Volume 15, Number 2

Campus News

  • Scientific Correctness in San Francisco
  • Stanford Forum on God and Evolution
  • A New View of Creation-Evolution at Cal State Hayward

  • Stephen C. Meyer

    Scientific Correctness in San Francisco

    When most of us think of the controversy over evolution in the public schools, we are likely to think of fundamentalists pulling teachers from their classrooms and placing them in the dock. Images from the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925 come to mind.

    Unfortunately, intolerance of this sort has shown itself in California in the 1990s as a result of students complaining about a biology instructor. Unlike the original Scopes case, however, this case involves a distinguished biology professor at a major university -- indeed, an acknowledged expert on evolutionary theory. Also unlike Scopes, the teacher was forbidden to teach his course not because he taught evolutionary theory (which he did) but because he offered a critical assessment of it. Of course, the administrators responsible believe themselves to be protecting the integrity of science education. The facts of the case suggest otherwise.

    The controversy first emerged last fall after Dean Kenyon, a biology professor at San Francisco State University, was ordered not to teach "creationism" by John Hafernik, the chairman of his biology department. Mr. Kenyon, who included three lectures on biological origins in his introductory course, had for many years made a practice of exposing students to both evolutionary theory and evidence uncongenial to it. He also discussed the philosophical and political controversies raised by the issue and his own view that living systems display evidence of intelligent design -- a view not incompatible with some forms of evolutionary thinking.

    Mr. Hafernik accused Mr. Kenyon of teaching what he characterized as biblical creationism and ordered him to stop.

    After Mr. Hafernik's decree, Mr. Kenyon asked for clarification. He wrote the Dean, James Kelley, asking what exactly he could not discuss. Was he "forbidden to mention to students that there are important disputes among scientists about whether or not chemical evolution could have taken place on the ancient earth?" Was he not permitted to mention "the important philosophical issues at stake in discussions of origins?"

    Mr. Kelley replied by insisting that Mr. Kenyon "teach the dominant scientific view" not the religious view of "special creation on a young earth." Mr. Kenyon replied again. (I paraphrase): I do teach the dominant view. But I also discuss problems with the dominant view and that some biologists see evidence of intelligent design. Please inform me of any impropriety in this approach.

    He received no reply. Instead, he was yanked from teaching introductory biology and reassigned to labs. There are several disturbing aspects to this story:

    First, Mr. Kenyon is an authority on chemical evolutionary theory and the scientific study of the origin of life. After receiving a Ph.D. in biophysics at Stanford, he later completed post-doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley and at Oxford. In 1969 he co-authored a seminal theoretical work titled "Biochemical Predestination." The book articulated what was arguably the most plausible evolutionary account of how a living cell might have organized itself from chemicals in the "primordial soup."

    Mr. Kenyon's subsequent work resulted in numerous scientific publications on the origin-of-life problem. This, however, is where his troubles began. By the late 1970s Mr. Kenyon began to question some of his own earlier ideas. Experiments (some performed by Mr. Kenyon himself) increasingly contradicted the dominant view in his field. Laboratory work suggested that simple chemicals do not arrange themselves into complex information-bearing molecules such as DNA -- without, that is, "guidance" from human experimenters.

    To Mr. Kenyon and others such results raised important questions about how "naturalistic" the origin of life really was. If undirected chemical processes cannot produce the coded strands of information found in even the simplest cells, could perhaps a directing intelligence have played a role? By the 1980s Mr. Kenyon had become sympathetic to the second idea.

    That a man of Mr. Kenyon's stature should now be forced to lobby for the right to teach introductory biology, whatever his current view of origins, is absurdly comic. Mr. Kenyon knows perhaps as much as anyone in the world about a problem that has stymied an entire generation of research scientists. Yet he now finds that he may not report the negative results of research or give students his candid assessment of it.

    As Mr. Kenyon has been at pains to explain to his administrators, his view hardly qualifies as unscientific biblicism, let alone religious advocacy. To the extent that Mr. Kenyon discussed the notion of "intelligent design" he did so as an inference from biological data, not a deduction from religious authority.

    Yet even if he had spoken from a prior conviction that "God created the heavens and the earth," it is not clear that academic freedom means college students must be free from exposure to such notions. Jewish and Christian students have long endured the anti-religious polemics of professors who perceive in their fields support for secularism. Why must theistic professors refrain from discussing evidence that seems to lend credibility to their philosophical predilections?

