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.
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 in 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 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, Jim 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?”
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.
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. He has a Ph.D. in biophysics from Stanford and is the co-author of a seminal theoretical work titled “Biochemical Predestination” (1969). 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. But 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 adopted the second view.
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.
What is more, the simplistic labeling of Mr. Kenyon’s statements as “religion” and the strictly materialistic view as “scientific” seems entirely unwarranted, especially given the philosophical overtones of much origins theory. 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 on 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 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 this 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 committee’s 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.