Officials at FTE refused my requests for an interview, but enough evidence exists in the public record and FTE publications to give an adequate sketch of its goals and methods. FTE was formed in 1980 as a tax-exempt charitable and educational organization.

The incorporator and current president of FTE is Jon Buell, an ordained minister. Buell earlier served on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ, and in 1972, he formed Probe Ministries with evangelist Jim Williams.

The other major figure in FTE is Charles Thaxton, its "Director of Curriculum Research." Thaxton, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, coauthored an earlier FTE-sponsored book, The Mystery of Life's Origins. Mystery offers a skeptical look at current theories of abiogenesis and closes with a chapter advocating a hypothesis of special creation to explain the origin of life. Thaxton is also a Fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of theistic scientists that requires assent from its members to a statement of Christian principles. (You may remember ASA for its publication a few years ago of Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, a nice packaging of old-earth creationism.)

Although FTE claims to be publishing science books, it obviously has a religious agenda. Buell refers to FTE as a "Christian think-tank" in the original application for tax-exempt status. FTE's articles of incorporation state that its purpose is both religious and educational, and it includes "proclaiming, publishing, preaching [and] teaching…the Christian Gospel and understanding of the Bible and the light it sheds on the academic and social issues of the day." The application referred to says the organization's first activity would be the editing of a book "showing the scientific evidence for creation."

FTE publishes an occasional newsletter, and in 1985, it commissioned a poll of high-school science teachers to show potential publishers than a market existed for a book on intelligent design. FTE has also sponsored at least one seminar on the creation/evolution debate, but most of its income has been absorbed by the production and marketing of its two books. Its contributors have obviously been willing to put up their money for the long run, hoping for the eventual success of Mystery and Pandas.

Federal tax records also show that FTE's money-raising efforts are effective. This is clearly not a group run out of a church basement by inexperienced volunteers. From its formation until late 1988, FTE has raised some $828,220, almost all of it from donations. About 25% of this money has come from eight individuals, churches, and businesses. One Dallas-area church has donated more than $14,000, and one individual, $57,920. The current budget is about $15,000 a month. Buell is the only salaried employee.

Recently, FTE's letters have included pleas for donations to cover budget shortfalls. One letter says the Foundation expects Pandas to be a significant financial resource eventually, but presently donations have dropped off while FTE has devoted most of its fund-raising time to getting the book into the market.

FTE has also been successful in collecting prominent names for its letterhead, many with Ph.D.s following. Besides the officers and directors, FTE's letterhead includes a "Board of Reference" to provide occasional advice. Some persons listed, such as Norm Sonju and Bob Breunig, are prominent Dallas residents. Others are local business leaders. Michael J. Woodruff is director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, a group that filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the Louisiana "equal-time" act. Francis H. Hare, Jr., a prominent Birmingham attorney, represented Haughton at the Alabama textbook hearings. FTE also boasts a "Council of Academic and Educational Advisors." Besides Thaxton and the authors of Pandas, the council includes Joseph Sobran, an editor of National Review, Charles M. Duke Jr., an Apollo astronaut, and Lois Harbaugh, secretary of the National Science Supervisors Association. Others hold positions at major universities around the country.

An interesting question is the relationship of FTE to more mainstream creationist organizations. Apparently, Buell and Thaxton accept the scientific account of the earth's age; their quarrel is with naturalistic theories of the origin of life, and with the Darwinian view that new species (particularly humans) can arise from the operation of natural selection upon genetic variation. They can accept "microevolution," or changes within species, but not "macroevolution," defined as the change of one species into another.

Although FTE completely avoids young-earth material in its publications, it never explicitly criticizes such theories either, and it seeks support wherever it may be found. It has used the mailing list of the Bible Science Newsletter, a hard-line creationist publication, to offer The Mystery of Life's Origin for sale. A favorable review of Mystery by Kerby Anderson, a strict creationist, was included in the same mailing. Representatives of FTE have spoken before the Metroplex Institute of Origin Science in Dallas, a strict creationist group more likely to hear mantrackers Carl Baugh and Don Patton. One of the authors of Pandas, Percival Davis (P. William Davis on FTE letterhead), coauthored A Case for Creation with Wayne Friar in 1983, a standard creationist work with frequent religious references.

What will FTE do with Pandas now that it has been effectively rejected in Alabama? Apparently, FTE has decided against further attempts at state textbook approval, at least for the present. Henry Skrabanek, president of Haughton, told me that Haughton and FTE intend to change course and direct their efforts "outside the schools" to the grass-roots level. Skrabanek said sales of Pandas so far have been single-copy, and he needed to get the book into the schools to have significant sales. He said local school boards, teacher's groups, and parents were the likely targets of the new effort.

A May 1990 letter from FTE confirms this new strategy. It says, "[W]e are finding that the best approach to the local school system is through the biology teacher…. Experience has indicated that they are comfortable in making a decision to introduce a supplemental text with the review and approval of the school curriculum committee." FTE has a packet of material and an 18-minute videotape to assist parents who approach teachers. I would not be surprised to see copies of Pandas appearing in some classrooms this fall.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.