    In any case, the simplistic labelling of Mr. Kenyon's view as "religion" and the strictly materialistic view as "scientific" suggests a disturbing double standard within an area of science notorious for its philosophical overtones. Biology texts routinely recapitulate Darwinian arguments against intelligent design. Yet if arguments against intelligent design are philosophically neutral and strictly scientific, why are Mr. Kenyon's arguments for intelligent design inherently unscientific and religiously charged? In seeking the best explanation for evidence, Mr. Kenyon has employed the same method of reasoning as before he changed his view. His conclusions, not his methods, have changed.

    The problem is that in biological origins theory, dominant players currently insist upon a rigidly materialistic mode of explanation -- even when, as Mr. Kenyon maintains, explanation of the evidence requires more than the limited powers of brute matter. Such intellectual strictures reflect the very essence of political, and indeed, scientific correctness: the suppression of critical discourse by enforced rules of thought.

    Fortunately, San Francisco State University's Academic Freedom Committee has come to a similar conclusion, ruling decisively last summer in Mr. Kenyon's favor. The committee determined that, according to University guidelines, a clear breach of academic freedom had occurred.

    Apparently, however, Mr. Hafernik and Mr. Kelley disagree. Mr. Hafernik has emphatically rejected the recommendation to reinstate Mr. Kenyon citing his own freedom to determine scientifically appropriate curriculum. In response, the American Association of University Professors informed the university last month that they expect Mr. Kenyon's mistreatment to be rectified. Meanwhile, as SFSU considers its response, a world-class scientist waits -- yet another casualty of America's peculiar academic fundamentalism.

    Professor Meyer received his Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University for a thesis on the methods of origin-of-life biology and the historical sciences. This article first appeared in the December 6, 1993 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted with permission. Since this article appeared, Kenyon has been reinstated -- at least temporarily -- to his classes.

    Stanford Forum on "God and Evolution"


    On Tuesday, November 23, 1993, a forum on "God and Evolution" was conducted as part of Human Biology 2S ("Seminar in Bioethics"), a lower-division undergraduate course at Stanford University. The speakers included Jonathan Wells (Yale Ph.D. in Theology and Berkeley Ph.D. Candidate in Molecular & Cell Biology) and two Stanford professors (one in Biology and the other in Physics). About 120 students attended. Before the class began, Wells distributed a handout distinguishing various meanings of "God" (e.g., pantheistic, deistic, theistic, and biblical) and "Evolution" (e.g., non-fixity of species, common descent, metaphysical naturalism, Darwinian microevolution, and macroevolution). Professor Timothy Jackson (Stanford Religious Studies Department), who was in the audience, provides an account of the ensuing discussion:

    The biology professor began by noting the historical background of the current controversy. Darwin's heresy was not the non-fixity of species, but the claim to have discovered the mechanism by which species evolve. Darwin's mechanism was natural selection acting on random variations, and he considered it a fully sufficient causal explanation that left no room for a purposeful, supernatural power.

    After briefly summarizing Darwin's own loss of religious faith, the biology professor argued that it is a mistake to see science and religion as competing explanations of the world. The two disciplines are 'like oil and water' -- they don't mix. For scientists, hypotheses must be tested against objective evidence, yet a theologian (according to the biology professor) can justify his doctrines by the ends he wishes to serve (e.g., human happiness). The theologian, in other words, is concerned to generate beneficial myths rather than to discover hard facts.

    Wells countered this stark contrast between theology and science by remarking that both forms of inquiry aim at truth. Religious reflection may embody distinctive criteria for rationality, but one cannot just make things up or falsify experiences. On the other hand, Wells argued, the fossil record does not support the Darwinian claim that all creatures are descended from a common ancestor, much less the stronger claim that they evolved without direction or purpose. Far from being based primarily on facts, Darwinian evolution 'papers over gaps in the evidence with inferences drawn from metaphysical naturalism.'

    To the biology professor's claim that religion and science must be held apart in what amounts to a 'split mind,' Wells responded by affirming his faith in both. Wells rejected, however, literal readings of biblical chronology as bad theology, and Darwin's exclusion of divine providence as bad science.

    The professor of physics then entered the discussion, arguing that a scientist need not be an atheist, and indeed would be a better human being for not succumbing to a narrow reductionism. He lamented the fact that Darwin's biological theorizing was accompanied by a loss of interest not only in religion but also in Shakespeare.

