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.