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The evolution of George Gilder

The author and tech-sector guru has a new cause to create controversy with: intelligent design

CREATIONISM: Ascribes creation of all matter and species to the work of a divine agency such as God.

EVOLUTION: Theorizes that plant and animal species developed from earlier life forms by a process of random mutation and natural selection.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN: Asserts that life is too complex to be explained by purely natural processes, and therefore some agent or agents of higher intelligence played a role in its creation.

TYRINGHAM -- Crank. Con artist. Blithering ignoramus. Dishonest hack bent on corrupting the education system.

George Gilder has absorbed shots before, from feminists, Democrats, liberal economists, and angry investors, among others. Yet even Gilder, seemingly a lightning rod for the socioeconomic controversy of the moment, was blistered by the comments posted on a University of Minnesota biologist's weblog last fall, language so heated Gilder's daughter felt obliged to rush to his defense.

''It is the personal attacks I find incredibly offensive," wrote Nannina Gilder, 19, painting her dad as an ''idealist" who occasionally gets lost inside his ideals.

Rather than return fire (''Thanks for provoking Nannina's beautiful indignation," he wrote), Gilder might have ignored the attacks altogether had they been aimed at his tax-policy pronouncements or stock-picking skills. In the late 1990s, after all, thousands of subscribers to his newsletter lost their shirts when the telecom bubble imploded, plunging Gilder into near bankruptcy and tarnishing his reputation as a tech-sector Yoda. His speaking fees have since plummeted, his ownership stake in The American Spectator is gone, and his newsletter is barely breathing these days.

But tax cuts and investment strategies were not driving the weblog discussion, tartly titled ''The sanctimonious bombast of George Gilder." The issue was ''intelligent design," a challenge to the teaching of orthodox Darwinism that is infuriating and frustrating much of the scientific establishment these days -- and causing some 40 states and school districts to reconsider how biology and evolution should be taught. Derided by some critics as ''creationism lite," intelligent design -- which posits the existence of a power greater than nature having played a role in life's creation -- has become the latest battleground in a culture war dividing the nation along several fronts, from the purely political to the resolutely religious.

As an outspoken advocate of ID, and among the few with a resume that includes best-selling author and ex-White House adviser, Gilder has been drafted into a war he claims to have little appetite for -- yet is finding increasingly hard to avoid.

''I do have a thick skin by now," Gilder says when asked if being called a con artist, or worse, bothers him.

''I'm sorry my daughter got dragged into this," he continues, picking up a conversation that begins in his rustic Berkshires home, overlooking the bucolic dairy farm where he grew up, and resumes over lunch at a nearby Stockbridge restaurant. ''But I really think those guys" -- meaning the scientists who attacked him on the weblog -- ''are pretty crazy."

Gilder pokes at his spinach salad and smiles wanly. ''They must feel very vulnerable," he muses. Then he warns that if biologists don't take information theory seriously enough -- information theory and not Christianity being the basis for Gilder's embrace of intelligent design -- then they'll be the ones branded fools in the long run. Not him.

''To parallel 'Inherit the Wind,' " Gilder says, in response to the inevitable Scopes trial question, ''it's the materialists who are the religious fanatics this time. They want to stomp on their critics."

In conversation, Gilder is something of a rhetorical hummingbird, darting from topic to topic so rapidly it's difficult to get a word (much less a question) in edgewise. Each topic arrives with its own set of footnotes, reference texts, and unvarnished -- some might say unhinged -- opinions. Predictable Gilder is not, however. On balance, it's much easier to peg him as a hip-shooting contrarian than a cookie-cutter conservative or raving holy roller.

At maximum conversational velocity, he waves his arms as though battling through nylon netting to get to the next point. And battle he does, with the energy of a 65-year-old man who runs 5 miles daily and could outtalk either Al, Franken or Sharpton, at the drop of a hat. Have you read this?, he asks frequently during a two-hour interview. Looked into that? Sixty-codon alphabets, amino-acid source codes, low-entropy carriers: Hey, check them out. Although a PhD in electrical engineering might be helpful, too.

Addressing the stereotype of ID proponents as scientific illiterates and Bible-thumping boobs, Gilder can barely restrain himself. The media-spun image is just that, he fumes: a cartoon version of people like himself.

''There's no biblical literalism -- none -- to the ID movement," he says flatly. ''So presenting us as troglodytes who believe in Noah's Ark is quite bizarre. If people want to attack me that way, fine. It's quite exhilarating, actually, to be shot at and totally missed."

For all that's been said about Gilder, good and bad, few have accused him of avoiding big ideas -- politically correct or otherwise.