    Questions directed to the speakers afterwards by the audience had more to do with religion than with science. (For example: What does the history of life tell us about the nature of God? What about the problem of evil, both natural and moral?) A Jesuit biologist in the audience pointed out that it is possible to understand lower levels of the biological hierarchy in terms of higher levels, but not vice versa. In this holistic perspective, the most compelling vision of the world is always the one that best integrates disciplines and explains non-reductionistically how levels of reality (including the interpersonal and the religious) relate to one another.

    After an hour and a half the class formally ended, but many students remained to continue discussing the issues. Several told the professor teaching the course that they had craved something like this ever since coming to Stanford.

    A New View of Creation-Evolution at Cal State Hayward


    On Thursday November 11, 1993, at the invitation of a campus student organization, Jonathan Wells spoke on "A New View of the Creation-Evolution Controversies" at California State University at Hayward. The talk was advertised for several days by posters placed around campus, billing Wells as a Ph.D. in Theology from Yale and a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Embryology at U.C. Berkeley. The talk was scheduled for 1 PM at the Student Union.

    At 12:45 PM, the room (with seating for about 100 people) was already filled, and an announcement was made that an entire biology class was en route to the talk. The organizers quickly arranged for a larger room nearby, and by 1:05 p.m. there was standing room only, with an estimated audience of 300 people.

    Wells announced that he would speak for a half hour and then open the floor to discussion. He began by listing some possible meanings of "evolution" (e.g., change in general, common descent, modification by Darwin's mechanism of random variation & natural selection, micro- and macro-evolution, naturalism, exclusion of design) and some possible meanings of "creation" (e.g., initial creation by a deistic prime mover, continuing creation by divine providence, intelligent design, fixity of species, biblical chronology). Wells then pointed out that only some of these were in conflict, and that the quality and relevance of the scientific evidence varies depending on which particular conflict is at stake.

    For example, there is overwhelming evidence (fossils, artificial and natural selection) for change, so evolution in this general sense is so well documented it could be called a "fact," but only an advocate of strict fixity (and permanence) of species would have any conflict with this. Wells also pointed out that biblical chronology was not a prominent issue in the 19th century controversies, since biblical interpretation and geological evidence had largely resolved whatever conflict existed on this issue before Darwin came along.

    Wells then focused primarily on the two issues which he considered theologically most important: naturalism, and exclusion of design inherent in the claim that Darwin's mechanism is sufficient to account for all observed biological changes. He pointed out that the evidence for common descent does not bear on these issues unless by "common descent" one also intends to affirm naturalism. He concluded that there is still a significant conflict between Christianity and Darwinism, and that the available evidence (contrary to common opinion among academics) does not resolve the conflict in favor of the latter.

    In the ensuing discussion, the questions were challenging, and some even bordered on being hostile, but the atmosphere remained civil and academic. One questioner pointed out that the lack of evidence for Darwinian macroevolution (e.g., lack of transitional fossil forms) is to be expected, given the nature of the fossil record and the chances of macromutations. Wells countered that neo-Darwinian explanations for such gaps came only after initial predictions had failed, and that in any case a lack of evidence cannot constitute evidence.

    The questioner responded that Wells was using an obsolete version of Darwinism which ignores the advances of modern molecular genetics. Wells then elaborated on one of his embryological objections to neo-Darwinism -- that the DNA is not directing development and is not the only information transmitted in heredity. Several other people, all obviously biologists (including several faculty members), followed up on this issue, and a lively discussion ensued in which Wells expanded in considerable detail on his embryological objections to Darwinian evolution.

    As time grew short, one person objected that only an idiot or a religious fanatic would reject the fossil evidence for prehuman hominoids. Wells responded that he had no problem with such fossils, but that they did not bear on the two theological issues he was emphasizing. Another person (who turned out to be the professor who had brought his entire class) questioned the speaker's earlier assertion that the independent origins of the major phyla (and their very different developmental pathways) counted against common descent.

    He countered that one could still see common descent in the fact that embryos of very different animals develop their mouths first, while a separate group of animals develop an anus first. Wells answered that even if he were correct about common descent, the evidence still fails to establish macroevolution by Darwin's mechanism (with its entailment of naturalism and exclusion of design). To his further objection that extensive biochemical similarities among organisms establishes common descent, Wells countered that such similarities might be a prerequisite for function; just as most cars have internal combustion engines because such engines work efficiently, yet cars are not related by common descent.

    Copyright © 1995 Stephen C. Meyer. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
    File Date: 7.20.95