Samuel Chen was a high school sophomore who believed in freedom of speech and the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. He thought his public high school did, too, but when it came to the subject of evolution — well, now he’s not so sure.
In October 2002, Chen began working to get Dr. Michael Behe, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, to give a lecture at Emmaus High School in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.
Chen, who was co-chair of a student group that tries to stress the importance of objectivity on controversial issues, knew that Behe would be perfect, since the group was examining evolution as a topic. The author of Darwin’s Black Box, a critique of the foundational underpinnings of evolution, Behe had presented his work and debated the subject in universities in the U.S. and England.
Behe agreed to come in February 2004 and give an after-school lecture entitled, “Evolution: Truth or Myth?” As the school year drew to a close in 2003, Chen had all the preliminaries nailed down: he had secured Behe’s commitment, received approval from school officials, and reserved the school auditorium.
Then he found out just how entrenched Darwinist orthodoxy was in the science department at Emmaus. By the following August, Chen had entered into a six-month battle to preserve the Behe lecture.
As the struggle unfolded, it became obvious that those who opposed Behe coming to Emmaus didn’t seem to care about his credentials. In addition to publishing over 35 articles in refereed biochemical journals, Darwin’s Black Box was internationally reviewed in over 100 publications and named by National Review and World magazine as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century.
Instead, it was Behe’s rejection of Darwinism — in favor of what is called “intelligent design” — that drove opposition. According to the Discovery Institute, of which Behe is a fellow, this theory holds “that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”
The head of the science department, John Hnatow, sent a statement to every faculty member in the school stressing that Emmaus held to the official policy of the National Science Teachers Association. That policy states: “There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place.”
It appeared there would be no debate at Emmaus, either. Some of the science teachers would not even allow Chen to address their classes and explain to students what Behe’s lecture would be about.
Chen said various tactics were apparently used to undercut the event, including an attempt to cancel the lecture and fold the student organization without the knowledge of Chen and other members; requiring that the necessary funds for the lecture be raised much faster than for other student events; and moving the lecture from the auditorium to the school cafeteria.
One science teacher in particular, Carl Smartschan, seemed particularly riled about the upcoming lecture. Smartschan took it upon himself to talk to every teacher in the science department, insisting that intelligent design was “unscientific” and “scary stuff.” He asked the principal to cancel the lecture, and then, when the principal refused, asked the faculty advisor for the student group to halt the lecture. Smartschan even approached Chen and demanded that the student organization pay to have an evolutionist come to lecture later in the year.
Smartschan’s campaign to get the Behe lecture canceled was surprising to Chen because the event was scheduled after school, and not during class time, and was sponsored by a student group, not the school itself. Nevertheless, Chen persevered. The lecture was a success, attracting more than 500 people.
In the process, however, Chen’s struggle took its toll. His health deteriorated over the course of the controversy, to the point where he collapsed three times in one month, including once at school. “My health has been totally junked,” he told AFA Journal.
Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney and senior policy advisor for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, is advising Chen on his options for the coming year. Fahling said, “Schools are not allowed to interfere with viewpoints with which they disagree, and schools cannot disrupt the right of the students to participate in the academic and intellectual life.”
Despite the hardship, Chen said he would do it all over again because the issue is so important. “I feel that there’s a dictatorship on academic freedom in our public schools now,” he said, adding, “I refer to evolution education as a tyranny …. You can’t challenge it in our schools. Kids have been thrown out of class for challenging it.”
That tyranny can be intimidating to students. “Some of the students who support me are afraid to speak out, especially because they saw how the science department reacted,” Chen said. “They have a fear of speaking out against it in their classes.”
On the other hand, he added that some students “are now questioning evolution, some for the first time.”
That may be the first step in the overthrow of Darwin’s dictatorship.
Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appeared in the August 2004 issue.