A new front has opened up in the battle between scientists and advocates of intelligent design, a theory that rejects evolution and is regarded by its critics as another term for creationism.

A scientific journal has published a paper that argues in favour of intelligent design — the first time such material has appeared in a peer-reviewed publication, according to biologists who track the issue. The paper appeared in a low-impact journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. But critics say that it could still be used by advocates of intelligent design to get the subject on to US school curricula (see Nature 416, 250; 2002).

The article comes from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, a leading promoter of the theory. In the article, senior fellow Stephen Meyer uses information theory and other techniques to argue that the complexity of living organisms cannot be explained by darwinian evolution (S. C. Meyer Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 117, 213–239; 2004).

Many of Meyer's arguments have already been aired by advocates of intelligent design, but critics say that publication will be used to back up claims that the theory is scientifically valid.

Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who has argued against Meyer in public debates, does not doubt that this will happen. “They've tried very hard to get material into peer-reviewed journals.”

Richard Sternberg, a taxonomist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland, was editor of the journal publishing the Meyer paper when it was reviewed and accepted. Sternberg is also on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, which publishes papers on “scientific research in creation biology”. He says the paper was seen and approved by three well-qualified referees.

Meyer's article has attracted a lengthy rebuttal on The Panda's Thumb, a website devoted to evolutionary theory. But Miller says that, despite criticism of the journal, versions of the theory will find their way into the scientific literature at some point. Arguments for it can be written, he says, as reappraisals of certain aspects of evolution rather than outright rejection. “Peer review isn't a guarantee of accuracy,” he adds. “That is especially true of review articles.”