During the 1960s and early '70s, not long out of Harvard College and writing speeches for Republican leaders (Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller), Gilder took on the women's movement in a series of articles and books that questioned feminism's fundamental tenets. For his chutzpah, he was named Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year by the National Organization for Women, a distinction Gilder once impishly called ''a triumph I could not exceed."

With his 1981 book ''Wealth and Poverty," however, Gilder reached new heights of influence and affluence. Championing supply-side economics and entrepreneurship as the purest expressions of capitalist virtue, ''Wealth" made Gilder the guru of the fast-growth, free-market set during the go-go Reagan years. In Silicon Valley, meanwhile, he became acquainted with many of the visionary researchers and company founders leading the high-tech revolution.

More books followed, the latest of which, this year's ''The Silicon Eye," narrates the story of Foveon, a Valley-based firm perched upon the cutting edge of digital photography. By the mid-'90s, Gilder was confidently touting ''telecosm" (the convergence of communications systems and computers) as the next big thing -- and making a fortune giving speeches and investment tips. Telecom stocks soared whenever Gilder flashed them a thumbs-up, a market phenomenon that became known as the Gilder Effect. He was earning $100,000 a speech, and his company was being groomed for a $200 million public offering. Then the roof caved in, as hundreds of telecom companies went bust overnight.

''Most subscribers came in at the top of the market," Gilder recalls of those dark days, when even his chief financial officer filed a lawsuit against him. ''So the modal experience of the Gilder Technology Newsletter subscriber was to lose virtually all of his money. That stigma has been very hard to overcome."

So has the hole he dug himself. When one ex-business partner slapped a lien on Gilder's property, Gilder was forced to pay $10,000 a month or lose it. He'll be working off the debt for another 17 years, or so he calculates.

Meanwhile, two primary influences began nudging Gilder toward intelligent design.

One was the work of Claude E. Shannon, which Gilder discovered through his interest in the science behind the computer chip. Shannon is regarded as the father of information theory, a branch of mathematics that combines probability theory and statistics and is used by communication engineers to orchestrate how information bits are transmitted.

The more the inner workings of the cell are understood, according to Gilder, the more Shannon's theory is useful in deconstructing life itself. Given the cell's complexity and capacity for information exchange, Gilder and other ID proponents maintain, it seems improbable that life could have evolved haphazardly. It's not that Darwin is wrong or irrelevant, they contend, or that processes like genetic mutation and natural selection play no role in how species evolve. But these processes cannot explain everything that biologists ascribe to them. Ergo, some form of higher intelligence -- call it God, a Supreme Programmer, or whatever -- must have played a role, they say.

''Physics and chemistry alone cannot account for the complexity of the genome," Gilder asserts. ''It's like trying to understand how basketball is played by studying the rules. There's far more to the game than that."

Though a conservative Christian by upbringing and temperament, Gilder insists his belief in ID is not a faith-based proposition.

''The analogy between Shannon and codes in biology isn't something that sprang from my belief in God," he says, shaking his head. Information theory and Christianity are not deeply entwined for him, he says -- ''except maybe on some deeper or more transcendent level." Using Darwin to explain how life began, he adds, ''isn't even remotely feasible in information-theoretic terms. Something else has to be posited. What that additional factor is, how this intelligence emerges in the universe, I don't know and isn't for me to say. But nobody else does, either."

Gilder is also cofounder of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank established in 1991. The institute, which promotes a conservative public-policy agenda, has occupied a lead role in the ID movement recently, most notably through its Center for Science and Culture, which boasts a number of leading ID proponents among its fellows and advisers. The institute is headed by Bruce Chapman, Gilder's former college roommate, coauthor, and Reagan White House colleague.

As a senior fellow at the institute, Gilder primarily focuses on telecom policy. Yet the controversy over ID, recently reflected in the Smithsonian Institution's decision to screen an ID-friendly documentary titled ''The Privileged Plant: The Search for Purpose in the Universe," has brought the issue to Gilder's front doorstep.

And for an old culture warrior like Gilder, there's no ducking this fight, either.

''I'm not pushing to have [ID] taught as an 'alternative' to Darwin, and neither are they," he says in response to one question about Discovery's agenda. ''What's being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there's a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content."

So is there a unified field theory to Gilder's work? Some thread that connects his interest in everything from supply-side economics to stay-at-home moms? Yes, says Gilder, looking beyond his balcony and across the verdant valley adjoining the farmland he still calls his own. There is.

''Much of what I've written about has been in reaction to the materialist superstition," he says, ''the belief that the universe is a purely material phenomenon that can be reduced to physical and chemical laws. It's a concept that's infected the social sciences as well."

And, he adds, ''it's preposterous."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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